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Life-Course Dynamics of Educational Tracking


LIFETRACK is a cross-national comparative research project on the links between education systems, especially the way students are sorted there, and the emergence of social inequality. The project examined how different institutional arrangements in secondary education systems influence the emergence of social inequality over the life course, with a particular focus on long-term consequences.



Countries differ in the way their education systems are organized. Previous studies have identified the design and institutional rules of education systems as key factors in the emergence of inequality. In particular, the role of student sorting in secondary education-so-called tracking-has received much attention. Several studies have found systematic effects of differentiating different school tracks on the dispersion and level of social reproduction of education. The 'standard finding' of these studies is that classifying students into hierarchical school tracks reinforces social inequalities. Despite the extensive literature, two key questions remained unanswered: first, we know little about the long-term consequences of tracking, and second, there is little empirical research on the underlying processes and mechanisms. These key questions were addressed by LIFETRACK.



The project involved an international research network of six European countries that are prototypes for different sorting logics in the education system: Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Unlike previous research, the LIFETRACK project based its analyses on high-quality longitudinal data from individual countries rather than comparative cross-sectional data. 

By attempting to harmonize life course data sets from each of these countries, the research project enabled the identification of differences within different institutional settings in the dynamics of inequality emergence. 



Overall, the studies in which the German research team participated point to four important findings: First, the logic of educational differentiation in Germany differs sharply from most other countries considered in the LIFETRACK project. Here, the segregation of students is highly formalized and occurs early in life, while more subtle and informal forms of sorting are less pronounced. The study of educational trajectories based on NEPS data shows impressively that the early separation of students is accompanied by many opportunities to attain higher degrees later in life via detours. As a result, educational pathways in Germany are diverse and complex. The sorting in the transition to secondary schools in Germany is therefore not as strict as it seems at first glance. 

Second, causal analyses show that early division nevertheless has long-term effects on occupational placement in adulthood, primarily through its function of steering students into specific post-school educational pathways via educational attainment and grades. 

Third, our results suggest that attending a Gymnasium compared to a Realschule leads to greater learning gains in core subjects for students with the same initial conditions and competencies during lower secondary school. Classmates seem to play a central role in explaining this positive effect, both in terms of their achievement level and their social composition.

Fourth, international comparative results from the project show that student sorting appears to ensure that family background influences academic and socioeconomic success in adulthood, regardless of how and when sorting occurs in different education systems. Although overall social background explains only a small part of the differences in sorting or long-term educational outcomes, the indirect effect of social background is clearly explained by sorting in upper secondary school, regardless of the educational system.


Project profile

Project partners
University of Bamberg
Principal Investigator
Fondation nationale des sciences politiques
Durham University
University of Turku
University of Copenhagen
Aarhus University



Kleinert, C. (2023). Übergänge aus der Schule in Deutschland: Strukturelle Besonderheiten und deren unintendierte Folgen. SchulVerwaltung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 34(4), 120-124.
Schindler, S., Bar-Haim, E., Barone, C., Birkelund, J. F., Boliver, V., Capsada-Munsech, Q., Erola, J., Facchini, M., Feniger, Y., Heiskala, L., Herbaut, E., Ichou, M., Karlson, K. B., Kleinert, C., Reimer, D., Traini, C., Triventi, M., & Vallet, L.-A. (2023). Educational tracking and social inequalities in long-term labor market outcomes: Six countries in comparison. International Journal of Comparative Sociology. Advance online publication.


Schindler, S., Bar-Haim, E., Barone, C., Birkelund, J. F., Boliver, V., Capsada-Munsech, Q., Erola, J., Facchini, M., Feniger, Y., Heiskala, L., Herbaut, E., Ichou, M., Karlson, K. B., Kleinert, C., Reimer, D., Traini, C., Triventi, M., & Vallet, L.-A. (2021). Educational tracking and long-term outcomes by social origin: Seven countries in comparison. DIAL Working Paper Series 2.
Traini, C. (2021). Like parents, like children. Does the stratification of education systems moderate the direct effect of origins on destinations? Contemporary Social Sciences, 16(3), 344-358.
Traini, C., Kleinert, C., & Bittmann, F. (2021). How does exposure to a different school track influence learning progress? Explaining scissor effects by track in Germany. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 76, Article 100625.
Traini, C., Kleinert, C., & Schindler, S. (2021). Does tracking really affect labour market outcomes in the long run? Estimating the long-term effects of secondary-school tracking in West Germany. Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, 12(3), 389-422.


Henninges, M., Traini, C., & Kleinert, C. (2019). Tracking and sorting in the German educational system: Literature review and analyses of the birth cohorts 1970-1980. DIAL Working Paper Series 14. Norface Network.
Henninges, M., Traini, C., & Kleinert, C. (2019). Tracking and sorting in the German educational system. LIfBi Working Paper 83. Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories.