by: Charles Cirtwill

Gustave Flaubert once said: “There is no truth. There is only perception.”
Consider that the next time you read the full page ad the Nova Scotia Teachers Union have put out arguing that the Minister of Education has been “misleading” us on the facts about education in our province. The NSTU does not dispute that enrolment is falling, or that teacher numbers are increasing. They simply argue these facts only tell part of the story.
They then supply some self-proclaimed “truths” to give us a more accurate picture. Consider the first “truth,” that “our students perform just as well as others across Canada.”
As someone who watches the national and international test scores fairly closely, this observation came as quite a shock to me. On the international front, we have the program of international student assessment, called PISA for short. PISA tests math, science and reading on three-year cycles. Out of 10 provinces in reading, Nova Scotia ranked 7th in 2000, 7th again in 2003, and 8th in 2006. In math it was, 7th, 8th, and 8th. Science, 7th, 8th and 7th. That does not strike me as performing “just as well” as others across Canada.
Well, perhaps the NSTU meant we did just as well on the national, as opposed to the international tests. Canada has something called the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program. In 2007, out of the 10 provinces, Nova Scotia was tied for 6th in science and reading and was 9th in math. By 2010 we were 5th in reading and science and tied for 6th in math. A much better performance, but still very “middle of the road.”
Which leads us to “Truth” No. 2: “Nova Scotia math scores are above or at the same level as the majority of Canadian provinces.” A 6th place finish in 2010 puts us at or above the majority of Canadian provinces? Something does not compute!
Well, PCAP is only written by a sample of students in each province, so the scores represent an estimate of the skills of the total student population. Each score comes with what is known as a “confidence interval.” It’s like opinion polls when they say they are valid to plus or minus five per cent, 19 times out of 20.
By assuming Nova Scotia’s scores underestimated our actual skills by the full interval, and by assuming everyone else’s score overestimated their skills, you can, in a statistically valid way, make this “truth” a “reality.” Of course, the historical evidence does not support those assumptions. We are, and consistently have been, barely average or below. Playing cutesy with statistical intervals does not change the “truth,” it only reflects your preferred “perception.”
Now let’s turn to the “truths” presented on spending. Step 1 for the NSTU is to discount the total increase in spending. They do that by carefully picking their base year of comparison. In 1999-2000, Nova Scotia had the first of two years of “re-investment” in education, jumping total spending by almost a $100 million in the first year and another $200 million in the following year. Comparisons against those years will make any later spending increases look significantly smaller.
Of course, the department likes to use a longer time window to compare current spending against a period of spending cuts, so they prefer a 15- or 20-year comparison, which makes new spending look that much larger. The “truth” as always, is somewhere in between.
The NSTU then presents the spending coup de grace: a graph which visually suggests Alberta spends three or four times as much on education as we do. Which, of course, is not true at all. How then does the graph look so damning? First, the graph starts at $11,000, which means it highlights the variation at the top. It does not actually compare total spending. Second, it doesn’t adjust for inflation, which would narrow the gap from the couple of thousand presented to a little less than a thousand per child. Note that the NSTU uses inflation-adjusted numbers in its statements of “truth,” but does not use them in the visual aid.
So, what then are the takeaways from these competing perceptions of reality? Yes, Nova Scotia spends about seven to 10 per cent less than Alberta, and yes, we routinely spend less than the Canadian average. Thanks to the hard work of our students, parents, teachers and other education players, however, we consistently get more for our dollar than most, if not all, of the other provinces. We have done so through both periods of restraint and increased spending .
Does that success suggest the minister is correct and that we can reduce our overall spending without unduly impacting our overall results? Probably. Does that mean we should reduce our education spending? I, for one, don’t think so. But exaggerating the cuts while overstating our effectiveness isn’t the way to make that case. Being just average should be sufficient incentive to improve performance all on its own. But our performance, relative to those who spend more than we do, underlines another perception that we must dispel. Just spending more isn’t enough. Instead, we need to spend more wisely.

Charles Cirtwill is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent social and economic policy think tank based in Halifax.