The specialty schools and programs of the Toronto District School Board are one of the glories of Canada’s biggest public school system. Instructing students in everything from film-making and advanced academics to mathematics and cyber-science, they positively hum with talent and ambition.
Lately, though, they have faced some hard scrutiny. Critics say they are havens of elitism and privilege, attracting children from well-off, plugged-in and disproportionately white families. In 2017, a TDSB equity task force recommended that the board consider shutting down specialty schools altogether. Parents rebelled, and the board rejected the idea, saying it would work on improving access to them instead.
Five years later, the TDSB has come back with a truly silly idea. It would keep the specialty schools and programs, but transform the way students are selected for admission.
Right now, most get in by submitting report-card results, writing a test or doing an audition. The board proposes to get rid of all that. Most students would simply hand in a letter expressing interest in the program. Their names would go into a lottery and be chosen at random. As a board document puts it, “Admissions will move away from demonstrated strength and/or ability and, instead, will prioritize a student’s interest in a particular program or school.”
Essentially, any student who thought it would be neat to be a dancer could get a shot at having advanced training as a dancer, regardless of experience or aptitude. The problems with the idea are pretty obvious: first, that valuable resources would be expended on students who don’t have much chance of becoming a dancer; second, that truly gifted students could be deprived of training that might turn them into extraordinary performers.
That seems terribly unfair to these eager young people. It also seems terribly unwise for a city that sells itself as a rising global hub for tech and the arts.
The new policy might even fail in its goal of greater access. Wouldn’t motivated and ambitious parents be more likely to get their kids to write letters of interest, just as many steer their kids into French immersion to give them a leg up? The “upstreaming” that the TDSB worries about could go on just as before.
The board, let’s be clear, is right to worry. A diverse school system like the TDSB has a responsibility to make sure that all students have a good education and an equal chance at special training if they deserve it. But there are other ways of responding than just throwing the doors open, which is bound to change the unique character of these special places.
For one thing, the board could do more to promote and publicize special programs, making sure that parents hear about them and that teachers are on the lookout for promising candidates, especially in needy neighbourhoods. Doing away with application fees, as the board proposes, is a good notion. So is expanding arts and other special programs in local schools.
Selective schools don’t have to be bastions of privilege. We have all heard of disadvantaged people who have achieved great things after winning competitive scholarships to top-rank music schools, science academies or universities.
Fairness and excellence can coexist. Merit and equity aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, the merit principle – talent over influence, hard work over wealth – helps level society’s playing field.
As it stands now, students who want to get into a specialty school labour on their essays and portfolios or spend long hours practicing for their auditions. It can be tough, but competing is part of the game, just as it is in adult life. Many have spent years learning to play the violin or draw the human figure or design computer games. This is their moment.
If they are fortunate enough to make the cut, they are thrown together with other smart, dedicated, creative kids from all kinds of backgrounds (for these schools are far from the homogeneous collections of pampered kids that their critics would have you believe). Awkward teens who might have struggled in a mainstream school find their niche. A kind of magic happens.
It would be a shame to stamp it out in the name of equity.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.