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BCTF  President Jim Iker speaks to the media at Charles Dickens Elementary School in Vancouver May 26, 2014 on the first day of rotating strikes.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

In the escalating labour dispute between B.C. teachers and the government, each party has pointed to numbers on educational achievement and investment, but those numbers are difficult to interpret, making them easy targets for spin by both sides.

One international study, for example, shows B.C. students' scores in math and reading slowly but steadily declining since 2000. But the same report – the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's latest Programme for International Student Assessment – also reveals that B.C. students are still among the best in Canada, and the world.

The government and the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) have each employed education funding statistics to defend, or warn about, performance outcomes. Yet if parents and the public find it difficult to decide which side's argument is correct, that's because a link between investments and outcomes is not at all clear. Numbers in other provinces are similarly confusing. Ontario's spending per student has increased over the past decade as has its high school graduation rate, but the province's international math scores have decreased.

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"You do the research that makes the case you want it to and you forget about the other stuff," said Mark Thompson, professor emeritus of industrial relations at the University of B.C.'s Sauder School of Business. "In a highly public, politicized environment, the parties choose numbers that support their case. You don't hear much of this in the private sector, because it's not political."

The B.C. government, for example, says that class size and composition – two major points of contention with the BCTF – are not as fundamental to educational outcomes as the union would argue. In a March 21 letter to BCTF president Jim Iker, B.C. Public School Employers' Association public administrator Michael Marchbank said that "educational outcomes have significantly improved since the [class size and composition] formulae was removed" under then Education Minister Christy Clark in 2002.

The government bases its argument on increases in the provincial six-year completion rates and on comparatively good performance in international assessments such as the OECD's PISA scores.

Indeed, between 2000-01 and 2012-13, the percentage of students graduating high school within six years of starting Grade 8 has increased to 83.1 per cent from 75.1 per cent. And B.C. students have consistently shown some of the highest Canadian results in PISA scores. At the same time, they have slipped steadily since 2000. With scores falling everywhere in Canada except Saskatchewan and Quebec, B.C.'s students have simply declined at a slower rate than most of their peers.

Other measures don't tell much of a story, either: Both of B.C.'s Foundation Skills Assessment scores for Grade 4 and 7 students, and provincially-required examinations in high school, show marginal ups and downs over the past five years.

The BCTF counters that in so far as student performance levels are being sustained it is only because of the hard work of teachers.

"What they're doing is a smoke screen for the fact that they don't want to see class size, class composition and minimum levels of specialist teachers back in the collective agreement," Mr. Iker said. "They want to continue underfunding our public education system."

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The government, in return, questions some of the BCTF's figures. One of the union's main talking points is that the province funds education at $1,000 less per student than the national average, with only Prince Edward Island doing worse. This is based on a table in a 2013 Statistics Canada research paper on operating expenditures per student in public and elementary schools. It shows that, in 2010/11, B.C. spent an average of $10,405 a student compared to the national average of $11,393, for a difference of $988.

But the table is created from two other data sets: one on operating expenditures and one on full-time equivalent enrolment, the first measure including items, like pensions, whose measurement varies from province to province. "Operating expenditures include educators' salaries, wages and allowances, fringe benefits, teachers' pension funds and other operating expenditures," according to Statistics Canada, and types of pension systems – among other factors – can affect comparability with other provinces.

"Due to the different manners in which full-time equivalents are reported by the jurisdictions," reads a note under the table on full-time equivalent enrolments, "this indicator should not be considered to be directly comparable."

The B.C. Ministry of Education says it calculates per-pupil funding – not operating expenditures – by dividing the total of 2013/14 interim operational grants to school boards ($4.7-billion) by interim full-time enrolment for the same year (544,106). This means the government estimates the 2013/14 per-pupil funding average to be $8,654 – a number that it says has "risen more than 38 per cent since 2000/01," according to the government.

Alberta, which also calculates per-pupil funding this way, averaged $10,111 each for the 2013/14 school year, while Ontario averaged $11,266.

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