In my rantings on the provincial budget I said I’d talk about the “investments” in health care and education. I’m going to tackle education first. I’ll get to health care later this week and then I’ll attempt the state and future of the US economy (as requested).
Education has historically been one of the best investments a region could make. The return has been high and the risk low. This is starting to change for lower levels of education. There are a number of ways this can be explained. The most generous explanation to the public education system is to argue that as basic education becomes more available and open to people of all backgrounds, the skills associated with education become less scarce and thus can demand less of a return. This likely explains only a small portion of what we’re observing.
The other possibility is much more damning to the public education system. Even though the number of real dollars spent on public education has been increasing over time, the quality of education received by students has been falling. This is in fact a significant portion of the problem. The public education system in New Brunswick has lower expenditures per student than some other provinces but greater than others. Spending more may not be the only solution. Getting better value for the money we do spend might be a better way to go.
Consider the basic data. Approximately 86% of the population of New Brunswick has education of grade 9 or better. (gnb link) That’s a pretty good educational attainment. Less than 14% of the age 15+ population hasn’t finished the equivalent of junior high school. Less than 2% of the 15 to 24 age cohort has not completed grade 9. The New Brunswick school system is doing a good job of making sure people stay in school. This would tend to support the argument I first made about the return to high school education decreasing as more people achieve that level of education. If only it were the case.
The scary part happens when we consider the provincial literacy rates. Approximately 50% of the total population would have a hard time following written instructions. An even greater portion would have a hard time reading a newspaper article. People in this situation are described as functionally illiterate. 37% of the population aged 16 to 25 can’t follow written instructions remember less than 2% of this age group didn't finish grade 9. This is clear evidence of a problem. Combined with the PISA scores it’s evidence of a huge problem. The current system doesn’t work.
If we’re going to “invest” in education we should take steps to make sure we aren’t just throwing money away. It’s time to take a hard look at how education dollars are spent. We’ve got more and more teachers who are experts in teaching and fewer and fewer in who are experts in any subject matter. We’ve got more and more people working for the education system outside the classroom. I suspect it might be time to fire a number of teachers and a whole lot of administrators. It’s for time education spending to provide education not just jobs.