Saturday, May 07, 2022

TDSB's plan for specialty schools will not foster either excellence or equity

Toronto District School Board (TDSB), like many other school boards, has a system of specialty schools, where students can specialize in art, dance, drama, mathematics, computer science, film-making, advanced academics, and a bunch of other specialty areas. They are great resources to stretch kids who have an aptitude for a particular area of education (and perhaps very little aptitude for other areas), and to perhaps give them a leg up to high-performance levels without being held back by other less able kids.

So, as you might imagine, there are a bunch of people complaining that these schools are elitist and privileged, exclusionary and quite possibly racist. But they are not. They are open to any student who exhibits an aptitude, a dedication, and a certain level of skill in the particular area, whatever their background, culture, race or socio-economic stratum. Students need to show suitable report card results, or pass a written test or an audition, depending on the school's specialization. It is entirely merit-based, as I think it should be.

But the TDSB, in its wisdom and its own over- sensitive conception of political correctness, has recommended doing away completely with this merit-based approach, arguing that it is in some way exclusionary and inequitable. They say that access to these programs should be driven by nothing more than a letter expressing interest. Those who throw their names into the hat would then go into a lottery to be chosen at random.

So, what you will end up with is valuable specialized resources being frittered away on students who have absolutely no aptitude for the specialized subject area, but who for some reason feel that they want to get into dance, or computers, or whatever it might be. At the same time, some truly gifted students may be excluded and deprived of the chance to become extraordinary performers or top academics. It's not even clear that such an approach would succeed in its own goal, as all those white middle classed over-achievers that the TDSB is so worried about are probably more likely to send in those letters of interest anyway, no?

If the TDSB is providing specialty education opportunities, which I fully approve of, then surely they should be made available to those who can most benefit from them. If, as the TDSB clearly feels, some lower-income or racialized kids from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks are currently missing out on these opportunities (which is by no means clear to me), then the Board could promote them better, particularly in needy neighbourhoods, and make sure that teachers are looking out of promising candidates.

There is nothing about the current system that assures it disadvantages the already disadvantaged. Indeed, it could well help some of those disadvantaged kids find a way out of their constraining circumstances. What the TDSB is proposing, though, whether or not it is coming from a heartfelt place, is a step backwards, and a recipe for diminishing performance and impeding excellence, all in the supposed name of equity.

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