Class Di­vide

Some par­ents say their chil­dren need gifted-ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams. But not all kids are benef it­ing from the pub­lic-school stream­ing sys­tem

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Ka­t­rina On­stad

Some par­ents say their chil­dren need gifted-ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams. But not all kids are ben­e­fit­ing from the pub­lic-school stream­ing sys­tem

The Plan­ning and Pri­or­i­ties Com­mit­tee was meet­ing in the board­room: it was more Kafka than Kanye, so it was in­con­gru­ous to see teenagers in this set­ting — like walk­ing into a pass­port of­fice to find the wait­ing room filled with lemurs. But there they were (teens, not lemurs), on a cold night this past Jan­uary, in a brick-slab of­fice build­ing of the Toronto Dis­trict School Board. Sev­eral trustees sat around a gi­ant U-shaped desk fac­ing a gallery crowded with par­ents, ed­u­ca­tors, and as­sorted mem­bers of the pub­lic. Wher­ever they are, even in air­less rooms boggy with Robert’s Rules of Or­der, teenagers bring with them their lop­ing awk­ward en­ergy, in­ap­pro­pri­ately beep­ing cell phones, and barely sup­pressed gig­gles. Of course, their pres­ence shouldn’t have been strange, be­cause young peo­ple and their fu­tures were what every­one was there to talk about — sort of. The largest school board in Canada has some large prob­lems to solve. Dropout rates for black stu­dents are twice as high as they are for white kids. Black, Latino, and Indige­nous kids are much less likely than their white coun­ter­parts to be en­rolled in univer­sity-track, “aca­demic” classes and more likely to find them­selves in the more trade-ori­ented “ap­plied” classes as early as grade nine. That means that, be­fore many of these kids are even through pu­berty, op­tions for their fu­tures are se­verely cur­tailed: a York Univer­sity study found that only 53 per­cent of black stu­dents in Toronto were in an aca­demic-stream pro­gram ver­sus 81 per­cent of white stu­dents and 80 per­cent of other racial­ized groups. The pub­lic meet­ing had been called to dis­cuss the Direc­tor’s Re­sponse to the En­hanc­ing Eq­uity Task Force Re­port, a jar­gon-thick set of rec­om­men­da­tions aimed at re­mov­ing some of the dis­crim­i­na­tory bar­ri­ers to high achieve­ment that Toronto stu­dents face. Af­ter months of con­sul­ta­tion, the most clearly ar­tic­u­lated pro­posal was to phase out non-aca­demic streams, in­clud­ing ap­plied — but the meet­ing ended up be­ing only a lit­tle about that. When the spot­light landed on dis­ad­van­taged groups, its beam also caught oth­ers that seemed to have a sur­plus of ad­van­tages: those in aca­dem­i­cally rig­or­ous, so­cially prized, spe­cial­ized pro­grams and streams like arts, the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate, and es­pe­cially, gifted. The cor­rec­tion that the TDSB was broach­ing, to end ap­plied stream­ing, was in­ter­preted by some as a threat to gifted pro­grams — and that com­mu­nity had shown up en masse to let the school board know it was not happy. Most of the teenagers in the room were part of a del­e­ga­tion of gifted stu­dents from North­ern Sec­ondary School in the up­scale Mount Pleas­ant neigh­bour­hood of Toronto, the kind of aca­dem­i­cally high-rank­ing school that real es­tate agents might men­tion in their list­ings to at­tract buy­ers. A cou­ple of North­ern moms had or­ga­nized the field trip; in the hall­way at break, a par­ent dis­trib­uted gra­nola bars. In­side the cham­bers, one by one, the teens took to the mi­cro­phone for their al­lot­ted five min­utes. Many be­gan by ac­knowl­edg­ing that they knew they were per­ceived as “priv­i­leged” or “elit­ist.” Then they read state­ments from a pro-gifted pe­ti­tion — com­ments from stu­dents, par­ents, and teach­ers that filled page af­ter page in the sta­pled meet­ing agenda. The tes­ti­mo­ni­als of­ten had a dooms­day qual­ity: “Putting all stu­dents to­gether will re­duce their op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn”; “stop en­abling medi­ocrity”; “one size does not fit all.” One boy, speak­ing fast and read­ing off his phone, de­scribed a mixed class­room as inevitably teach­ing to the “low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor.”

What we talk about when we talk about gifted isn’t re­ally gifted at all. It’s seg­re­ga­tion.

By hour two of the teen takeover, the trustees looked tired. In be­tween del­e­gates, the stu­dents re­ceived as­sur­ances from the school board that gifted was not go­ing to be touched: trustees kept di­rect­ing them to page twenty-one of the re­port, which read, “We do not rec­om­mend phas­ing out...gifted pro­grams or con­gre­gated schools sites. How­ever ...we will work to in­crease ac­cess and op­por­tu­nity so that those pro­grams are more re­flec­tive of the TDSB stu­dent pop­u­la­tion.” Later, I talked to one of the par­ents from the North­ern del­e­ga­tion, Gail Agen­sky, and asked why they were there at all if, in fact, the TDSB was leav­ing gifted alone. “We don’t re­ally be­lieve them,” she said. “It’s an at­tack on gifted. They want to break what’s work­ing to save what isn’t.” Maybe this is of­ten how so­cial change feels to those with power: that one per­son’s gain is nec­es­sar­ily an­other’s loss. At the meet­ing, there seemed to be acon­sen­sus among gifted kids and their par­ents that forces had been un­leashed against them. They had worked hard to make a huge, over­bur­dened, un­der­funded sys­tem work for them, and now the spoils of those ef­forts were at risk. The un­com­fort­able re­al­ity is that all of us with kids in Toronto’s pub­lic schools are op­er­at­ing in a sys­tem that favours a se­lect few, where stu­dents with lower so­cio-eco­nomic sta­tus, many of them black or mem­bers of other racial mi­nori­ties, don’t reach long-term equal achieve­ment. (Toronto is one of the few school boards that re­lease com­pre­hen­sive race­based data, but re­searchers say this pat­tern is al­most cer­tainly found else­where.) Just as the kids in ap­plied streams are over­whelm­ingly black and low in­come, those in gifted are dis­pro­por­tion­ately white and af­flu­ent. Both groups are get­ting si­phoned off and sep­a­rated from the broader pop­u­la­tion at a young age. So what we talk about when we talk about gifted isn’t re­ally gifted at all — but seg­re­ga­tion.

Canada, like much of the world, is in the era of school choice. In the past two decades, as pub­lic-school en­rol­ment has de­clined, a free-mar­ket model has re­shaped pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. As per the ways of cap­i­tal­ism, it’s pro­duced win­ners and losers, great op­por­tu­ni­ties and great gaps. When I was a high-school stu­dent in Van­cou­ver in the ’80s, most kids went to their nearby school or to a hand­ful of al­ter­na­tive schools. French im­mer­sion was new and seemed a lit­tle fringe. When I had kids of my own in Toronto, two decades later, I as­sumed their ed­u­ca­tions would un­fold along sim­i­lar lines. As fel­low par­ents and friends (largely mid­dle class and pro­fes­sional) were blearily be­gin­ning the con­struc­tion of our young kids’ child­hoods, most of us started on the same train: as com­mu­ni­ty­minded, lo­cal-school sup­port­ers. But, one by one, peo­ple kept hop­ping off the train. French im­mer­sion took a bunch of fam­i­lies in grade one, then out-of-dis­trict schools took some more, then gifted took an­other flock in grade four, then al­ter­na­tive schools in mid­dle school, and then ex­tended French...each time we ar­rived at one of these school-choice junc­tures, par­ents shouted this phrase as they jumped: “It’s like pri­vate school in the pub­lic sys­tem!” Wait — what? Aren’t we in pub­lic school be­cause it’s not pri­vate school? Guys? Guys? High school was when the box­car re­ally emp­tied out. I had no idea we’d be try­ing out high schools like Goldilocks tested beds. When our son was in grade eight, we drove to an open house for a pop­u­lar so­cial-jus­tice-ori­ented high school, one of many spe­cial­ized schools that we vis­ited. Sev­eral blocks away, we got locked in a traf­fic jam where teens in orange vests were wav­ing park­ing wands, di­rect­ing us away from the over­flow­ing park­ing lot. We parked over a kilo­me­tre away, like we were at a Blue Jays game. That this so­cial-jus­tice school was filled mostly with seem­ingly rich, white fam­i­lies did not es­cape my no­tice. But, like all good con­sumers, tell me I can’t have some­thing, and I in­stantly want it. Mob men­tal­ity ac­ti­vated, and se­duced by the me­dia lab, mini cour­ses, and cheery per­for­mance of the im­prov team, I pressed my son to ap­ply. (He was more ag­nos­tic: “Sounds like a lot of work.”) Be­cause Canada doesn’t have a fed­eral depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion, pol­icy is de­cen­tral­ized, fall­ing to prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries — and school au­thor­i­ties within them. In Al­berta, school choice means a pro­lif­er­a­tion of char­ter schools, and in BC, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has in­creased fund­ing for in­de­pen­dent schools, es­sen­tially sub­si­diz­ing pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion. In New Brunswick, ef­forts to end stream­ing and scale back French im­mer­sion have been con­tro­ver­sial (re­cently, high pro­vin­cial test re­sults in­di­cate the new poli­cies are work­ing). But the TDSB is the fourth-largest school board in North Amer­ica, and as one re­searcher told me, “As goes the TDSB, so goes the coun­try.” And what goes is a kind of reck­on­ing over just how hard it is — per­haps im­pos­si­ble — to main­tain a thriv­ing pub­lic sys­tem that serves the great­est num­ber of stu­dents the best it can while also giv­ing be­spoke ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ences to a few. In the name of choice, we may be cre­at­ing a multi-tiered sys­tem that sets up cer­tain de­mo­graph­ics for suc­cess and leaves more vul­ner­a­ble kids be­hind. The hy­per­at­ten­tion to in­di­vid­ual needs (and wants) seems to have pushed kids into cus­tom­ized si­los, away from the very in­clu­siv­ity that’s the un­der­pin­ning of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. I get it. We’re rais­ing kids in an eco­nom­i­cally frag­ile time, and par­ents will do what­ever we can to se­cure our kids’ fu­tures. The prob­lem is when the thing I want for my child cre­ates or per­pet­u­ates a dis­ad­van­tage for some other child. The prom­ise of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion (while

ro­man­tic and mess­ily ful­filled, if ever) is the com­mit­ment to a greater good: an equal start for all kids — the ide­al­is­tic vi­sion of the plumber’s son in the desk next to the doc­tor’s daugh­ter — and our dif­fer­ences col­lapsed, our fu­tures bound to­gether. But to­day, many be­lieve ex­clu­siv­ity has more value than in­clu­siv­ity. Rather than every­one in it to­gether, it’s be­com­ing a lot of peo­ple in sep­a­rate cor­ners — which hardly re­sem­bles the grand ex­per­i­ment of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion at all.

When Amanda Gotlib was in ele­men­tary school, she was slow to fin­ish as­sign­ments. Work that would take other kids a few min­utes to com­plete could take her hours. Wan­der­ing thoughts aren’t of­ten re­warded in a class­room, so Amanda didn’t get spec­tac­u­lar grades. But she was clearly bright and cre­ative, a kid who loved draw­ing (she wants to be an an­i­ma­tor) and science fic­tion, and she would of­ten spend lunch and re­cess read­ing. “Girls would play things like house,” she told me. “And I wasn’t in­ter­ested in play­ing house. I didn’t want to pre­tend to be an­other hu­man. I would want to play, like, magic peo­ple!” We were sit­ting in a café this spring in north Toronto with Amanda’s mom, Gail Agen­sky, one of the North­ern gifted par­ents from the school-board meet­ing. Drink­ing a mango smoothie, Amanda, now six­teen, chose her words care­fully. She was very much a 2018 model of teenager, with a shock of pur­ple-and­pink hair, friends she de­scribed as “gen­der fluid,” and ca­sual ref­er­ences to her var­i­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal di­ag­noses. The On­tario Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion de­fines gift­ed­ness as “an un­usu­ally ad­vanced de­gree of gen­eral in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity that re­quires dif­fer­en­ti­ated learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of a depth and breadth be­yond those nor­mally pro­vided in the reg­u­lar school pro­gram to sat­isfy the level of ed­u­ca­tional po­ten­tial in­di­cated.” Back when Amanda was in ele­men­tary school, the prac­tice within the TDSB was that teach­ers would se­lect stu­dents they thought dis­played gifted ten­den­cies and tap them to take the test for grade-four ad­mis­sion to the pro­gram. Par­ents could re­quest test­ing, too, if their kid didn’t get rec­om­mended. It’s im­pos­si­ble to know if Amanda would have been rec­om­mended for test­ing were her back­ground dif­fer­ent, but be­ing white, liv­ing in an af­flu­ent neigh­bour­hood, and hav­ing well-ed­u­cated par­ents cer­tainly in­creases a per­son’s chances. A 2010 TDSB study found that nearly 60 per­cent of gifted stu­dents in the city came from the three high­est in­come brack­ets, and only 11per­cent were from the three low­est. Amanda doesn’t re­mem­ber much about the test it­self — “block puz­zles. As­so­ci­a­tion ques­tions. It was weird” — but she was des­ig­nated gifted. In the TDSB, be­ing gifted is an “ex­cep­tion­al­ity” that falls un­der the um­brella of spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion; in pol­icy, it’s treated as a learn­ing dis­abil­ity. Gifted kids are of­ten sent to schools out of dis­trict, where they’re sep­a­rated from the reg­u­lar pop­u­la­tion in con­gre­gated classes with ap­peal­ingly small teacher-stu­dent ra­tios and en­riched learn­ing tech­niques. When Amanda and her par­ents went to an open house to check out the pro­gram, the prin­ci­pal told the room: “You have the golden ticket.” A lit­tle anx­ious about the change, Amanda waited un­til mid­dle school to en­rol. On Amanda’s first day in agifted class­room, Agen­sky showed up well be­fore the fi­nal bell to wait out­side. She was wor­ried about how her sen­si­tive kid would han­dle the tran­si­tion: that morn­ing, Amanda had been in tears. But when school ended, she emerged in much dif­fer­ent spir­its; she gave her mom an ado­les­cent eye roll, like: “It went fine, duh, why wouldn’t it?” This was new. Amanda liked the way the teach­ers ex­plained con­cepts in depth and the way that the form of an as­sign­ment could be more cre­ative — a pup­pet show in­stead of an es­say. Very quickly, Amanda had friends and was in­vited to sleep­overs — this was new too. Agen­sky is a graphic de­signer who runs her own in­vi­ta­tion-card com­pany, and her hus­band is a waiter. Their house, which they in­her­ited, says Agen­sky, is one of the small­est on their block in

Led­bury Park, an aes­thet­i­cally sub­ur­ban neigh­bour­hood, with sky-scrap­ing trees and wide drive­ways. Ev­ery win­ter, par­ents jockey to get their kids la­belled gifted for the fol­low­ing fall. Even if a stu­dent doesn’t earn the des­ig­na­tion through the TDSB, fam­i­lies can pay hun­dreds of dol­lars to get their kids tested pri­vately, and re­peat­edly, un­til they’re deemed gifted. Prac­tice tests are widely avail­able on­line for a fee. Agen­sky is very good at be­ing the par­ent of a gifted kid. She is fre­quently in the hall­ways of Amanda’s school, check­ing in with teach­ers about Amanda’s var­i­ous ac­com­mo­da­tions out­lined in her in­di­vid­u­al­ized ed­u­ca­tion plan. (Many gifted par­ents will talk about “dual ex­cep­tion­al­i­ties,” point­ing out that gift­ed­ness can co­ex­ist with any num­ber of di­ag­noses, like ADHD, dys­lexia, autis­tic spec­trum dis­or­der, or anx­i­ety. In fact, du­al­ity may not be ter­ri­bly com­mon: one study out of the US found only about 14 per­cent of kids des­ig­nated gifted are “twice ex­cep­tional.”) The week we met, Agen­sky had been at North­ern to talk to a teacher about why Amanda needs to doo­dle in class. Agen­sky pointed out that Amanda is a “ki­netic learner” and both her psy­chi­a­trist and psy­chol­o­gist have said that she fo­cuses bet­ter if she’s doo­dling. “She said she’d never heard of that ac­com­mo­da­tion,” Agen­sky told Amanda, catch­ing her up on the news. “What? That’s crazy! There are so many kids who need to doo­dle,” said Amanda. Shyly, Amanda showed me her notebook, filled with pen­cil draw­ings of anime-es­que char­ac­ters and a hand­son-hips war­rior wo­man. Ges­tur­ing at abut­ton-sized ro­dent fig­ure, she said: “He makes me laugh be­cause, even though he looks like that, he’s a magic crime boss. I call him the pig fox.” Agen­sky was beam­ing. When she looked at her daugh­ter, it was clear that she wants what all par­ents want: her kid to be happy, to be rec­og­nized for who she is, and to thrive. Agen­sky is con­vinced that gifted fa­cil­i­tated all of that. Of course, whether Amanda’s bur­geon­ing hap­pi­ness is a re­sult of the care that’s ar­rived with her var­i­ous di­ag­noses or the gifted pro­gram it­self is hard to un­braid. But, ei­ther way, Agen­sky is cer­tain that tak­ing the pro­gram away from Amanda would be akin to shov­ing her off a lifeboat.

The gifted pro­gram is a rel­a­tively lit­tle one within the TDSB: it ac­counts for only 2.6 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of 250,000 stu­dents — around 4,000 in con­gre­gated (sep­a­rate) classes and 2,000 in reg­u­lar classes with gifted-spe­cific pro­gram­ming. But Ruben Gaz­tam­bide-Fer­nan­dez, a pro­fes­sor at the On­tario In­sti­tute for Stud­ies in Ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Toronto who has re­searched in­equity at spe­cial­ized arts schools, notes that both gifted and arts-school par­ents are small but mighty co­horts. “These are re­ally wealthy, re­ally savvy peo­ple with re­ally good con­nec­tions,” he said. “Stu­dents don’t end up in gifted ed­u­ca­tion, in French im­mer­sion, in spe­cial­ized arts high schools by ac­ci­dent. They end up there be­cause their par­ents have the re­sources, have been mo­bi­liz­ing these re­sources to craft a cer­tain kind of child­hood from the mo­ment these kids are born.” Kids in gifted aren’t a re­flec­tion of who’s in the TDSB. White stu­dents made up one-third of the sam­ple in one study but al­most 50 per­cent of the gifted stu­dents. Black stu­dents made up 11per­cent of the to­tal sam­ple but just un­der 3 per­cent of gifted. (Sixty per­cent of gifted stu­dents were male.) The com­mon fea­ture of kids in spe­cial­ized pro­grams like French im­mer­sion and gifted is univer­sity-ed­u­cated par­ents. Gaz­tam­bide-Fer­nan­dez’s re­search shows that there are huge swathes of par­ents, par­tic­u­larly new­com­ers and those with lower in­comes, who don’t have the free time dur­ing the work­week to ad­vo­cate for their kids’ ad­mis­sion to spe­cial­ized pro­grams, prep ap­pli­ca­tions, and bug the right teach­ers. In the most di­verse school dis­trict in the coun­try, many lack English-lan­guage skills or even aware­ness that these pro­grams ex­ist. “Choice is re­ally only avail­able to those with the ca­pac­ity to choose,” said An­nie Kid­der, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the in­de­pen­dent pub­lic-ed­u­ca­tion think tank Peo­ple for Ed­u­ca­tion. And even with all this choice, she says, so­cio-eco­nomic sta­tus is still a ma­jor pre­dic­tor of suc­cess in school. In 2016, in an ef­fort to cor­rect the rep­re­sen­ta­tion im­bal­ance in gifted, the TDSB moved to a three-part uni­ver­sal-test­ing process for all kids in grade three, not just those nom­i­nated by teach­ers or par­ents. No one knows yet if this will change the makeup of the gifted pro­gram, but there is an en­cour­ag­ing prece­dent. When uni­ver­sal screen­ing for gifted was in­tro­duced in one school dis­trict in Florida, the per­cent­age of ad­mis­sions tripled for His­panic and black pupils. But if more kids get des­ig­nated gifted, it’s likely that even more will leave their home schools, hol­low­ing out — or even shut­ting down — lo­cal schools, as kids flee to other pro­grams. Agen­sky has no­ticed that while par­ents scram­ble to get their kids into North­ern, they scram­ble equally hard to make sure their kids don’t go to the lo­cal school that many of them, in­clud­ing Amanda, are zoned to at­tend. I thought about the kids in that neigh­bour­hood school and what Amanda is miss­ing by not know­ing them and what they’re miss­ing by not know­ing her, a sweet kid with a wild imag­i­na­tion and a love for the pig fox. But mak­ing de­ci­sions for your very real kid that serve a the­o­ret­i­cal greater good is a tough sell for par­ents, and that’s how many gifted par­ents feel about the mere dis­cus­sion of a TDSB where all kids are put to­gether in one room with ex­tra sup­ports, as per the rec­om­men­da­tions of the first draft of the eq­uity re­port. “Eq­uity in and of it­self is cer­tainly a worth­while goal,” said Agen­sky. “But be­ing a gifted kid in a main­stream class­room was not good for my daugh­ter. It wasn’t good for her emo­tional de­vel­op­ment, for her so­cial de­vel­op­ment, or for her aca­demic de­vel­op­ment. And please — where the hell is the TDSB go­ing to get the money to train [all their] teach­ers to han­dle a mixed class­room?” Amanda puts it more bluntly: “Gifted kids self-seg­re­gate any­way. A lot of them don’t want to meet other peo­ple.” For her, the all-in class­room holds lit­tle ap­peal. “I have these worlds in my head, and I feel like I fi­nally have peo­ple I can share

them with. With­out gifted, the world that I found where I sort of be­long would dis­ap­pear.”

Gifted is a his­tor­i­cally elas­tic term and a fre­quently trou­bling one. In 1869, the book Hered­i­tary Ge­nius: An In­quiry Into Its Laws and Con­se­quence, by Fran­cis Gal­ton, set forth the idea that in­tel­li­gence is bi­o­log­i­cally de­ter­mined. (The word ge­nius comes from the same root word as gene.) Stan­ford Univer­sity psy­chol­o­gist Lewis Ter­man at­tempted to quan­tify in­tel­lect in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, stan­dard­iz­ing the IQ test as a mea­sure of in­nate in­tel­li­gence. There was, at that time, no ac­count­ing for the cul­tural bi­ases in­her­ent in test tak­ing, and re­sults re­in­forced an al­ready preva­lent, very Western and Ro­man­tic, idea of ge­nius as the do­main of white, wealthy, well-born men. In 1925, Ter­man con­cluded that the hered­ity of gifted peo­ple “is much su­pe­rior to that of the av­er­age in­di­vid­ual” and that the gifted were more likely to be white with less “Latin and ne­gro an­ces­try.” Of course, we know now that there’s no bi­o­log­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween race or gen­der and abil­ity, but back then, the jump from hered­i­tary ge­nius to flat-out eu­gen­ics was a short one. Leta Stet­ter Holling­worth, Columbia Univer­sity psy­chol­o­gist and an­other early cham­pion of gifted ed­u­ca­tion, kicked against her field’s hate­ful foot­ings by ac­knowl­edg­ing that en­vi­ron­ment had an im­pact on in­tel­li­gence (though she, too, was a big be­liever in hered­i­tary gifts). In 1936, she be­gan iden­ti­fy­ing and teach­ing gifted kids across class and race bound­aries. She pre­scribed a com­pas­sion­ate class­room where teach­ers of­fered ac­tive­learn­ing tech­niques de­signed to dis­pel bore­dom and fol­low the kids’ leads—which sounds not so dif­fer­ent from to­day’s gifted cur­ricu­lum or Amanda’s de­scrip­tion of her favourite classes at North­ern. Pioneers in the gifted field promised that their re­search could iden­tify fu­ture lead­ers and suc­cess­ful adults, and in this way, gift­ed­ness has al­ways been linked to a na­tion-build­ing agenda. Gifted kids were, and still are, looked upon as a re­source de­mand­ing to be mined. Ne­glect their tal­ents at the peril of your coun­try’s com­pet­i­tive­ness, ad­vo­cates have warned. When Sput­nik launched in 1957, so did panic among Amer­i­can and Cana­dian govern­ments scram­bling to keep up with Rus­sian ad­vances. There are records of gifted pro­grams in On­tario as early as 1914, but ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia his­to­rian Jason El­lis, it wasn’t un­til the post-sput­nik late ’50s that Toronto saw wide­spread im­ple­men­ta­tion of gifted pro­grams in high schools. To­day, the test for gift­ed­ness used in On­tario, and much of the world, is an IQ test called the Wech­sler In­tel­li­gence Scale for Chil­dren, which as­sesses cog­ni­tive

“Stu­dents don’t end up in gifted by ac­ci­dent. They end up there be­cause their par­ents have the re­sources to craft a cer­tain kind of child­hood.”

func­tion­ing in ver­bal com­pre­hen­sion, visual-spa­tial in­dexes, and fluid rea­son­ing. The num­ber of stu­dents in des­ig­nated gifted classes in the TDSB in­creased be­tween the 2008/09 and 2014/15 aca­demic years from 3,280 to 4,231. It’s un­likely that kids are sud­denly be­com­ing more gifted, but di­ag­noses of all learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties have ticked up around the world, in­clud­ing in Toronto. The happy in­ter­pre­ta­tion of this shift is that, at last, the sys­tem has be­come bet­ter at rec­og­niz­ing kids whose needs, like Amanda’s, were for too long over­looked. The darker read is that in a time of in­ter­net doc­tor­ing and med­i­cal­iz­ing of be­hav­iour pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered not such a big deal, kids are be­ing over­diag­nosed. Or per­haps the de­sir­abil­ity of the gifted pro­gram means that more par­ents are ma­noeu­vring to get their kids a place­ment. Who wouldn’t pur­sue smaller classes and en­riched pro­gram­ming if the al­ter­na­tive is the over­crowded main­stream class­room? But kids pick up on the la­bel’s so­cial cur­rency, which quickly ce­ments as iden­tity. The TDSB can deem gift­ed­ness as­pe­cial need, but the very word feels more like an anoint­ment (is its op­po­site “gift­less”?). One large lo­cal mid­dle school in a neigh­bour­hood near U of T con­tains four dif­fer­ent streams: gifted, French im­mer­sion, ex­tended French, and reg­u­lar. An un­happy thir­teen-year-old in the reg­u­lar stream de­scribed the school to his mom as a “caste sys­tem,” where kids who weren’t in spe­cial­ized pro­grams were re­ferred to (and re­ferred to them­selves) as “normies” or “gen pop”—as in the mass pop­u­la­tion wan­der­ing a prison yard. Bet­ter, prob­a­bly, to make sure your kid is spe­cial. One teacher who re­cently re­tired from a west-end ele­men­tary school de­scribed see­ing par­ents and kids weep­ing in the halls when test re­sults came back with­out the gifted des­ig­na­tion. The pres­sure be­came so in­tense in her fi­nal years of teach­ing that she even­tu­ally re­fused to nom­i­nate any­one. (The stu­dents would usu­ally get the test through an­other teacher.) Kids live up to the ex­pec­ta­tions we set for them, she said, and so gift­ed­ness be­comes a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy. “I worked with so many kids who had this gifted des­ig­na­tion, and they were all so nor­mal. Many of them have a spark, a cu­rios­ity, but they don’t re­ally need any­thing more than what any kid needs, which is a group of di­verse peo­ple and a good teacher to help show them how to nav­i­gate the world as a reg­u­lar per­son.” It’s pretty weird, re­ally, that a la­bel be­stowed at age eight stays with you straight through high school, es­pe­cially when the re­sults of IQ tests have been shown to be no­to­ri­ously change­able: they are con­tin­gent on many fac­tors un­re­lated to abil­ity, in­clud­ing fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment and eco­nomic sta­tus.

Carl James, a pro­fes­sor in the Fac­ulty of Ed­u­ca­tion at York Univer­sity, sees gift­ed­ness as some­thing else: a con­struct built on myr­iad as­sump­tions and ex­pec­ta­tions. He co-au­thored a 2017 re­port on race in­equity in TDSB schools. Re­searchers

in­ter­viewed black par­ents and stu­dents across the city to un­der­stand what was caus­ing higher drop-out rates, poor aca­demic per­for­mance, sus­pen­sions, and such mea­gre rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the most aca­dem­i­cally pres­ti­gious cor­ri­dors of the sys­tem. “That con­struct of who is bright and who is not bright de­pends on where stu­dents are lo­cated, the kinds of schools they at­tend, the teach­ers they have,” he said, point­ing to re­search that shows black stu­dents with black teach­ers are more likely to be iden­ti­fied as gifted than those who don’t have black teach­ers. James is un­con­vinced that the move to uni­ver­sal test­ing will bal­ance the rep­re­sen­ta­tion in gifted pro­grams. “We have to look at bi­ases in­her­ent in the process. Who sets the test? Who an­a­lyzes the test? What knowl­edge is be­ing mea­sured and brought to the test? If we think the gifted test is ob­jec­tive, we’re not pay­ing at­ten­tion.” Back in Jan­uary, at that TDSB meet­ing, Brax­ton Wig­nall made a state­ment in front of the trustees, too, break­ing the flow of the North­ern gifted kids’ tes­ti­mo­ni­als. Wig­nall, a twenty-three-yearold black man, was there to ad­vo­cate for al­ter­na­tive schools. As a kid in Scar­bor­ough, an in­ner sub­urb of Toronto, Wig­nall had been a fast learner but fre­quently in trou­ble: he de­scribes his young self as hav­ing a “neg­a­tive at­ti­tude.” He also asked a ton of ques­tions. Af­ter turn­ing in a highly de­scrip­tive hor­ror story for Hal­loween in grade three, he was sus­pended for be­ing a threat to class­mates. His mother fought for a re­ver­sal and won. (One re­port showed that black stu­dents in Toronto were three times more likely to be sus­pended than white stu­dents.) Wig­nall’s mother pointed out the qual­ity of the writ­ing to the teacher, and he was tested for gifted. He got the des­ig­na­tion. “I still have the test re­sults,” he said. But be­cause he had be­havioural is­sues, Wig­nall re­called be­ing told that he couldn’t go to the school with a gifted pro­gram, which was out of dis­trict and would have re­quired bus­ing any­way. A coun­sel­lor asked if they had tried med­i­cat­ing him. One kid’s pre­coc­ity is an­other’s ADHD. Wig­nall went on to a large high school that his step­dad, a postal worker, and mom, a health care ad­min­is­tra­tor, at­tended in the ’90s. Rest­less and clash­ing with his class­mates, he made a move in grade eleven to SEED, an al­ter­na­tive school in Riverdale, a gen­tri­fied, leafy neigh­bour­hood on the east side of the city. He loved it. “I didn’t know there was so much life be­yond the lit­tle mi­cro­cosm of Scar­bor­ough. I met so many dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple, and they wanted to learn. Where I came from, ed­u­ca­tion was a means to get out, it wasn’t a means to bet­ter your­self,” he said. He grad­u­ated in 2014 and went on to study early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion. To­day, he’s a youth worker in af­ter-school pro­grams in Scar­bor­ough. Wig­nall is still both­ered by the fact that most of his friends and their par­ents in Scar­bor­ough had never heard of SEE D or many of the TDSB’S spe­cial­ized of­fer­ings. What’s the cost of their ab­sence? “If we miss out on the cre­ative po­ten­tial of these kids...the costs are not just fi­nan­cial — the costs of a jus­tice sys­tem, a cor­rec­tional sys­tem,” says James. “The real cost is a so­ci­ety that is truly demo­cratic, a more har­mo­nious so­ci­ety where peo­ple are able to live with a level of re­spect for each other.” Change must hap­pen on an in­sti­tu­tional level, says James, de­liv­ered by schools and school boards im­prov­ing ad­mis­sions, outreach, and cur­ricu­lum. Wait­ing for par­ents to stop act­ing in­di­vid­u­al­is­ti­cally where their kids are con­cerned is a dead end. Af­ter all, he asked, “Who doesn’t want his or her child to be seen or thought of as bright?”

All of this fight­ing and anx­i­ety is based — at least in the­ory — on one as­sump­tion: that gifted kids do bet­ter. Three On­tario pro­fes­sors, Gil­lian Parekh, Robert Brown, and Karen Rob­son, pub­lished a pa­per this sum­mer called “The So­cial Con­struc­tion of Gift­ed­ness,” ex­am­in­ing this con­vic­tion. Their ques­tion was sim­ple: If the point of gifted pro­grams is to iden­tify the po­ten­tial of great ap­ti­tude in the lower grades, then is that ap­ti­tude re­al­ized by the time those stu­dents hit grade twelve? Af­ter an­a­lyz­ing sev­eral years of TDSB data, the re­searchers con­cluded that

be­ing in the gifted pro­gram makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence in over­all achieve­ment by the end of high school. The high­est achiev­ers in the TDSB — the kids with the best grades and high­est univer­sity-ac­cep­tance rates — were not ac­tu­ally the kids who tested gifted early on. “Most stu­dents with gifted iden­ti­fi­ca­tions were not among the very high achiev­ers,” they wrote. And “most very high achiev­ing stu­dents did not have a gifted des­ig­na­tion.” Race, class, and gen­der in­formed both gift­ed­ness and high achieve­ment, but dif­fer­ently: “Male stu­dents are more likely to be deemed gifted, but less likely to be high achiev­ers.” South, South­east, and East Asian stu­dents are more likely than white stu­dents to be high achiev­ers. In other words, a la­bel at age eight is a badge of po­ten­tial that be­longs mostly to white, af­flu­ent boys, but that po­ten­tial is ful­filled by other kids — mostly Asian fe­males, who are among the high­est achiev­ing stu­dents in the TDSB and un­likely to be des­ig­nated gifted. “I haven’t found an ar­ti­cle or a study that [con­vinc­ingly] shows that it is the ac­tual con­gre­ga­tion of stu­dents in a self-con­tained pro­gram that is the key fea­ture or ben­e­fit of the gifted pro­gram,” said Parekh. “I have seen a lot of ar­ti­cles sug­gest­ing that the pro­gram­ming, the en­rich­ment, is ac­tu­ally what sup­ports stu­dents bet­ter. And, if that’s the case, then I ques­tion why there has to be a sep­a­rate pro­gram specif­i­cally for stu­dents that gained path­ways in the as­sess­ment phase when they were quite young.” In other words, all those cre­ative, in­no­va­tive tech­niques used in gifted class­rooms — the ones that, at least in part, helped Amanda — could be de­ployed to great ef­fect for stu­dents through­out the sys­tem. Since the early 2000s, the eyes of ed­u­ca­tion re­searchers have been fixed on Fin­land, which be­gan pro­duc­ing some of the high­est scores in math, science, and read­ing in the world. There, sort­ing chil­dren by abil­ity is il­le­gal. Kids aren’t re­quired to start school un­til seven; pub­licly sub­si­dized day­cares em­pha­size cre­ative play. From the ear­li­est years, stu­dents co-learn in mixed classes with good stu­dent- teacher ra­tios and well­paid, highly ac­cred­ited, well-sup­ported teach­ers. Along­side rig­or­ous aca­demics and high ex­pec­ta­tions, all stu­dents re­ceive a vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion, learn­ing to cook, sew, and work with their hands. In Fin­land, stream­ing comes around age six­teen, af­ter the same ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion has been com­pleted by every­one, at which point, 95 per­cent of the coun­try goes on to vo­ca­tional or aca­demic high schools. On these prin­ci­ples, Fin­land rose to the top of in­ter­na­tional rank­ings. Scandi-envy does get tire­some, and it’s rea­son­able to ques­tion just how

“We have to look at bi­ases in­her­ent in the process. If we think the gifted test is ob­jec­tive, we’re not pay­ing at­ten­tion.”

por­ta­ble these ideas are, brewed as they are in a lab with a tiny, ho­moge­nous pop­u­la­tion. Re­cently, Fin­land’s rank­ing has dropped a few spots, and cracks in the sys­tem have ap­peared, in­clud­ing re­ports of par­ents in Helsinki angling for more gifted pro­grams. But the rate of post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion is still ex­tremely high, and the Fin­nish econ­omy has ben­e­fited from its well-ed­u­cated pop­u­la­tion — a na­tion­build­ing project that seems to have suc­ceeded with­out gift­ed­ness.

In May, I went up to North­ern on one of the first sunny days of the year. The eighty- eight-year- old school was used in the 2013 re­make of the movie Car­rie, and it has that cin­e­matic, Gothic high-school look, with dec­o­ra­tive stone “grotesques” pulling faces from above. I was meet­ing Fiona Broughton and Sa­man­tha Paradi-maropakis, then

grade-eleven girls in the gifted pro­gram. As we looked for a place to sit on the grassy ground and eat the mini dough­nuts I’d brought, kids were leav­ing for the day. Gifted is just one pro­gram in the school. The mix of kids looked like Toronto, with hi­jabs and track shorts and dif­fer­ent lan­guages spilling through the doors. Every­one seemed a lit­tle sweaty in the heat. A girl stopped Fiona and Sam and moaned about bomb­ing a French oral: “Oh my God, I couldn’t re­mem­ber the word for bed, and I just kept talk­ing in French, and ev­ery time I got to the word bed I just said bed in English!” Fiona and Sam mur­mured their un­der­stand­ing. Both Sam and Fiona talked about be­ing book­ish kids who grew up around adults who val­ued ed­u­ca­tion. Fiona’s grand­fa­ther was a pro­fes­sor, and when­ever she had a ques­tion about how some­thing worked, he would sit her down and walk her through it: here’s elec­tric­ity; here’s thun­der. Both girls were at the TDSB meet­ing in Jan­uary. “It felt like ev­ery­thing was de­cided be­fore we even got there, by some peo­ple in spinny chairs,” said Sam. They love be­ing in the gifted pro­gram. They’re preter­nat­u­rally con­fi­dent and ar­tic­u­late. Fiona writes for the school pa­per. Sam’s favourite class last year was Geno­cide and Crimes Against Hu­man­ity. Fiona talked about the in­tel­lec­tual “rab­bit holes” that her gifted friends of­ten go down, ru­mi­nat­ing on time and space, ba­si­cally trip­ping out on the big ques­tions. In the reg­u­lar pro­gram, she was bored. She’d fig­ure out a con­cept right away, then go back to read­ing her book. “My opin­ion is that we should have many, many more specialty pro­grams in the TDSB,” said Fiona. But how can a pub­lic sys­tem be all things to all peo­ple, I asked. What hap­pens to the re­sources? “I could see how you could abol­ish gifted if you re­placed ev­ery­thing with ex­cel­lent, en­riched cour­ses,” said Sam. “The in­ten­tion shouldn’t be to put every­one at the same level, it should be to bring every­one to the high­est level.” This, of course, is pre­cisely the ar­gu­ment against re­mov­ing kids from reg­u­lar class­rooms and putting them into gifted ones. Last year, our son started grade nine in the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate stream, a spe­cial­ized aca­demic pro­gram. Our rea­sons for pick­ing it were com­pli­cated and un­com­pli­cated: we like the pro­gram (so does he — this week, any­way), and it’s in­side the lo­cal pub­lic school we’re zoned for, which is in a low-in­come neigh­bour­hood. The IB stu­dent pop­u­la­tion is not pre­dom­i­nantly white, and the pro­gram has far fewer bar­ri­ers to en­try: good, but not re­mark­able, grades are re­quired. And the school is close to home, no bus­ing nec­es­sary. All these kids on buses to spe­cial­ized pro­grams looks un­com­fort­ably close to the seg­re­ga­tion it al­ready hints at. In our fam­ily, we have the lux­ury to see if the IB pro­gram is the right fit for our four­teen-year-old. And I have to ad­mit that if his needs change, we’ll prob­a­bly sharpen our el­bows, shore up our priv­i­lege, and find a bet­ter op­tion, be­cause to us, op­tions are avail­able. But even af­ter we chose the school and sent him off on day one with a new back­pack, I kept won­der­ing about our obli­ga­tion to oth­ers. There’s love in these choices we make for our kids but some­thing uglier too. When we scram­ble to be set apart and above our neigh­bours and strangers we’ll likely never meet, when we build sys­tems that per­pet­u­ate hi­er­ar­chies, and when we claw for our own tiny piece of ex­cel­lence — we aren’t call­ing on the best parts of our­selves, the as­pi­ra­tional gen­er­ous parts that lie at the core of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. Is any of this nec­es­sary? And ring­ing in my ears is some­thing Sam said sit­ting cross-legged on the grounds of North­ern when I asked what high school would have been like for her if she hadn’t been in gifted. “To be hon­est,” she said, “I prob­a­bly would have been fine any­where.”

KA­T­RINA ON­STAD is a jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist who has been pub­lished in the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, and Toronto Life. Her most re­cent book, The Week­end Ef­fect, was re­leased last year.

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