Why the TDSB’s new specialized programs admissions policy is problematic—and what we can do to fix it.

Episode 0: Introduction

In May of 2022, the TDSB trustees voted to change the specialized programs admissions policy. In a motion that passed 17-3, they decreed that all TDSB specialized programs would begin using a lottery-based system of selection. This affects “programs such as High Performing Athletes, Arts, Africentric, Math, Science & Technology, Integrated Technology, Leadership Pathway and Cyber Arts.” The change was shattering, but not shocking; discussions surrounding the phasing out of specialized programs have been occurring for years. [2] 

In accordance with the TDSB’s board-wide changes, schools have already changed their policies for this year’s round of admissions, which will affect the graduating class of 2027. For example, the TOPS and MACS websites state that “all placements will be determined by random draw.” Other programs affected include the athletics program at Birchmount CI, the arts program at Earl Haig SS, and the IB program at Victoria Park CI.

In this article I will be arguing that the way the TDSB is attempting to fix the status quo with randomized admissions is the laziest, least effective option possible, and discussing what we can do to fix it. As a student in the TOPS program, I’ll be focusing on the effect it will have on TOPS. Please keep in mind that I’m not arguing against diversity, or some degree of affirmative action. I am not in any way condemning the teachers, administrators, or staff of specialized programs, who have been just as blindsided by this twist of what their programs stand for. I hope not to disparage the incoming students of TOPS (or any other program). I am sure that they are brilliant, passionate individuals — as all students are. 

Episode 1: Existence

Why specialized programs are necessary in public schools. 

Doing a cursory google search reveals a host of articles arguing for the abolishment of gifted or specialized programs [6][7][8]. An argument against specialized programs is that it creates a segregated system, but this is an uncharitable representation of what specialized programs are. People go to different universities and major in different areas to receive what they need. There is an inherent separation (key word: separation, not segregation) required for this, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing. 

Gifted and talented education doesn’t further inequity. By definition, equity means to give everyone the resources they need to succeed. If we can acknowledge that different people have different talents and learn at different paces, then we should also accept that they also have different needs when it comes to education. Specialized programs provide for these needs. We must be sure that the students who are at risk and struggling are also receiving the correct resources, but taking away gifted education is not the correct way to do so, as it doesn’t help. 

Private schools are an even more separated system. I went through UTS’ admission process in eighth grade. I remember sitting in a dusty, sub-baked classroom, scribbling down multiple choice answers for their required SSAT, with a nagging thought at the back of my mind—if I got in, would my parents even be able to pay for the cost of attendance? It would have summed up to $131,500 over the course of 4 years, which we would have been able to afford only if we took out loans. Opponents of specialized programs in public schools argue that it promotes elitism. However, If we didn’t have specialized education in public schools, the only option to get one would be at private schools, where scholarships are difficult to obtain. This is not an option for the vast majority of people. Thus, eliminating or reducing the standards of the public specialized programs most affects the education of the people who can’t afford to attend private schools. Far from helping reduce inequity, these policies do the opposite by further lifting up the rich and decreasing the number of opportunities for the poorer.