Special programs and testing prevent children from learning important life lessons

Photo: University of Saskatchewan​/Flickr

I was saddened to see Toronto's school board retreat from its plan to phase out its special schools and programs, like those for the arts and gifted students. They said it would be for the sake of greater social equity and meant to replace them by spreading the benefits among all, not just some -- mostly white and affluent -- kids. But they came under heavy fire for trying to squelch creativity and undermine individualism among "our" brightest kids. They caved.

These educational matters go through phases; what was once daring and urgent has to eventually be discarded for something else. The individual creativity thing has roots in the mid-20th century, a highly conformist time. If you want a sense of that, watch Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, about a young Jewish woman in 1950s New York, with a cameo by comedian Lenny Bruce. He was repeatedly arrested for saying words like tits, onstage. Even in the 1970s, comic George Carlin recited a list of seven words you couldn't utter publicly. Now they're all staples of network TV.

How did social equity replace individual creativity? Partly, demographics. Toronto's an awfully different place. But there's also activism among minority communities. It's one thing to have well-meaning white liberals fighting for your kids, it's another to engage directly. It's no longer just about what's right; there's what must be responded to. OISE (the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), the weird educational building on Bloor St. W., has become a voice for those demands, but it reflects broader activism.

Take Toronto's "gifted" program. Kids are selected for it based on individually administered aptitude tests that don't depend on growing up in a home with lots of books and a piano. But teachers choose which kids take the test. Guess which parents squawk loudest if their kids aren't chosen and demand they be tested anyway. That's one way social equity gets eased out the back door. A high school like Northern has many gifted classes and many black students, but few of the latter are in the former. It makes no sense.

The name itself also sucks. I know I sound like Mister Rogers but all kids are gifted. My main point though is educational. The great feat of public schools is being open to everyone; they offer unique opportunities to learn from those unlike us. That gets lost if school populations are desegregated by program. At the same time, kids fail to learn a crucial lesson: what their society really looks like.

The special programs debate is linked to the testing question, another issue roiling education in Toronto. Every three years all Ontario kids take standardized tests and the results in math have been falling.

In fact, this is common everywhere that standardized tests are used. But in the Globe, Margaret Wente uses it to attack the equity caucus: "The folks at OISE believe that differences in academic achievement are caused by social inequities, not differences in ability."

That isn't so preposterous. Differences in academic achievement between demographic groups are frequently caused by social inequities while differences within the same group indicate different abilities. Maybe Wente needs some refreshers in "problem-solving and discovery approaches," which Conrad Black hyperventilates over in the National Post.

He finds it absurd that teachers and their unions suggest scrapping tests in response to poor scores. But their point isn't that kids are doing badly on the tests; it's that they're doing badly because of them. A heavy stress on tests detracts from teaching time and, if it goes far enough, as it has in the U.S., drives good teachers from the system. That's not what they went into it for.

Black's solution? "A redoubled effort be made to teach young people better." Wow. It's like Trump's idea to appoint "good generals" instead of bad ones, to start winning wars. ("The man's a military genius!" fumed Lewis Black.)

Black also noted that he'd taught fellow inmates while in a U.S. prison and "Every one my lads matriculated," i.e., passed the test. Because that's what tests prove: you've learned how to pass a test.

All university students currently sweating through papers and exams prior to Christmas break know it: you're studying to pass the test, not master the course material. What you've truly learned counts zero, compared to what you think your prof (or more likely, TA) wants to hear you say. This column is dedicated to them.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: University of Saskatchewan​/Flickr

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