The Matthew Effect: What Is It and How Can You Avoid It In Your Classroom?
The only reason not to reward the best and brightest for their achievements is to avoid punishing the rest for their shortcomings.
I remember being pulled out of class in the 5th grade to study Pre-Algebra with a group of kids in the Academically Gifted Program (later changed to Talented And Gifted) and thinking that the only real purpose it served was to make the academically un-gifted kids feel, well, un-gifted.
As if my wish for equality became an answered prayer, the No Child Left Behind Act came along and cut federal funding of gifted education by a third over the course of five years. Then, in what felt like a bad joke, NCLB pulled off the greatest equalizing trick of all: it left us all behind.
Programs for the gifted and acts like NCLB are classic catalysts of what social scientists call the Matthew Effect. Coined by sociologist Robert Merton, the Matthew Effect derives its name from a verse in the New Testament (Matthew 25:29) which reads, “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath,” and roughly translates to, “Those who are successful are most likely to be given the special opportunities that lead to further success, and those who aren’t successful are most likely to be deprived of them.”
Originally applied to the sciences to describe scenarios in which famous researchers continued to receive credit for big ideas even when lesser-known researchers published findings on the ideas first, the Matthew Effect has also been recognized in economics, politics, education, and other fields.
The pioneering Matthew Effect researcher in the field of education is Keith Stanovich, who teaches applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto. Stanovich has used the term to describe a phenomenon in how new readers acquire the skills to read: early success in acquiring reading skills usually leads to later successes in reading as the learner grows, while failing to learn to read before the third or fourth year of schooling may be indicative of lifelong problems in learning new skills.
This is because children who fall behind in reading read less, increasing the gap between them and their peers. Later, when students need to “read to learn” (where before they were learning to read), their reading difficulty creates difficulty in most other subjects. In this way they fall farther and farther behind in school, dropping out at a much higher rate than their peers.
“Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks,” says Stanovich. “The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply – and sadly – in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, ‘Reading affects everything you do.’”
Sociologist Daniel Rigney, who has written a book called The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage, adds,
“Educational psychologists find that children who like to read tend to read more. Reading more helps to make them better readers, further enhancing their enjoyment of reading. In this way the process feeds back upon itself, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
In the absence of intervention, those caught in downward spirals of this sort are likely to face difficult futures—sometimes through no fault of their own.
The child who hates to read will tend to read less, hampering the development of reading proficiency and academic success, and making school an ever more discouraging experience. In the absence of intervention, those caught in downward spirals of this sort are likely to face difficult futures—sometimes through no fault of their own.
Understanding this basic dynamic is essential to those working in education and the social services, such as social work, who encounter daily the effects of such downward spirals on the lives of their students and clients.”
To make matters worse, because some IQ subtests measure information learned from reading, poor readers generally score lower on these subtests. Over years, the “gap” between poor readers and good readers grows. For children with disabilities in the primary grades, reading and writing failure is pervasive. Nearly all children who are identified as having a disability have reading and writing difficulties.
The Matthew Effect has led to several legal issues over the years, namely in the 1997 court case of James Brody versus the Dare County Public Schools. After being administered an IQ test in the 3rd grade, James Brody was found eligible for special education. After three years of special education, he was re-tested. According to the new testing, his IQ had dropped from 127 to 109. Two years later, when James was re-tested again, his IQ had dropped even further.
Experts testified that James’s declining IQ test scores was an example of the Matthew Effect, and evidence that James was not receiving appropriate remediation. The Administrative Law Judge and the Review Officer agreed and found that the school district had not provided James with an appropriate education.
In his scientific essay entitled, “Dyslexia: What is it, really?” attorney Emerson Dickman (who suffers from dyslexia himself) writes, “In order to qualify for special education services, Federal Regulations require that the pupil exhibit ‘a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.’ Thus, the criteria for eligibility are not the existence of a learning disability (a weakness in a sea of strengths) but a failure to achieve.
In other words, a pupil with dyslexia can’t get special education assistance until and unless other children of similar intellectual potential are reading significantly better.”
Because the Matthew Effect has become so widespread in school systems across the world, researchers have had a field day (or half-century, rather) studying its impact.
How The Labels You Place On Your Students Affect Their Performance
In the 1970s Robert Rosenthal conducted a study investigating the operation of self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom. He administered IQ tests to elementary students at the beginning of the school year, selected 20 percent of these students at random, and told their teachers that the students had been identified as “bloomers” who could be expected to make great educational gains in the coming year.
At the end of the year, Rosenthal returned to the class and retested the students to measure improvement in student performance.
The students who had been randomly labeled as “bloomers” showed significantly more progress than those who had not. Rosenthal concluded from this study that more is expected of students who are believed to be brighter, and that these higher expectations lead students to perform at a higher level. At the same time, students who are expected to underperform do, in fact, end up underperforming.
Rosenthal concluded from this study that more is expected of students who are believed to be brighter, and that these higher expectations lead students to perform at a higher level.
Subsequent studies conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s found a similar effect. “Developmental psychologists agree that native abilities interact with environmental advantages or disadvantages in the development of reading skills,” Rigney remarks. “Students who begin with high verbal aptitudes and find themselves in verbally enriched social environments are at a double advantage…
Meanwhile, students with more limited verbal aptitudes who also experience economic and social disadvantages are hit with a ‘double whammy,’ which may well affect their later life chances in the reading-intensive environment of an information society.”
Thus, reading disadvantages are often compounding, translating into personal and economic disadvantages; whether or not young students experience a reading spiral may affect not just their educational futures but also their social and economic futures. There may be a social dimension involved as well, as good readers may choose friends who also read avidly, while poor readers seek friends with whom they share other enjoyments.
Whatever array of disadvantages may be caused by the Matthew Effect, researchers strongly agree that if teachers are going to help prevent it, they have to start early on.
How Early Experiences Determine A Student’s Academic Career
In an essay from 2012, psychologist and Schwartz Fellow Annie Murphy Paul reports that the most important year of an individual’s academic career is the third grade. “It’s the year that students move from learning to read — decoding words using their knowledge of the alphabet — to reading to learn,” she writes. “The books children are expected to master are no longer simple primers but fact-filled texts on the solar system, Native Americans, the Civil War. Children who haven’t made the leap to fast, fluent reading begin at this moment to fall behind, and for most of them the gap will continue to grow.”
A study conducted in 2012 by Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at CUNY–Hunter College found that third-graders who lack proficiency in reading are four times more likely to become high school dropouts.
“Too often the story unfolds this way: struggles in third grade lead to the ‘fourth-grade slump,’ as the reading-to-learn model comes to dominate instruction. While their more skilled classmates are amassing knowledge and learning new words from context, poor readers may begin to avoid reading out of frustration.
A study conducted in 2012… found that third-graders who lack proficiency in reading are four times more likely to become high school dropouts.
A vicious cycle sets in: school assignments increasingly require background knowledge and familiarity with ‘book words’ (literary, abstract and technical terms)— competencies that are themselves acquired through reading. Meanwhile, classes in science, social studies, history and even math come to rely more and more on textual analysis, so that struggling readers begin to fall behind in these subjects as well.”
Rigney believes it’s likely that the cognitive and social dynamics of reading education are also at works in mathematics education, as the numerate build on early advantages to become more numerate, while those who have difficulty with numbers fall farther and farther behind.
The Matthew Effect In The System
The Matthew Effect can also be witnessed on a larger scale, at the district-wide and system-wide levels. In his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol describes the disparity between impoverished inner-city schools and their wealthier suburban counterparts. Inner-city schools, he says, are caught up in a complex of mutually reinforcing problems associated with poverty, including high unemployment and crime rates in the surrounding community, industrial and middle class flight, and family instability.
Compounding these problems is the problem of underfunded schools. Since public education in the United States is largely funded through local property taxes, and low property valuations in poor neighborhoods necessitate higher tax rates which residents can’t afford to pay, the funding per pupil is dramatically lower in poor urban schools than in wealthier suburban schools.
And because wealthy schools spend more money per pupil, they enjoy better facilities, attract better qualified teachers and better prepared students, and, ultimately, perpetuate the vicious cycle.
“While state governments generally supplement local tax revenues to make the funding of the poor and rich school districts more equal,” Rigney writes, “full equality is rarely if ever achieved.”
“True improvements would require, among other things, massive increases in funding to urban school districts to bring them up to suburban levels, but this could only be accomplished by increasing taxes or defunding competing governmental priorities, neither of which is often a popular option.”
Instead, some states have been trying to work from the inside-out, making it harder for students to move on to the next grade level. “Mandatory retention” bills have already passed in Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Oklahoma, and are being considered in Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Tennessee. But many education researchers say holding kids back isn’t the answer.
“The Matthew effect has an important upside,” says Paul. “Well-timed interventions can reverse its direction, turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.”
The ideal solution, she proposes, is not holding kids back but collaborating with parents on the creation of an individualized learning plan for each student who needs help reading — a plan that might involve specialized instruction, tutoring, or summer school.
“Most important,” she says, “is taking action, and not assuming that reading problems will work themselves out.”
With that, here are a few ways you can actively avoid the Matthew Effect in your own classroom:
1. If you teach early education, BE AWARE. These are the most formative years in a student’s life, not only in terms of retention but in terms of projected future success as well. If a student feels inferior in the third grade, chances are he’ll carry that uncertainty with him throughout his educational career.
2. Abandon the notion that it is the best and brightest who rise effortlessly to the top. Most often the “best and brightest” were only slightly better and slightly brighter than their counterparts to begin with. It’s once their parents and teachers started reinforcing and rewarding their smarts that the students developed, over time, into the shining stars they are today. Remember that other students could have achieved the same status had they been similarly encouraged from the beginning.
3. Know your student’s background… and background knowledge. When a student first enters your class, give him a test and talk to him about his background. That way, you will avoid boring him or losing him completely, and you’ll be able to gain some insight into what kind of socio-economic and learning environment he goes home to.
4. Provide the right environment. In the words of Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book Outliers, “The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn, but because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.” Do everything in your power to increase your students’ odds.
5. For every “talented” student you provide with a superior experience, provide a “less talented” student with an opportunity as well.
This is simply a good habit to cultivate. In reality, it’s hard for any of us to avoid having favorites and to remain patient with the underachievers. But if we make it part of our routine, and don’t let ourselves stop and think about it, we can make some headway in closing the achievement gap. So, for example, if you find yourself always calling on your sharpest student when she raises her hand, pick a different student next time to make everyone feel valued.
6. When you see a student slipping, don’t wait to act. Just as it’s important to give feedback in a timely manner, when an assignment is still fresh in a student’s mind, it’s absolutely essential to address a problem or frustration as soon as it arises. Not only is the student’s mind already warmed up to thinking about the lesson; he also cares more in that moment than he will once he’s at home struggling with his homework. On a larger scale, never assume that a student’s weaknesses will simply “work themselves out.” On the contrary, they will work themselves deeper inside a student’s academic identity if they aren’t uprooted early on.
7. Incorporate materials and procedures designed to increase beginners’ skills. Despite having a very homogeneous education system with a uniform approach to reading instruction and intervention, New Zealand has for several years now consistently shown comparatively high levels of variability in the test scores from international surveys of literacy achievement.
In order to combat the Matthew Effect in reading programs, educators have incorporated into existing classroom literacy programs materials and procedures designed to increase beginning readers’ phonological awareness and alphabetic coding skills. This small change resulted in an average difference in reading age of 14 months over standard literacy programs by the end of Year 2.
8. Learn how to recognize “at risk” behavior. For some children, the sense of failure and feelings of frustration, coupled with the need to disguise their inability to perform reading tasks, become so great that they begin to exhibit classroom behavior problems. What began as a relatively small difference in reading-related skills and knowledge at the beginning of school becomes a downward spiral of under-achievement. Learn how to recognize when this is happening so you can try to reverse it.
9. If you have to place students in remedial programs, don’t use the same methods that contributed to their failure in the first place. Just before New Zealand’s reading gap became a problem, it implemented a remedial program called Reading Recovery, which placed at-risk students in intensive, year-long literacy regimes that drilled home the lessons they hadn’t grasped in class. Unfortunately, because the program didn’t bother to change the way the lessons were presented, the students did not improve.
10. Accommodate cultural differences. McNaughton (1995) claimed that more effective forms of instruction are those that provide bridges between home and school by allowing children from minority cultures to engage in learning activities in the classroom that draw on familiar family practices.
11. Hold high expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There should not be a different set of standards for students of disadvantaged or otherwise diverse backgrounds, but there should be a recognition that these students may require more powerful instruction and additional time to meet the standards. Never let a student think you’ve given up on him.
12. Help build every student’s academic self-concept. As a result of repeated learning failures, many struggling students develop negative self-perceptions of ability and therefore do not try as hard as other children because of their low expectations of success. Try to help every student understand that he has a chance.
13. Students have differences, not deficits. Stubbs (1980) distinguishes the term “deficit” from the term “disadvantage” and points out that it’s counterproductive to assess students without considering their social and economic backgrounds as well. To blame academic deficiency for a student’s hatred of the written word is to guarantee that student’s failure.
14. A reason to practice teacher-centered instruction. New Zealand practices child-centered approaches to literacy learning, where children are exposed to literature and expected to learn largely on their own while the teacher facilitates. Several studies have proven that indirect instruction actually hinders learning. Of particular importance was the finding that direct instruction in alphabetic coding resulted in less disparity between students in reading achievement at the end of the year than less explicit approaches to teaching spelling-sound patterns.
15. Communicate with parents. Though it may be beyond your bounds to pry too much or too often, remaining aware of your students’ home backgrounds is one of the greatest tools you can use to combat the Matthew Effect. At the very least, let parents know about the Effect and discuss how important it is for them to support their child’s education.
16. Tutoring, tutoring, tutoring. Tutoring is the simplest solution, and the least stress-inducing for educators, who don’t have time to explain concepts in extra detail for confused students. All students in danger of suffering from the Matthew Effect should be allowed to benefit from after-school or home tutoring programs.
17. Use peer instruction. Sometimes one student is just a step behind another student and can be pulled up with a little peer support. Pairing “academically rich” students with “academically poor” students may be one way to make underachieving students feel in control of their own learning.
18. Treat your students as equally as possible. Within reason, try to stave off the Matthew Effect by making all learners feel like, well, learners. If your smartest students are always acing quizzes and answering questions correctly, balance this confidence by posing another question or reminding them that there’s a world of knowledge out there. If your underperforming students are feeling dispirited, make sure they feel like “learners” and not just students who are “learning.”
19. Measure student progress as often as possible. Being flexible and adapting your lessons to your students’ needs is absolutely essential in preventing the Matthew Effect. But you won’t know what adjustments to make if you don’t measure where they’re at. There are fun ways to do this; kids don’t have to dread it. Just make sure, whether you issue a scan-tron or ask students to create visual representations of what they’ve learned, that it’s a reliable measure.
20. Ask yourself not if you “are teaching” but if you “have taught.” In his latest TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson described the difference between the task and achievement senses of the verb “to teach.” When we say we “are teaching,” perhaps we are patting ourselves on the back a bit prematurely. Be sure not to conflate the act of teaching with the achievement of having taught. Did the student actually understand the lesson, or were you just talking?
The Matthew Effect is a very difficult puzzle to solve; we’ve only just scratched the surface. What are your thoughts on the issue, and what tips do you have to add to the list?