If there's a label that sticks to Mark Bowden today, it's probably "world-famous writer," or maybe "authority on modern warfare." But when the author of the book "Black Hawk Down" was in grade school during the 1960s, his brilliance wasn't so easy to spot. Back then, tracking kids into separate classes according to their ability was common. And at two different schools Bowden attended, teachers placed him in "the dumb kids' class."
Sorting children at school according to their academic gifts is a sticky subject — whether grouping children within a classroom for short periods, or tracking them into separate classrooms all day.
A Brown Center report released this month found that grouping children by ability — a practice that fell out of favor in the 1980s — is on the rise again, and that tracking persists in some guises. A 2013 report on a study conducted in Dallas schools found that teaching students in groups of like ability improved achievement for fast and slow learners alike — and who wouldn't want bright kids to be able to move ahead, or strugglers to get the help they need?
But decisions about human potential aren't foolproof, as Bowden's experience attests. And for most kids, labels applied early in life tend to stick, even if they are wrong.
Sorting schoolchildren by ability has long been controversial, though prevalent. In some European countries, and especially in Asia, school-wide tracking remains the norm. Children are tested at around age 12, and placed in different schools or curriculum tracks that steer them toward professional, general or vocational careers. Movement between the tracks is rare.
School-wide tracking diminished as a general public policy in U.S. schools in the 1960s and ’70s as concerns about racial equity came to the fore. It never died out, though. Sorting students into separate tracks for math at about junior high school age continues to be common in the U.S., and other forms of tracking persist as well, according to the report from the Brown Center, education arm of the Brookings Institution policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Ability grouping has particular benefits for gifted students, said Pennsylvania psychologist Mary Ann Swiatek, a former research specialist for Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students.
Unlike tracking, which denotes sorting students into separate classrooms, ability grouping happens within school classrooms. When done according to the latest best-practice research, it has proven to boost achievement. Done right, it looks like what happens within classrooms at Woods Cross Elementary in Woods Cross, Utah.
Ability grouping in the school's classrooms is fluid and temporary, said principal Eric Holmes. Within classrooms, students might be grouped to work at "learning centers" for a particular unit, with one center adjusted with enrichment materials to challenge fast learners, and another targeted at helping students who learn more slowly.
Any students who master concepts can move upward between groups, Holmes said, and the student clusters might look different from subject to subject and unit to unit. For instance, a student who leads out in language arts might be at an average or slower level in math. A student who flies through multiplication tables might need extra help with fractions.
Students who lag in reading can be pulled out of the classroom in small groups for practice with a tutor until their reading improves.
Old-school tracking made life easier for teachers because fewer adjustments were needed when like-ability learners were kept together, Holmes said. Fluid, flexible ability grouping requires more diligence.
"It's always easier to draw boundaries once and say, 'This group stays here,’ ” Holmes said. "Our teachers have to be cognizant of almost daily performance of a student so they can adjust as needed. It's a lot of work for teachers."
Examining data over time shows the decline and rise of ability grouping for reading. In 1961, surveys showed that about 80 percent of elementary schools grouped students by ability for reading instruction; in the mid-1990s less than one-third did, the Brown Center report showed. NAEP data for 2009 show 7 of 10 4th-graders were in ability-based reading groups.
The data don't reveal how the groups are implemented, though, and that makes all the difference. Students need to be grouped according to accurate measures of their subject knowledge that are not subject to bias, Swiatek said.
Research shows ability grouping within classes has more positive benefits than tracking, Swiatek said. However, that must be weighed against the challenges involved, she added. In many regular classrooms, the differences between student ability levels are glaring. That presents challenges for teachers and subjects low-performing students to constant self-comparison with students who seem to fly through school with enviable ease.
Unfortunately, the rigid ability groups and tracking of the past are still with us in many schools, said University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black, an expert on educational equity. Likely, labels are applied with more subtlety than in the bad old days when some teachers gave reading groups not-so-secret code names like "Bluebirds," "Robins," "Crows" and "Buzzards." But kids still know.
Sorting or segregating?
Black said the initial rise in tracking and ability grouping in the U.S. coincided with laws forcing states to desegregate schools in the mid-20th century. Tracking and grouping provided a convenient excuse to separate students within schools, ostensibly by ability. In practice, racial biases entered into grouping decisions in the South. Elsewhere in the United States, social class and economic status were likely to influence decisions about student placement, he said.
Research over the past three decades found that tracking — putting students in separate classes based on ability — corresponded closely to social and racial inequalities, wrote Tom Loveless, author of the Brown Center report. Black, Hispanic and poor children dominate remedial classes; middle-class white children populate honors courses.
Critics of such practices say they don't just mirror the inequalities of the broader society. "They reproduce and perpetuate inequalities," the report said.
Even when teachers have the best intentions, perceptions about student ability are not objective, Black said. They can be colored by hidden biases about race, ethnicity and socio-economic status.
"We are less likely, as a society, to spot the ability of certain students," he said.
Black doesn't dispute that ability grouping can be used to good effect when correctly implemented. But he bristles when he hears of children shunted into rigid slow-learner groups where they receive second-class treatment.
"The basic harm is the stigma," Brown said. "Kids are told they are not as smart as the other kids, and they internalize that. Teachers internalize it as well and have different expectations. Often, there's a richer curriculum in the upper level. That's where teachers want to be, so kids in those classes end up with more-qualified teachers."
Ability groups can also be skewed by "parents of influence" lobbying to get their children into higher-level classes, Black said. Decisions are made that have far-reaching consequences for individual students, and they can be astonishingly arbitrary. That he knows from experience.
When Black was a 14-year-old schoolboy in Tennessee, he made a decision he now sees as immature: to avoid the hard work of an advanced-placement English class offered in the next school year by ignoring sign-up deadlines and failing to take home the required forms for parent signatures.
When Black arrived at school the next school year, he was surprised to find himself enrolled in AP English anyway. He realized that unseen decisions were being made about students' futures. And he found himself among 29 white faces in a classroom of 30 students. The learning boost from the advanced placement class changed his life.
"I don't think I would be a professor at a law school today if someone didn't make that decision for me," Black said. "But it was so random. The coin was flipped, and came up heads for me. I appreciate that it worked out for me, but I worry about the other kids who got the other side of the coin. I don't think that's fair."
Bowden, the famous author, said he didn't allow himself to be defined by the decisions that placed him on the slow track at school, which stemmed from the underwhelming report cards that preceded him to two new schools, he guesses. The classmates he met helped him develop some rough-and-tumble swagger he lacked and gave him experience with "a minor level of diversity" that he values. And, given something to prove, Bowden buckled down at school and got moved to the fast-learners' class. (It's something that doens't happen often, according to research.)
"If anything, it made me more determined to demonstrate that I was a smart kid — that I could learn and do well," Bowden said. "But some kids maybe wouldn't respond that way. Labeling a kid, even unintentionally, is not a desirable thing to do."
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For Bowden, now 61, raising five children reinforced the lesson that there are no easy answers to the question of what a child can do. Finding the right school placement for his 34-year-old daughter who is mildly retarded happened after several wrong tries. It turned out she was happiest in a school for disabled students. There, she could shine.
Bowden isn't an expert on school policy, but he did prove himself to be a smart guy — despite being sized up otherwise by the nuns at St. Peter of Alcantara in Long Island, N.Y. Nonetheless, the writer who can unravel the mysteries of Middle East politics — also a father with the best intentions — never felt sure he got it right when it came to decisions about his own daughter's potential.
"Every child is different," he said. "Hopefully, the people making those decisions know the child, and pay close attention to what's best for them."