We need better public school performance

Over the past decade, public spending on education — from kindergarten through to the end of high school, including vocational training and adult education — grew from $11.3 billion to $12.9 billion, taking inflation into account.

Yet the total number of students fell from 1.05 million to 983,000.

Real spending per student therefore grew from $10,791 to $13,162 — an increase of 22 per cent.

Why such a surge in costs while the number of students is shrinking?

It’s not due to spending on infrastructure, since this has been neglected for some time. 

We must look instead at salaries to understand the bigger price tag.

First, the student-teacher ratio has gone from 14.4 to 13.2, a decrease of nearly nine per cent.

Second, the government’s employee pension plan payments have jumped by nearly 50 per cent, adjusted for inflation.

Third, since relatively few new teachers are being hired, the automatic progression up the pay scale increases costs per employee.

The rapid growth in the proportion of students with social maladjustments, learning disabilities or handicaps also plays a role: The percentage of these students in the public system has gone from 16 per cent to 21 per cent, an increase of one-third. Funding for these students can be up to four times higher.

So we’re spending more. But has this higher spending helped students?

From the cohort of students starting high school in 2002 to the cohort starting in 2008, the rate of graduation and qualification within seven years throughout Quebec went from 72 per cent to 79 per cent.

Obviously, it is a good thing if our students are more successful, but these numbers must be put in context.

A non-negligible portion of the improved graduation rate in the public system is related to the creation of new diplomas whose value has been called into question by some observers.

Take for example the Training Certificate in the Sociovocational Integration of Adults, awarded to a student who has earned his or her pre-secondary credits in English, French and mathematics, and successfully completed 900 hours of labour market integration training. Overall, 41 per cent of the increase in the graduation rate within seven years across the province is due to this new type of qualification.

As well, there is reason to believe that the desire to graduate more students has led to reduced rigour in their evaluation. For example, it was revealed this spring that one in two teachers had seen their school administration raise a mark the teacher had given a student without obtaining the teacher’s consent.

Quebec has taken significant steps in democratizing education, but there is still a lot of work to do.

In terms of literacy, more than half of Quebecers do not have the skills needed “to have good chances of participating fully and productively in today’s knowledge-intensive economies,” to borrow the language used by Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Only 11.3 per cent of Quebecers are able to analyze a complex text. Barely 59 per cent read a book at least once a month, and 20 per cent never read books.

In the public system, more than one student in three does not complete his or her secondary schooling within the normal period of five years. In certain school boards, the dropout rate is staggering. The graduation and qualification rates of 12 school boards fall 10 percentage points or more below the average, with two of them more than 50 points below the average.

One thing is certain: Our public school system underperforms compared to what we should expect in a modern society.

It is time to take a fresh look at the way we do things.

What’s needed is less bureaucracy, more competition among schools and greater freedom of choice for parents. This would improve the performance of the educational system, and the future prospects of our children.

Germain Belzile is a Senior Associate Researcher at the MEI, Alexandre Moreau, Public Policy Analyst at the MEI. They are the authors of “Education in Quebec: Where Does the Money Go?” and the views reflected in this op-ed are their own.

Read more articles on the theme of "Education."

Back to top