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The Economics of Tracking in Education

  • Betts, Julian R.
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    Tracking refers to the practice of dividing students by ability or achievement. Students may be tracked within schools by placing them into different classrooms based on achievement, which is the typical practice in countries such as the United States or Canada. Alternatively, students could be streamed into different schools, with either vocational or academic emphases, as has been practiced commonly in Europe. Proponents of tracking argue that tracking can increase the efficiency of schooling by focusing on the needs of distinct groups of students. Opponents' main concerns relate to perpetuating and aggravating inequality. Evaluating effects of tracking on average student achievement and the distribution of achievement is difficult, in part because of variations from study to study and from country to country in the characteristics of the tracking system. Early work, largely in the United States and Britain, used variation across and within schools, and often found that tracking increased inequality in achievement. But more recent work in the United States has questioned these findings, suggesting that careful attention to endogenous placement of students into classrooms and endogenous use of tracking across schools changes results dramatically. Experimental studies on within-school tracking in the United States have produced mixed results, and one experiment in Kenya suggests that tracking can boost the achievement of both low-achieving and high-achieving students. A large body of work now uses geographical variation across regions, countries, grades, and time to identify the effects of tracking. These studies for the most part suggest that tracking aggravates inequality in outcomes. These results are fairly strong, and may be identifying the more dramatic effects that obtain when students are separated into vocational schools and more academically oriented schools, as opposed to the effects of within-school tracking. The paper concludes with an outline of how future research might better categorize and rigorously evaluate the real-world nuances of tracking.

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    This chapter was published in:
  • Erik Hanushek & Stephen Machin & Ludger Woessmann (ed.), 2011. "Handbook of the Economics of Education," Handbook of the Economics of Education, Elsevier, edition 1, volume 3, number 3, June.
  • This item is provided by Elsevier in its series Handbook of the Economics of Education with number 3-07.
    Handle: RePEc:eee:educhp:3-07
    Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.elsevierdirect.com/product.jsp?isbn=9780444513991

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    Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:

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    1. Hanushek, Eric A. & Woessmann, Ludger, 2005. "Does Educational Tracking Affect Performance and Inequality? Differences-in-Differences Evidence across Countries," IZA Discussion Papers 1901, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    2. Alan B. Krueger, 1997. "Experimental Estimates of Education Production Functions," NBER Working Papers 6051, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Betts, Julian R. & Fairlie, Robert W., 2003. "Does immigration induce 'native flight' from public schools into private schools?," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 87(5-6), pages 987-1012, May.
    4. David N. Figlio & Marianne E. Page, 2000. "School Choice and the Distributional Effects of Ability Tracking: Does Separation Increase Equality?," NBER Working Papers 8055, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Manning, Alan & Pischke, Jörn-Steffen, 2006. "Comprehensive versus Selective Schooling in England in Wales: What Do We Know?," IZA Discussion Papers 2072, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    6. Schütz, Gabriela & Ursprung, Heinrich W. & Wößmann, Ludger, 2008. "Education policy and equality of opportunity," Munich Reprints in Economics 19901, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
    7. Roel van Elk & Marc van der Steeg & Dinand Webbink, 2009. "The effect of early tracking on participation in higher education," CPB Document 182, CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis.
    8. Giorgio Brunello & Daniele Checchi, 2007. "Does school tracking affect equality of opportunity? New international evidence," Economic Policy, CEPR;CES;MSH, vol. 22, pages 781-861, October.
    9. Eric A. Hanushek & Steven G. Rivkin & Lori L. Taylor, 1996. "Aggregation and the Estimated Effects of School Resources," NBER Working Papers 5548, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. Esther Duflo & Pascaline Dupas & Michael Kremer, 2008. "Peer Effects, Teacher Incentives, and the Impact of Tracking: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Kenya," NBER Working Papers 14475, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Pekkarinen, Tuomas & Uusitalo, Roope & Kerr, Sari, 2009. "School tracking and intergenerational income mobility: Evidence from the Finnish comprehensive school reform," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 93(7-8), pages 965-973, August.
    12. Costas Meghir & Mårten Palme, 2004. "Educational reform, ability and family background," IFS Working Papers W04/10, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
    13. Bauer, Philipp & Riphahn, Regina T., 2006. "Timing of school tracking as a determinant of intergenerational transmission of education," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 91(1), pages 90-97, April.
    14. Epple, Dennis & Newlon, Elizabeth & Romano, Richard, 2002. "Ability tracking, school competition, and the distribution of educational benefits," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 83(1), pages 1-48, January.
    15. Laura M. Argys & Daniel I. Rees & Dominic J. Brewer, 1996. "Detracking America's schools: Equity at zero cost?," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 15(4), pages 623-645.
    16. Wößmann, Ludger, 2010. "Institutional Determinants of School Efficiency and Equity: German States as a Microcosm for OECD Countries," Munich Reprints in Economics 19681, University of Munich, Department of Economics.
    17. Babcock, Philip & Betts, Julian R., 2009. "Reduced-class distinctions: Effort, ability, and the education production function," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 65(3), pages 314-322, May.
    18. Christian Dustmann, 2004. "Parental background, secondary school track choice, and wages," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 56(2), pages 209-230, April.
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