To Track or Not To Track?

I received my high school education from a school with a special science curriculum in Manila, the Manila Science High School (Its students, faculty and alumni fondly call the school "MaSci"). The school is in fact celebrating its 50th anniversary. Part of the celebration this year is the recognition of 50 outstanding alumni. The award is called ATOM (A Tribute to Outstanding Mascians) And I am honored to have been selected as one of the ATOM recipients. Manila Science High School represents a system of schooling in the Philippines through which students are grouped according to aptitude and interests. Usually, aptitude, measured mainly by entrance exams, counts more. A school with a special science curriculum is perceived in general as more prestigious than an ordinary high school. Spending four years in MaSci surely made a difference in my life. First, I was exposed to some of the brightest young minds in Manila. Second, some of the teachers I had were indeed among the best public school teachers in the city.
A component of the new Philippines' Deped K+12 curriculum allows for tracking. This component belongs to the two years added at the end of the old curriculum. One can actually read the following from the Official Gazette of the Philippine government on DepEd's K+12:


Each student in Senior High School can choose among three tracks: Academic; Technical-Vocational-Livelihood; and Sports and Arts. The Academic track includes three strands: Business, Accountancy, Management (BAM); Humanities, Education, Social Sciences (HESS); and Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM).
There are several benefits in tracking. There is efficiency. Teaching a class that is much more homogeneous is a lot easier. Schools must maximize the talent of each individual student and tracking allows for providing a curriculum that is specifically aligned to the track. During my time, all MaSci students were required to take a year of Calculus, a year of Linear Algebra, a year of Advanced Trigonometry, as well as two years of both Chemistry and Physics. Since admission to a special science high school is decided at the end of grade 6, this tracking is then implemented when a child is about 12 years old. At age 12, by the way, I did not know that I would be a chemist. When tracking happens is important. In fact, questions have been raised regarding when is too early, and of course, when is too late. Another important question that arises comes from the fact that poverty profoundly affects education. Achievement gaps are present even at the beginning of formal schooling. If tracking is based on a student's academic records, tracking may just be highlighting the gaps caused by socio-economic factors seen even before kindergarten. Poor kids then end up enrolling in inferior schools while rich kids are able to attend the elite schools. Since tracking likewise emphasizes excellence, more effective teachers are attracted to these special schools. It is a lot easier to teach pupils who have a very good background. The problem is when having a good background becomes synonymous to being raised in a well-to-do family. In these instances, tracking simply destroys the potential of education serving as a vehicle for social mobility.

DepEd's K+12 tracking as described above starts at the beginning of senior high school. Although DepEd's K+12 formally imposes tracking at the end of grade 10 or year 4 in high school, as I mentioned earlier, there are public schools that provide a special curriculum at the beginning of high school. The study made by Ester Ogena and coworkers, "Performance of Philippine High Schools with Special Curriculum in the 2008 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS-Advanced)", provides an overview of the various types of advanced high schools in the Philippines:
Six (6) types of Philippine high schools with special curriculum in science and mathematics were identified and included in the conduct of the TIMSS-Advanced, and these were: (1) Philippine Science High School (PSHS) System, (2) Regional Science High School, (3) S&T Oriented High School, (4) University Rural High School/Laboratory Schools, (5) Other Public Science High School and (6) Other High Schools (Private). Compared with the regular high schools, the curriculum being followed in these schools were loaded with more advanced science and mathematics subjects, although the length of time devoted to the subjects and specific subjects vary by type. The curriculum for the PSHS System was prepared by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), while that of the S&T Oriented High School was customized by the Science Education Institute (SEI-DOST) in consultation with the Department of Education (DepEd).
There is no doubt that I benefited from a special science high school. The question, however, is whether this came with a price on society. Brunello and Chechhi try to answer this question in their paper, "Does school tracking affect equality of opportunity? New international evidence", which is published in the journal Economic Policy. The following is their summary:
This paper investigates whether the interaction between family background and secondary school tracking affects human capital accumulation. A widely shared view is that more tracking reinforces the role of parental privilege, and thereby reduces equality of opportunities. This may occur for several reasons, including peer effects (more talented students are gathered together), teacher sorting (better teachers prefer teaching better students), differences in curricula (academic oriented schools – like the German gymnasium, the French lycée, the British grammar school or the Italian liceo – teach abilities that increase the probability of entering college) and/or differences in resource endowment. Compared to the current literature, which focuses on early outcomes, such as test scores at 13 and 15 years old, we look at later outcomes,including literacy, dropout rates, college enrolment, employability and earnings. While we do confirm the common view that school tracking reinforces the impact of family background when looking at educational attainment and labour market outcomes, we do not confirm the same results when studying its impact on literacy and on-the-job training. Overall school tracking has an ambiguous effect in our sample of countries. On the one hand, and consistently with the previous literature,
tracking has a detrimental impact on educational attainment, because it prevents some individuals from further progressing to the tertiary level of education (the diversion effect). On the other hand, the curricula offered in vocational schools seem more effective in promoting further training and adult competences (the specialization
effect), thereby reducing the impact of parental background on these two outcomes. Thus, reducing the extent of student tracking, either by raising the age of first selection or by reducing the number of tracks available, may be appropriate for increasing intergenerational mobility in educational attainment, but may increase social exclusion for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Reading the entire paper plus the discussion (in which comments from other experts in the area are included) shows that whether to track or not to track is indeed a very complicated question. The simple take home message I got was that tracking has benefits, but the following must be in place. Children must be provided quality education in primary schools such that the achievement gaps due to socio-economic status are minimized. Without quality in primary education, tracking simply exacerbates the effects of poverty on education. Equally important is the deployment of teachers. Effective teachers are needed especially in the vocational track.

In a recent paper published in the American Educational Research Journal, it is found that when tracking is done by sending students with different levels to different schools, achievement gaps in mathematics, for example, are magnified. (Chmielewski, A. K., Dumont, H. Trautwein, U. (2013)."Tracking Effects Depend on Tracking Type: An International Comparison of Students’ Mathematics Self-Concept", Am Educ Res J, October 2013, vol. 50, no. 5, 925-957) This raises an important question, that of equity and access. If poverty does not have so much of an effect on education, the answer would have been clear. The reality is that poverty is with us and school policies must tread carefully on this issue of tracking. Otherwise, education may simply magnify the problems society already faces.