Sorting kids at school: the return of ability grouping

Published: Sunday, April 21 2013 4:00 p.m. MDT

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."

Smart dad's class

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."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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