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THOMPSON: The Matthew Effect

Mattheweffect "The Matthew Effect" is based on the passage "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" In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Among educators, the concept explains why students who start out with literacy advantages tend to thrive. Weaker readers decline and after 4th grade as few as 13% of interventions are successful.

The Matthew Effect, however, pervades all aspects of schooling. Parenting is the key to socio-emotional soft skills that drive educational success. The neighborhood is the prime indicator of economic success. "Skills beget skills and motivation begets motivation," explains James Heckmen. And as illustrated by the concept of "degrees of separation," being isolated from a broader functional community undermines motivation. Combine enough isolated and traumatized kids in a high-poverty neighborhood school and a "tipping point" is crossed where disorder grows rampant. The dysfunctional learning culture drives away the best teachers, as magnet schools cream away the most motivated of the students. Worse, rich states and school systems that invest more per capita, are rewarded disproportionately through federal funds. And even worse, data-driven accountability has often damaged the schools it was designed to assist by encouraging excessive test prep and narrowing the curriculum.

NCLB has rubbed in salt the wounds of poor students by encouraging an illogical "best practices" school of reform. For some reason, "reformers" have believed that practices that have raised student performance in lower poverty and choice schools could turnaround the toughest neighborhood schools. Mass Insight has used social science to explain why the instruction-driven methods that have shown success in less challenged schools are inherently incapable of addressing the "complex ecosystems" of our lowest performing schools. This week I will argue that the metaphors of the Matthew Effect, a famed "I Love Lucy" episode, and an off-color Yiddish term can explain where Whole School Reform has stumbled and suggest a correction. - John Thompson


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John: I first encountered the Matthew Effect as an explanation of why students with disabilities have IQs that get lower over time. It seems as though the ability to read is a key factor in expanding vocabularly--or at least expanding vocabulary of the sort and in the format that is typically used to evaluate intelligence. Kids who don't learn to read (and kids with disabilities are probably the most concentrated of the groups), for whatever reason drop further and further behind their peers in the common, verbal measures of intellect. So--what appears to be an intelligence problem is frequently a reading problem.

And kids with disabilities are frequently caught in a spiral. Regardless of what the beginning event is (acting out in class, parents who don't read, a teacher who cannot control the classroom, not enough words heard before kindergarten, poor eyesight, poor teaching, dyslexia or a hearing problem), they tend do get pulled away from the crowd, provided with a lowered set of expectations, educated in a group with more problems, provided with teachers higher in caring and lower in content knowledge. In short, the "cure," whether intentionally or not, frequently ensures that they not only will never "catch up" to their peers, but in fact will fall further and further behind. And their IQ scores over time will tend to substantiate that removal and lowered expectations were justified.

What I would like to see you consider, as you ponder the Matthew Effect (and it would certainly please me a good bit if you would refrain from putting the blame on parents), is what is the school's role as mediator of this effect? As you think about schools in communities where you see a tipping point of bad influences, or scarcities, or deficits, are the schools a part of the bad incfluence, scarcity and deficit? Do they amplify or counteract these factors? I would suggest that many who work in schools see themselves as perhaps "in" but not "of" the neighborhood. They see themselves as missionaries to the great unwashed--constantly frustrated because they cannot peddle their wares of salvation.

I personally don't see that we have that luxury. We don't live on a planet, or in a country, that can afford to dismiss human resource to the extent that ours has.


Certainly schools help amplify these problems. If they didn't, what would be the purpose of any of these discussions? My point is that there is plenty of blame to go around. Clearly, the toughest problems start with the parenting. (maybe "blaming" "parenting" not "parents" is wimpy, but its a step) Today's parenting problems stem from previous parenting problems. All of those parenting and neighborhood problems stem from world historical oppression.


I write as a defeated parent. A better parent than my own, I am fairly certain. But not a sufficient parent to overcome the deficits handed to my son at school.

Yes, it takes a village. But the Matthew Effect is not attributable to parents or neighborhoods. With very few exceptions, kids enter Kindergarten sufficiently motivated and with sufficient personal prerequisites to be taught how to read and to acquire the other academic expertise that parents and citizenry rely on schooling to deliver.

From Day 1, in the interest of "meeting individual needs," children receive differential instruction. The Matthew Effect is in the instruction, not in the kids. The instruction is dictated by the unaccountables school site personnel. The Matthew Effect does not derive from the kids or their parents; they are the victims of the effect.

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