Academic journal article Education Next

Can Tracking Improve Learning? Evidence from Kenya

Academic journal article Education Next

Can Tracking Improve Learning? Evidence from Kenya

Article excerpt

Tracking students into different classrooms according to their prior academic performance is controversial among both scholars and policymakers. If teachers find it easier to teach a homogeneous group of students, tracking could enhance school effectiveness and raise test scores of both low- and high-ability students. But if students benefit from learning with higher-achieving peers, tracking could disadvantage lower-achieving students, thereby exacerbating inequality.

Debates over tracking reached their high point in the United States in the 1990s. An influential report published in 1998 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation argued that the available research did not support the contention that tracking doomed impoverished students to inferior schooling, nor did it support universal adoption of the practice. Over the last decade, patterns in grouping students have changed markedly in the U.S.; high school students are no longer placed in rigidly defined general-education or noncollege tracks but have the flexibility to move between course levels for different subjects. These changes may have assuaged some critics, but the broader debate over tracking remains unsettled.

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The central challenge in measuring the effect of tracking on performance is that schools that track students may be different in many respects from schools that do not. For example, they may attract a different pool of students and possibly a different pool of teachers. The ideal situation to assess the impact of tracking on test scores of different groups of students would be one in which students were assigned to tracking or nontracking schools randomly, and the performance of students could be compared across school types.

We shed light on these issues using data from Kenya. In 2005, each of 140 primary schools in western Kenya received funds from the nongovernmental organization International Child Support (ICS) Africa to hire an extra teacher. One hundred twenty-one of these schools had a single 1st-grade class and used the new teacher to split the students into two classes. In 61 randomly selected schools, students were assigned to classes based on prior achievement as measured by test scores. In the remaining 60 schools, students were randomly assigned to one of the two classes, without regard to their prior academic performance.

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The results showed that all students benefited from tracking, including those who started out with low, average, and high achievement. At the tracking schools, the test scores of students who started out in the middle of their class do not seem to be affected by which section (top or bottom) the students were later assigned to. In other words, any negative effects of being with lower-achieving peers were more than offset in tracked settings by the benefit of the teacher being able to better tailor instruction to students' needs.

Primary Education in Kenya

The Kenyan education system includes eight years of primary school and four years of secondary school. Like many other developing countries, Kenya has recently made rapid progress toward the goal of universal primary education. After the elimination of school fees in 2003, primary school enrollment rose nearly 30 percent, from 5.9 million in 2002 to 7.6 million in 2005. This is typical of what is happening in sub-Saharan Africa overall, where the number of new entrants to primary school increased by more than 30 percent between 1999 and 2004.

This progress creates its own new challenges, however. Pupil-teacher ratios have grown dramatically, particularly in lower grades. In our sample of schools in western Kenya, the median 1st-grade class in 2005 (after the introduction of free primary education, but before the class-size-reduction program we study here) had 74 students and the average class size was 83. These classes are heterogeneous in a number of ways: Students differ vastly in age, school readiness, and support at home. …

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