Gifted education in the TDSB: guest blog by Lisa Jeffrey

This week’s blog is written by Lisa Jeffrey from the University of Toronto. Lisa is a mathematician and parent who writes about proposed changes to the gifted programs in Toronto schools. She herself was a gifted child in a Toronto school.

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I’m a mathematician at the University of Toronto, and I was a gifted child.

I was in Toronto District School Board (TDSB) gifted classes from grades six to eight (in Scarborough from 1976 to 1978) before joining the University of Toronto Schools in grade nine.

My fellow students in the TDSB gifted program have been very successful. One way we benefited from the program was finding a peer group. This group is still in touch with each other more than forty years later.

The TDSB is proposing to reform the gifted program in response to the Enhancing Equity Task Force (EETF) Report and Recommendations. Most of my gifted classmates feel the changes proposed there would have very negative consequences and is educationally unsound and unwarranted.

Their responses in the Comments section in the petition against the EETF report outline their concerns. Some of these—for instance, Sumana Reddy and Amanda Coe—are my former classmates. Sanjay Reddy is Sumana’s younger brother, who also attended TDSB gifted classes.

Sumana is a medical doctor practicing in California; Sanjay is Associate Professor, Department of Economics, The New School for Social Research in New York City. Sumana wrote the following in the petition comments:

I was in the earliest gifted program’s first class in 1976. My classmates truly came from all sorts of backgrounds, and most parents were working class, many first-generation immigrants. In that time, we just fell into the program, selected by teachers and psychologists. The peer influence really changed my life. I recall sitting in class and reading my book under the desk all day, bored and tuned out because the teacher rarely called on me so as to give other students. time to answer questions. She had me help other students when my work was done. This did not support my empathy since it ‘othered’ me and led to my being bullied and ostracized by my peers. Keep a variety of programs for a variety of needs, including gifted education. It’s not elitism to keep children from becoming bored, indifferent or depressed, and to provide sufficient challenge for children whose parents would not choose/afford a private school education.”

Sanjay wrote the following in the same venue:

I joined the gifted program in Scarborough around 1980 in the fourth grade and completed the rest of my schooling in it. It was a pioneering effort at the time, and an altogether excellent one, which saved me from boredom and dislike of school. I pursued an academic career, but it is important to note that many of my classmates were never so interested in academics, but nevertheless needed the program to save them from poor educational and life outcomes due to mismatch between the kind of education they otherwise had available and their real needs. Yes, a quality education emphasizing thinking rather than rote learning and the whole development of the child should be available to all, but gifted children and others with particular needs often require more tailored programs and attention. To recognize this is in the interest of the society at large because a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but it is also in the interest of – yes- ‘equity’!

Amanda Coe (who is a writer working in the UK) wrote the following:

I am an award-winning screenwriter and novelist from a working-class family, none of whom stayed in education beyond the age of 16. I have no doubt that the early days of the so-called ‘Gifted Programme’ run in Scarborough in the late 1970s & 80s enhanced my education enormously, identified & encouraged my abilities & forged the confidence to continue successfully in education and find my vocation as a writer. Gifted children from economically privileged backgrounds will always thrive. Those without advantage need a thoughtfully run public policy to help them enrich society as individuals who have been enabled to thrive.”

I feel strongly that TDSB gifted programs provide academic opportunities for economically disadvantaged students which would be otherwise out of reach for these students. When I attended TDSB gifted classes, many of my classmates were recent immigrants, and few came from wealthy families. Most would not have been able to afford the cost of private schools.

The selection for gifted education should be done by testing or by teachers or psychologists—testing should not be only in response to the suggestions of parents, which might lead to certain groups getting preferential treatment.

It is the responsibility of the teachers and psychologists to do this selection equitably, free from biases. Eliminating gifted classes would harm underprivileged students, not help them. Those in my class would not have had access to any form of enriched education outside the gifted classes provided by the public school system.

The academics I know are solidly in favour of equity. I don’t know any who view gifted education as harmful to equity.

If the TDSB gifted programs don’t equally serve all groups, then the TDSB needs to change the identification mechanism, which is already absurdly restrictive—three tests in succession, some of which are notorious for failing to identify specific cohorts of gifted children, including visible minorities.

Even if you don’t have children yourself or aren’t concerned about gifted education, you should be concerned about the EETF recommendations. Students’ ability to learn in a regular classroom will be hampered by the many different needs of students paired with a single teacher with little support.

The majority of University of Toronto high school students at GTA universities went through TDSB schools. If TDSB persists with this course of action, the universities will have to correct the damage to their academic preparation.

Lisa Jeffrey

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