The Matthew Effect on Education
| Vasileios loannis Koutroumpas - 01 Apr 2022

In this article, I want to address the Matthew effect within the purview of education. This effect resonates with an accumulated advantage or disadvantage some people are faced with when learning, especially in the course of their primary and secondary education.

A good description of this effect works hand in glove with a metaphorical analogy sourced from religion. More specifically, Merton and Zuckerman (1971) delved into “the parable of the minas”, as is featured in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (25:14–30 and 19:11–27), and borrowed some information to lend support to their sociological observation on why some people always appear to succeed, while some other people appear to fail, that is to say why the rich tend to get richer and the poor tend to get poorer.

In short, the holy story tells of a certain master who puts three servants of his in charge of his goods while he is away on a trip. Upon his return, the master proceeds to assess the servants, considering whether they made a good investment. The two men did multiply the pounds given, rightfully earning the appellation of the “faithful and appreciative ones” and receiving a reward, whilst one of them decided to bury and conceal his little fortune lest it is stolen. “Playing it safe”, the man was decried as unfaithful and was condemned there and then.

The goods given are often construed as the talents God offers and the servants’ investing actions are often interpreted as their appreciation and gratefulness for life.

In addition to Theology and Sociology, this concept finds application in science too. For instance, Markovnikov, in concert with Saytzeff (circa 1870), found that hydrogen is always added to the carbon with the most hydrogens and the halide is added to the carbon with the least hydrogens. In other words, a carbon that is rich in substituents shall gain more substituents, while the carbon with more hydrogens shall get the hydrogen in many organic reactions. In simpler terms, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The Matthew effect must also merit a spot on education. I, for one, have come to believe that this effect has been hiding in plain sight all along while all have been wondering why some learners sink into the mire of repeatedly failing or are fortunate enough to have had steadfast progress in learning English, Chinese, or Arabic.

As a matter of fact, Stanovich’s (2008) theory has brought to the forefront this effect, addressing, inter alia, early success in acquiring reading skills and failure to learn to read before the third or fourth year of schooling, that being an index of lifelong problems in developing new skills. This may be attributed to the fact that children who fall behind in reading are expected to try less – read less, augmenting the gap between them and their peers. But, here’s the catch: when this is the case, they tend to fall further and further behind in school, dropping out at a much higher rate than their peers.

It can be gleaned, therefore, that slow reading acquisition entails multiple dismal consequences: behavioural, cognitive, and motivational ones, which constitute a major hindrance in the development of other skills. Hence, can reading affect everything we do? Under this perspective, yes, it can, and thus, we can all witness the educationally rich ones getting richer and the educationally poor ones getting poorer.

This predicament gets worse if we consider Perc (2014) who concluded that it is extremely difficult for low scoring learners to bounce, so to say, from their repetitive failure presumably because they tend to lean on fewer resources to risk. Conversely, it is gradually easy for high scoring learners to achieve their goals more often and maintain their ever-increasing performance since they draw on a large amount to risk.

To put it more succinctly, it seems that learners have the tendency to “achieve” in proportion to their “previous achievements” and this poses a shedload of questions. However, of all the questions this effect begs, one reigns supreme: can we locate a specific case highlighting this effect?

A furtive look over the relevant literature is ample to suggest that the Matthew effect was legally popularised after the court case of “Brody versus the Dare County Public Schools” in the state of North Carolina, U.S.A. – in my view, it should be touted as a staple case in education insofar as the case of Salomon v. Salomon in Company and Commercial Law. In 1997, the school administered an intelligence quotient (IQ) test, where James Brody’s eligibility for special education was borne out. Nevertheless, shortly after 2000, James Brody was re-tested, manifesting a significant drop of 18 degrees. In 2002, James Brody was tested again and his score had dropped even further, evidently alarming his teachers.

This variance can be attributed to the Matthew effect, which signifies that James Brody received nothing short of inappropriate education with dismal effects. This claim was made by the first witness to testify, Dr Rebecca Felton, and was legally attested by the germane administrative law judge.

Anton Chekov once wrote a letter to Alexei Suvorin in 1888. In this letter, he articulated a singularly bright idea on how a problem can be approached before it is solved. This letter latches on Lev Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina” (1878), casting light on its plot and emphasizing that not a single problem is solved. However, its literary magnificence draws on the satisfaction it offers just because all the problems are correctly presented. In this respect, the more we popularise and describe this effect, the closer we get to understanding it, at least in the first place, or maybe solving it, at a subsequent time.

Some teachers, however, feel like being compelled to call a spade a shovel, not a gardening tool; for them, this sapping effect exacerbates such disparities so much so that low achievers feel like their school performance is preordained and high achievers feel like carrying a legacy of constant success, often resting on their oars. So uplifting and so shattering indeed. If this is so, let us try to stop peddling such myths; beware of this effect to narrow this gap as much as feasible. Students must be assessed impartially and assisted effectively. Their fragile learning identity must be held dearly and taken care of, reminding us that when we score our students, we often score our teaching and testing methods, don’t we?

References worth considering:

Markownikoff, W. (1870) “Ueber die Abhängigkeit der verschiedenen Vertretbarkeit des Radicalwasserstoffs in den isomeren Buttersäuren”. Annalen der Pharmacie (in German), 153 (1): 228–259.

North Carolina, Review Officer Special Education Decision. Wrightslaw. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2022, https://www.wrightslaw.com/law/caselaw/case_Brody_RO_decision.html

Perc, M. (2014) “The Matthew effect in empirical data”. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 12 (104): 20140378.

Stanovich, K. E. (2008) “Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy”. The Journal of Education, 189 (1/2), 23–55.

Zuckerman, H. & Merton, R. K. (1971) “Patterns of Evaluation in Science: Institutionalization, Structure and Functions of the Referee System”. Minerva, 9: 66–100.

Chekov, A. (1955) “Letter to Alexei Suvorin, 27 October 1888”. In L. Hellman (ed.), Selected Letters of Anton Chekov. (translated by S. Lederer).



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