Michael Zwaagstra: Eliminating Skills-Based Admissions in Specialty Schools Will Entrench Mediocrity

May 12, 2022 Updated: May 13, 2022


One of the strengths of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is that it offers students the opportunity to enroll in specialized programming. In fact, TDSB’s top-notch specialty schools, especially those in arts and athletics, are something of which the district can rightly be proud.

Providing families with more choices within the public system is one of the best ways to keep public education strong. The fact that students can get specialized programming in the arts and athletics without paying or having to go to a private school is a great advantage for many families—particularly for those with limited financial resources.

Simply put, the current TDSB specialty school system makes it possible for parents of limited resources to enroll their kids in top-quality specialized programming.

Unfortunately, TDSB appears poised to undermine its own success.

Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, TDSB plans to remove all skills-based entrance criteria for its specialty schools. This means that prospective students will merely need to express an interest in the school’s focus area.

In other words, students will not need to demonstrate any particular aptitude, skill, or experience in the arts or athletics to be admitted to any TDSB school.

This is ostensibly being done to promote inclusion. TDSB’s reasoning is that screening students based on skill or ability is inequitable and leads to the exclusion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Simply put, TDSB is more interested in equity than in excellence.

The problem with this approach is that it will undermine the quality of the programming offered to students in all TDSB schools. One of the main reasons to have specialty schools of all types is to enable students to undergo elite-level education and training. This can only happen if students in the schools have superior skills in the specific specialty area.

Imagine what would happen if a city’s symphony orchestra removed all skills-based employment criteria and opened up applications to anyone who merely expressed an interest in playing an instrument in the orchestra. No doubt, the quality of that orchestra’s performances would decline precipitously. Few people would be interested in going to watch a bunch of amateurs try to figure out how to play their instruments in a coordinated way.

Of course, critics will point out that an orchestra is not a school. That is true. However, future orchestra musicians typically receive their education and training in specialized schools. If TDSB arts schools are forced to take students based on interest alone, they will have no choice but to spend more time providing basic musical instruction. This will lower the quality of instruction for everyone.

As a result, there won’t be as many future orchestra musicians coming from TDSB schools. Instead, they will be coming from private schools that specialize in music.

It’s important to note that wealthy parents are unlikely to be fazed by TDSB’s new policy. That’s because they will simply pull their kids out of the public system and enroll them at elite private schools. Wealthy parents will pay whatever it takes to ensure that their kids are taken care of.

However, families with limited means do not have this option. For them, paying expensive private school tuition fees is out of the question. Their children are stuck in the public education system no matter how talented they are.

TDSB’s new policy also begs the question of why the district bothers to offer programs in specialized schools at all. If all skills-based screening is eliminated, these schools will really be no different from regular neighbourhood schools that provide generalized programming. However, the point of specialized schools is to provide training that is not available elsewhere.

Sadly, this new policy is the logical result of the creeping woke ideology in the education system. There is an obsessive focus on dividing students according to characteristics such as race and gender. Any differences between these groups are automatically assumed to be the result of bias and discrimination. This is a corrosive ideology, and we can see the toxic effect it is having on our schools.

Instead of entrenching mediocrity for every student, TDSB should reverse its move away from skills-based admissions criteria. Excellence should still mean something important in our schools.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”