Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education
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Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education

Edited by Rolf Becker

Presenting original contributions from the key experts in the field, the Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education explores the major theoretical, methodological, empirical and political challenges and pressing social questions facing education in current times.
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Chapter 12: How do educational systems affect social inequality of educational opportunities? The role of tracking in comparative perspective

Jan Skopek, Moris Triventi and Sandra Buchholz


This chapter examines the role of differentiation in secondary education in social inequality of educational opportunities. In general, schooling plays an ambivalent role in shaping educational inequality. We highlight two seemingly contradictory but complementary perspectives of schooling, that is, as ‘equalizer’ versus ‘locus of reproduction of inequality’. The common practice of educational differentiation can be seen as a key mechanism of reproduction that is operating in all education systems, sometimes in more and sometimes in less overt forms. Focusing on the role of school tracking as a specific form of educational differentiation, our chapter reviews various research designs in contemporary comparative studies on the impact of tracking on social inequality in educational opportunities and outcomes. We identify cross-national research as a major research strategy for learning about effects of educational systems and discuss two generic approaches – variable based versus case based – as well as their respective strengths and limitations. Finally, our chapter presents recent comparative evidence on the effect of tracking on social inequality in learning outcomes of students.

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