AIMS report card shows more government spending isn’t producing results

By David Shipley

MONCTON – Throwing more money at public education won’t improve test results of the province’s students, says an education expert with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Charles Cirtwill, AIMS vice-president and co-author of the annual AIMS High School Report Card, says while New Brunswick has increased its investment in public education by more than 18 per cent between 1997 and 2004, test results for students have stagnated or in some cases, gotten worse.

New Brunswick spent just under a billion dollars on primary and secondary education in 2003-2004.

While spending increased, enrolment decreased, which should have resulted in improved results by students.

But it hasn’t, he said, and that’s a major concern.

In 2004, only 49 per cent of 16-year-old francophone students and 62 per cent of anglophone 16-year-olds met national expectations in science, a seven percentage point drop for English students and an 11-point decline for French students over the 1999 levels, said Cirtwill.

Younger children were also shown to be struggling. In assessments in 2003-2004, only 42 per cent of New Brunswick Grade 2 students met the provincial standard in writing. Only a third of the students met the reading standard.

“One of the things that you constantly hear is that you need more money. That we’re underspending on education, that our per-pupil spending is less than the rest of the country and the rest of the world,” said Cirtwill.

“But quite honestly, when you look at the education literature, the vast majority of the literature tells you that it’s not how much you spend, but what you spend it on and what you get for those dollars.”

With a provincial election campaign underway and with the Liberal party making education one of its key platform issues, education spending is going to be a hot topic.

“The easiest political solution for this kind of exercise is simply to spend more money. It’s hard to explain in a stump speech or at a rally or through a media release that education is a complex exercise,” he said.

Rather than spending more, New Brunswick needs to see its education system become more accountable for the money it already has, said Cirtwill. Among the ways to make the system more accountable would be to empower parents and students with the ability to choose schools.

Schools would be allowed to specialize in certain areas, developing expertise and offering students a choice. Schools that do well would be rewarded with high employment and funding per student from the province.

Schools that did a poor job meeting the needs of students would be held accountable through declining enrolment and funding.

Such a system is in place in Edmonton and has worked well, said Cirtwill.

“It’s time to start thinking about some fundamental adjustments in the way we deliver education.”

Elizabeth Sloat, a professor at the University of New Brunswick and associate director with the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy, said investments in education take generations to show results.

“But we are starting to see some increasing in our overall scores,” she said. “New Brunswick is starting to make some gains.”

The province’s early literacy project in 26 schools in five districts around the province is testing an early literacy monitoring and intervention system.

Such early intervention programs will help students gain the skills they need to develop the literacy required to successfully learn at higher grade levels, she said.

While she couldn’t comment on whether the province was spending too much, too little or enough on education, she said the province does need to focus more on targeted interventions on specific groups of children and geographical areas as opposed to universal, province-wide programs.

The province also needs more specialized professionals such as speech pathologists in the system to support children who are struggling.

Education Minister Claude Williams defended the Tories’ three-year-old Quality Learning Agenda and said looking at the 2003-2004 test results and judging the investments made by the government since 1999 was unfair.

“When you invest in education you cannot expect instant results.”

Poor showing by New Brunswick high school students in the most recent international tests was the result of past cuts by previous Liberal governments, he said.

“The leader of the Opposition recently stated he wants to make the province from ‘worst to first in education’, but it was his (party), that made those drastic cuts to education and our current standing can be directly tied back to those decisions.”

Williams said the Lord government’s investments in education would show more in years to come but was already yielding improvements in literacy at the Grade 2 level.

“We’re starting to see some positive results.”

Lord said earlier this week that poor test results by students at the high school level were the result of funding cuts by the previous Liberal government and that his party’s policy would take time to reap its full results.

Liberal Leader Shawn Graham has made education one of the core parts of his party’s Charter for Change platform.

Graham said his party wants to support efforts to identify students from kindergarten to Grade 3 who require specialized help to succeed.

“(It’s) the question that’s going to define the next election,” said Graham. “Do people want the status quo, a government that continues to spend money and not see the marked improvements that are required in our education system?”