For readers outside of Toronto, here’s the context:
Toronto is home to 40-odd specialized programs or schools that provide an enriched curriculum in some or all of the arts, athletics, sciences, and math.
In 2017, with data indicating that a disproportionate percentage of the students attending these programs and schools came from relatively privileged families, a TDSB Equity Task Force recommended shutting them all down.
As you can imagine, parents (and their kids) mutinied, and the board promised to do better.
Five years later, doing better seems to mean overhauling the admissions process to these programs so that students will be accepted by lottery, based only on their expressed interest, rather than because of any evidence of exceptional ability or skill.
As one proponent of the proposed change explains:
“Moving to an interest-based model will ensure that [previous formal training in specific disciplines] is no longer a barrier to students who may not have had those same opportunities, but still bring an interest, passion, and commitment to those fields.”
Viewed less optimistically, we could soon have a specialized school for kids with an expressed interest in athletics, but no particular athletic skill; or an enriched STEM program for students who are passionate about engineering, but barely passed math or science the previous year.
Inevitably, such specialized programs will become less special – until they are no longer special at all.
Critics have offered two alternatives to the TDSB’s plan that they claim will maintain the quality of the programs but also deincrease the inequity.
The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee urges the board to do a better job of “making sure that parents hear about [the programs] and that teachers are on the lookout for promising candidates, especially in needy neighbourhoods.”
Writing in the Toronto Star, Maclean’s editor Sarah Fulford (whose son attends one of the schools in question) suggests:
“Instead of flattening the system into sameness by bureaucratic decree, the TDSB should take a hard look at why some schools are failing to attract students. Let’s empower principals and teachers, the heart and soul of every institution, to design programs that are creative, compelling and lively.”
Neither solution is likely to work. Privilege will always be just that, and parents who have it will find a way to ensure that their kids have the best opportunities.
And while empowering schools and principals sounds great in theory, the quality of educational leadership in Toronto is uneven, and one can only allocate so much time to creativity when your students come to class hungry and exhausted, if they come at all.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a solution that should give both sides some of what they want:
Why not keep the schools, and their application processes, the way they are – for 85%-90% of all admissions - but set aside 10%-15% of all the places in each program for kids from underprivileged backgrounds.
For this smaller group, design an even more individualized application process that emphasizes potential, and allows for greater flexibility in interpreting previously demonstrated aptitude.
All kids could still apply through the main process, but some would have the option of also being considered through the second stream.
Such consideration would ideally be kept confidential (and all acceptances would be announced at the same time), so that no one would know who was admitted separately.
This approach would preserve the elitist element of the schools that makes them so popular and successful, but also ensure a more equitable, inclusive, and diverse student body that no amount of parental privilege can overcome.
Such an approach was in place at Trent University when I studied there as an undergraduate, and seemed to work well.
Surely, the TDSB should give something like it a try before gutting one of the Toronto public education system’s crown jewels.
For a list of Toronto’s specialized high school programs, see here. The elementary programs can be found here.
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