Market “choices” or structured pathways? How specialized arts education contributes to the reproduction of inequality


  • Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
  • Gillian Parekh Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto



arts education, school choice, structural inequality, Toronto District School Board, belonging


Located in one of the most diverse cities in the world, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) offers several programs catering to a variety of student interests. Specialty Arts Programs (SAPs) have gained particular attention in part because of their reputation as excellent schools providing a unique opportunity for training in the arts. However, recently such programs have also raised concerns about who can access and who ultimately benefits from specialized programming in the arts. While the TDSB is committed to equal access for all families, the student populations at these programs do not mirror the broader school population, serving mostly affluent families and students with access to high levels of social and cultural capital. Employing data from the TDSB’s Parent and Student Census and the School Information Systems, the article first demonstrates the demographic homogeneity of specialized arts programs and then examines whether this homogeneity is a particular outcome of specialized arts programs or a manifestation of a de facto streaming mechanism that begins earlier in the schooling process. To do this, the authors explore the relationship between feeder schools and programs that guide students towards SAPs. Results demonstrate that the bulk of SAP students are drawn from a select few elementary schools across the board. Largely, the demographics of elementary feeder schools reflect similar characteristics of the SAP population and this relationship is amplified as the number of students drawn from feeder schools increases. In addition, students in SAPs experience a high level of belonging in school as compared to students across the system. While this outcome is often attributed to the immersion in arts-based curriculum, the authors query how the role of creating homogenous spaces through selective programming contributes to students’ experience of belonging while at the same time reproducing structural inequality.


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Author Biographies

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

Dr. Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández is Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. His research and scholarship are concerned with questions of symbolic boundaries and the dynamics of cultural production and processes of identification in educational contexts. His current research focuses on the experiences of students attending specialized arts program in public high schools in cities across Canada and the United States. He is also Principal Investigator of the Youth Solidarities Across Boundaries, a participatory action research project with Latino/a immigrants and Indigenous youth in the city of Toronto. His theoretical work focuses on the relationship between creativity, decolonization, and solidarity. His book The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School (2009, Harvard University Press) is based on two years of ethnographic research at an elite boarding school in the United States. He is co-editor with Adam Howard of Educating Elites: Class Privilege and Educational Advantage (2010, Rowman & Littlefield). 

Gillian Parekh, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Having just completed a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at OISE/UT, Dr. Gillian Parekh recently resumed her role as a Research Coordinator within TDSB Research Coordinator. Her primary area of research involves critical disability studies, critical analysis of special and inclusive education,  structural barriers to education, academic streaming and structured pathways through school, and system-wide trends relating to the social and economic replication of privilege.  Gillian is also an Adjunct Professor at Ryerson University and continues to teach in the graduate program at both York University and OISE.




How to Cite

Gaztambide-Fernández, R., & Parekh, G. (2017). Market “choices” or structured pathways? How specialized arts education contributes to the reproduction of inequality. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 25, 41.



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