Minimizing the “Matthew Effect”

For the past 5 years I have been a math coach in the same (mostly) few schools in my district. This has afforded me the opportunity to observe students through the years as they’ve been developing as young mathematicians. Being able to watch students year after year has afforded me opportunities to notice the different paths some kids take over time.  For example, go into a grade 8 classroom and really listen to the students as they are talking about their mathematics, observe each student as they are thinking and working…  What you might notice is a huge discrepancy between who is doing the talking or sharing and who is not.  You’ll see some students eager to participate, actively engaged in sense-making during new learning opportunities, and others who might seem to let others participate and do the majority of the thinking.  These observations have got me reflecting on a few questions:

  • Why are there such differences between these students?
  • What happens throughout the years that cause these differences?
  • How can we help create classrooms where all students are engaged in doing important mathematics?

The Matthew Effect:

An important piece to this puzzle can be attributed to “the Matthew Effect.” The Matthew Effect was coined to describe the process of cumulative advantage, basically, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The idea of the Matthew Effect is that those who start school with a small advantage continue to benefit, while those with a slight disadvantage continue to lose ground. While it might be easy for us as educators to notice the differences between students’ abilities or effort, it is far harder to notice any inequities that our classrooms and schools might be causing. More about this in a minute.

A few examples of the Matthew Effect:

Soccer:  A group of children join a soccer team for the first time.  Each time a child kicks the ball, or strips the ball from someone else, or passes to a teammate, or dribbles with the ball they learn.  Those students who start off more comfortable with running and kicking spend more time with the ball in a game.  By the end of the season, some students have kicked the ball hundreds of times more than others.  While everyone is learning to play soccer, the gap between those comfortable and uncomfortable with controlling the ball in a game widdens.

Reading:  Students enter into kindergarten with differing abilities to recognize letters or words, and differing interests in books.  Every time a child sounds out a word, or uses a cueing system to read a new or challenging word, or thinks deeply about the messages/story the better they get at reading.  Those who start off more comfortable with reading, read more books each having more words.  By the end of the year, some students have read thousands of words more than those who started off struggling.  While everyone is improving, the gap between those confident with reading, and those who are struggling to learn to read increases.

The Matthew Effect in Math

In both of the previous examples, there were two factors that led to inequities:

  1. The differences in the starting points of each individual
  2. The differences in opportunities for each individual

For mathematics, the issues can be quite complicated. To think about how the Matthew Effect can be problematic in mathematics learning it’s important for us to consider what early skills in mathematics are and which are predictive of later success.

But while it might be important to know early indicators, it is FAR more important to consider to think about how we are helping all of our students be successful. This is where we need to minimize the Matthew Effect!

So, how does the Matthew Effect happen? Imagine students in a class where the teacher asks a question of the group and those whose hands go up first always get to answer. Students who might need more processing time come to realize that others will get an answer first and might not even attempt to answer questions anymore because they won’t have enough time or believe somebody else will get picked anyway. Imagine a classroom where students are given different assignments based on their readiness. Students that continually get more advanced work come to think of themselves as more advanced while those receiving remedial assignments disengage because they realize they aren’t good at math. Imagine a classroom where every student gets the same page of closed math questions. Some students work independently and complete the tasks easily while others are unsure what to do. Over time those who struggle to work independently realize they can only be successful if they get direct help, they start to immediately raise their hand and expect their teacher to walk them through each question.

In each of these situations, some students are accessing the mathematics themselves while others are receiving a watered down version or are expecting others to do the thinking for them. Over time the gap in experiences is huge!

Complexities of teaching

If I provide everyone with the same task, some will struggle to independently be successful while others might find it too easy or repetitive. But if I provide different tasks to different students based on perceived readiness then I’ve also created inequities because I’ve limited students’ access to the mathematics.

If we keep pace of discussions based on the first few hands raising, then we likely haven’t engaged several students because they haven’t had enough time to think. But if we feel like we always need to wait for every student then we likely won’t have a flow of conversation that is ideal.

When determining groupings, if we place students who are currently struggling with students who are quite confident, there is a potential for an inequity in who is doing the work and who is learning. But if we place students who are struggling with other students who are struggling, then there are just as many inequities.

Minimizing the Matthew Effect

Teaching is complex! Helping students who disengage or who don’t identify with mathematics is not an easy task. However, we need to consider ways that we can help all of the students in our care to come to appreciate mathematics and believe in themselves as mathematicians.

productive unproductive


If there is a practice that benefits those who are already being successful with mathematics more than those who are striving to be successful, then there are inequities at play in our classrooms.  Whether the inequities are related to us believing who is capable, or related to who has access to rich learning opportunities, we need to understand and confront our own biases and beliefs for the benefit of all of our students.

As we start to think more about the inequities in our schools/classrooms we will start to see more students who are actively constructing their understanding of important concepts via rich problems and experiences… the interactions among students and between students and teachers will show that every student’s thoughts and ideas are valued… that every student can be successful if given the right experiences and feedback.

On the other hand, if we don’t believe that ALL students can learn to the highest levels, then our students won’t believe it either!

For more on these topics, please take a look at:

I’d love to continue the conversation.  Write a response, or send me a message on Twitter ( @markchubb3 ).