Tracks and subjective feelings of success in secondary education: A qualitative study in Flanders


26 May 2015, 16:00 – 17:00

Lore Van Praag, Jannick Demanet, Peter Stevens and Mieke Van Houtte

Tracks play a decisive role in the organization of students in Flemish secondary education. Students are grouped into four tracks (academic (ASO), artistic (KSO), technical (TSO) and vocational education (BSO)), according to their interests, abilities and capacities. Tracks are commonly hierarchically classified by level of abstraction and theorizing; academic education is widely regarded as the most prestigious and demanding track and technical and vocational tracks are placed at the bottom of this ladder (Van Houtte & Stevens, 2010; Boone & Van Houtte, 2013). Previous studies in Flanders already suggested that students in more prestigious tracks have less feelings of futility (Stevens & Van Houtte, 2009), higher self-esteem (Van Houtte, Demanet & Stevens, 2012) and a higher study involvement (Van Houtte & Stevens, 2009), compared to students in other tracks. Tracking practices were also found to affect the prevailing school cultures (Van Houtte, 2004; 2006), social life in school (Van Praag et al., 2015) and the organization of teaching and learning (Van Praag et al., 2014). Because of the hierarchical nature of the tracking system in Flanders, track enrollment might impact on the subjective feelings of being successful in school. These feelings matter as they relate to students’ future educational and professional aspirations and decision making processes during their school career. In this study, based on ethnographic observations and semi-structured interviews (N=129), we examine how students evaluate their educational success in secondary education in Flanders and how this appraisal is affected by the track they are enrolled in. Our data indicates that the hierarchy between tracks is reflected in the comparison groups students use to evaluate their school success. In academic tracks, most students considered their educational career automatically as successful precisely because they were enrolled in the academic track, regardless of their actual grades. These feelings of relative gratification, therefore, are based on a between-track comparison. Conversely, students in vocational tracks developed more complex and contradictory feelings with respect to their personal success in school and felt the need to distinguish themselves from their classmates – e.g. by stressing their grades or professional future goals. Their feelings of relative gratification, therefore, are more likely the result of within-track comparison. Thus, all students appear to search for ways to positively evaluate their success by adapting their comparison groups.


  • Boone, S. & M. Van Houtte (2013). In search of the mechanisms conducive to class differentials in educational choice: a mixed method research, Sociological Review, 61(3), 549-572.
  • Van Houtte, M. (2004). Tracking effects on school achievement: A quantitative explanation in terms of the academic culture of school staff. American Journal of Education, 110, 354-388.
  • Van Houtte, M. (2006). School type and academic culture: evidence for the differentiation–polarization theory. Curriculum Studies, 36 (3), 273-292.
  • Van Houtte, M. & P.A.J. Stevens (2009). Study Involvement of Academic and Vocational Students: Does Between-School Tracking Sharpen the Difference? American Educational Research Journal, 46 (4), 943- 973.
  • Van Houtte, M., Demanet, J. & P.A.J. Stevens (2012). Self-esteem of academic and vocational students: Does within-school tracking sharpen the difference? Acta Sociologica, 55(1), 73-89.
  • Van Houtte, M. & PA.J. Stevens (2010). The culture of futility and its impact on study culture in technical/vocational schools in Belgium. Oxford Review of Education, 36, 23-43.
  • Van Praag, L., Boone, S., Stevens, P.A.J. & M. Van Houtte (2015). De paradox van het watervalsysteem: wanneer het groeperen van studenten in homogene groepen tot meer heterogeniteit leidt in het beroepsonderwijs, Sociologos, forthcoming.
  • Van Praag, L., Boone, S., Stevens, P.A.J. & M. Van Houtte (2014). How tracking structures attitudes towards ethnic out-groups and interethnic interactions in the classroom: an ethnographic study in Belgium, Social Psychology of Education, 18 (1): 165-184.

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