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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 11/20/2010

The Matthew Effect, Plinko, and the achievement gap

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Jared Joiner, a graduate of Montgomery County Public Schools who is now working towards a masters degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It refers to a Century Foundation report called “Housing Policy is School Policy," that said low-income students do beter in school when they are given a chance to live in better neighborhoods and attend schools with wealthier classmates. Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, wrote about the report on this blog in response to a piece I had posted.

By Jared Joiner
The argument for integration of low-income students into more affluent schools is that it offers an opportunity to level the playing field and provide high expectations to students who are not traditionally held to the same schooling standards as the white upper and middle class.

However, as a Black male who attended Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) for high school, I am not convinced that a culture of high expectations extends beyond honors, AP, and IB classrooms.

I remember that when I enrolled in ninth grade, my guidance counselor dissuaded me from enrolling in honors classes. Had my mother (an MCPS teacher) not understood the system, I probably would have avoided the rigorous content and high expectations that year, and I ultimately might have been ill-prepared to successfully complete the IB program.

Frankly, it seems impossible to close the achievement gap without breaking down the barriers that reinforce differences in social capital among students.

Despite the achievement benefits documented by the Century Foundation’s study, closing the achievement gap will not occur simply from forcing socioeconomic integration in every school.

Regretfully, there is no “magic bullet” that will solve the country’s education problems. Rather, the problems in American education are the result of more pervasive problems that weave through every layer of society.

The challenge of adequately serving all students is best demonstrated in literacy research. Until we address the contexts that breed the achievement gap, it will remain difficult to reverse what Keith Stanovich calls “the Matthew Effect” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer), whereby students who struggle in school early on fall further and further behind as time goes on.

The importance of early exposure to print and school-readiness skills in the primary years was established, nearly 30 years ago, in Shirley Brice Heath’s (1983), Ways with Words. Heath shows that learning does not begin in school, but rather is determined by events prior to school. The differences in toddlers’ and infants’ language and literacy environments contribute to their incredibly varied school experiences and performance.

The struggling that the children in the study did in school did not reflect a lack of innate ability, but instead that their home environments cultivated a different set of skills that were not compatible with learning practices in the primary grades. While these skills were potentially applicable to higher-order academic tasks in the later grades, many of these students would already be designated as needing special education services; an illustrative case of the Matthew Effect at work.

As these findings were thoroughly documented in literacy research, studies in neuroscience have clarified the extent to which the brain is shaped through interaction with the environment (see Mareschal & colleagues, 2007 for a thorough discussion of developmental research to date).

Like a game of Plinko, this “epigenetic” view of development holds that genetics sets the puck in motion, but environmental interactions (the pegs) determine the path and ultimate resting place. This bears on learning because, as the newborn mind makes meaning from the world with her sensory processing abilities, the brain undergoes a process of reorganization based on this experience.

Both literacy and neuroscience research illustrate how the developing mind does not exist in a vacuum, or as a vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge. Rather, the environment begins guiding the mind’s development at conception; so when a child enters kindergarten, she has already participated in five years of learning from cradling in arms, riding in car seats, and socializing in daycare. Moreover, this learning has been embedded within social, familial, and community contexts that form the unique lens though which an individual views and interprets the world.

The education reform conversation needs a fundamental change. Just as we need to stop discussing socioeconomic status as an intractable barrier, we should also refrain from treating teacher quality as a monolithic category.

Obviously, the quality of a teacher will affect student learning. However, if a student brings the requisite culturally derived “ways of ‘saying-writing-doing-being-valuing-believing’” (Delpit, 1992) necessary for success in school, a teacher’s job is decidedly easier.

Similarly, we cannot use poverty as an excuse to limit students’ potential (Jean Anyon provides harrowing examples of this in schools), but we do know that students who experience a mismatch between the culture of school and culturally appropriate practices outside of school may require individualized pedagogy. Such pedagogy must be more responsive to, and support the success of, all students.

So, it’s not that socioeconomic status determines school performance. Rather, it’s a complicated interaction between contextual student characteristics, like non-mainstream language and literacy exposure, and the pedagogy implemented by teachers that determine scholastic achievement.

Many policy-based interventions might be served by keeping these findings in mind. That is, the implementation of early-childhood interventions coupled with more economic heterogeneity and a culturally responsive pedagogy in schools, might do wonders towards closing the achievement gap.

Further Reading:
Anyon, J. (1981). Social class and school knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry, 11(1), 3-41.
Delpit, L. (1992). Acquisition of literate discourse: Bowing before the master? Theory into practice, 31(4): 296-302.
Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with Words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press
Mareschal, D., Johnson, M., Sirois, S., Spratling, M., Thomas, M., & Westermann, G. (2007). Neuroconstructivism: Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stanovic, K.E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4): 360-407.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 20, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Achievement gap, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  achievement gap, brain development, brain research, closing achievement gap, guest bloggers, plinko, the Matthew Effect, the matthew effect  
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Obviously, he's wrong - according to Rhee, my superintendent, Obama, and many other reformers and "experts". I blame his teachers.

Posted by: peonteacher | November 20, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

How is a "culture of high expectations" supposed to exist if teachers aren't allowed to ENFORCE those high expectation. I'm supposed to "expect" my students to study and yet if they don't they "earn" minimum mandatory grades ensuring that they "succeed" without learning anything.

Ending social promotion would be one of the most effective, and easiest, moves toward "high expectations"

But notice that the educational elite, like this guy from Hahvad, habitually ignore doable solutions.

Ed schools, including the one the author is now attending, should be closed down.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 20, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse


Thanks for continuing the discussion about The Century Foundation Montgomery County schools study, whose publication I helped supervise. You raise an important issue about the way that tracking can undermine the benefits of socioeconomic integration. I would note, however, that the study, "Housing Policy is School Policy," found that even though low-income students generally were grouped in the lowest math classes, they nevertheless saw very large achievement gains from being in low poverty schools (see pp. 18-19).

Your larger points about the importance of early learning as a supplement to integrated schooling are very well taken.

Richard Kahlenberg

Posted by: RichardKahlenberg | November 20, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Teachers enforce rules, not learning. Expectations are like attitude. They are owned by the student, something the student has yet to learn.

I will agree the stand on social promotions, although that too can be overcome with help.

I'm probably older than some here. The book used in 1st grade classes when I started were purchased at a local store. That was a requirement on entering school. Bring your own book. My Mother bought that book a year before I entered 1st grade (kindergarden was not available.) I learned to read using that book, and read it so many times the covers were almost completely removed from the binding.

Both my sons were taught the same way, as was their children. Resources are available for most Americans. Those books are simple, inexpensive, and honestly many of the items needed to teach children are not in a book.

How much does it cost to teach the alphabet? What about numbers? From there we form words and problems to solve. From there we learn to put words together and over time how to merge math and reading. Students grow from there. Nothing in this paragraph is expensive. Pencils, paper, and family that cares. If it required teachers, home schooling would not succeed, nor would children before.

Posted by: educ8er | November 20, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

It's good to see an article like this one that includes references. Two points were made that I'd like to add to:

"Frankly, it seems impossible to close the achievement gap without breaking down the barriers that reinforce differences in social capital among students."
I once taught at a private school in which most of the students came with considerable material advantages. When I first arrived, I asked the principal if they ever gave scholarships. He hesitated, and then said,
"We do give scholarships, but I sometimes wonder if we do those students a favor. Since the students wear uniforms, no one knows overtly who has money and who does not. However, when winter and spring breaks arrive, most of the students go to Aspen or Switzerland to ski or some other very expensive place, and the students with no money are left behind. I think it's very hard on them."

I realize that the article is focusing on public schools, but looking at private school situations on occasion can put the issues in sharper relief.

"The importance of early exposure to print and school-readiness skills in the primary years was established, nearly 30 years ago, in Shirley Brice Heath’s (1983), Ways with Words. Heath shows that learning does not begin in school, but rather is determined by events prior to school. The differences in toddlers’ and infants’ language and literacy environments contribute to their incredibly varied school experiences and performance."
It's incredible that we still need to be pointing out how the home environment affects reading readiness. Many years ago, when I was a 15-year old baby sitter for a poor WHITE family that had 4 children, I was struck by the total absence of any reading material whatsoever - no magazines, books of any kind, not even a comic book. The children had few social skills and were basically raising themselves. I can't imagine that they fared well in school, as our middle class schooling assumes that children come with the basics mentioned above.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 20, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

One way to work at the "enrichment poverty" that puts students so behind when they get to school is to create enrichment opportunities for children from the moment they come into this world. I worked in a marvelous after school program many years ago. It was not an after school program where children learned how to take tests. They had a choice of activities such as learning guitar, making teapots from clay, playing a group soccer game, sitting at a table and doing "drawing" trades, digging for worms for a pet turtle that lived in the after school room, or quietly sitting and reading a book in the library section of the after-school room. After school staff took charge of these activities. There was even a contract signed for students whose parents wanted them to do homework. So there was a one hour slot in their 2:30-6:00 after school day in which they would do homework. Students were also served nutritional snacks each day. They took field trips to various museums or nature walks. The government should be putting these kinds of quality after school programs in place in all public schools. Many children from impoverished backgrounds will pick up language, will gain exposure to many different kinds of learning opportunities in a wholistic way. This kind of enrichment supports classroom learning. The govt is wasting money on RTTT, testing and collection of useless data all because non educators in the business world have determined that the business model "IS THE ONLY MODEL" for the entire United States. Early intervention would be great too. What if the government funded wholistic learning centers in poor neighborhoods so that parents could have their pre "school age" children gain enrichment not that different from the after school program I spoke about or from what more wealthy children often get naturally in their home environment.

The author of this article has interesting points but loses sight of the interconnectedness of socioeconomics and language learning. He says, "So, it’s not that socioeconomic status determines school performance. Rather, it’s a complicated interaction between contextual student characteristics, like non-mainstream language and literacy exposure, and the pedagogy implemented by teachers that determine scholastic achievement". I disagree. A child whose parents are illiterate does not have a large vocabulary base. He comes to school at a disadvantage. The author is disillusioned if he thinks that a teacher can entirely compensate for this. We derive meaning and understanding by being able to infer from prior knowledge. Obviously children whose parents are from educated backgrounds have a larger vocabulary base and move along educationally much faster.
Socioeconomics does effect classroom learning and we are fooling ourselves if we read a lot of theory to suggest otherwise. Look at an interesting study called, "Saved By an Education". You can download this article on line.

Posted by: teachermd | November 20, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Joiner,
You have hit the proverbial nail on the head. Having been in education for 19 years, the last 10 as an administrator in Title I, low-achieving schools, I have seen first hand that there is a disconnect between the school system and the ability of the home to provide the necessary support and foundation needed to be successful. I am tired of critics who have never had to experience what many of our families face on a daily basis. I am not talking about the poverty, I am referring to the lack of awareness and understanding of what is needed to be successful in a society that continually turns a blind eye to what they created 200 years ago and continue to perpetuate. I am tired of hearing the comment that civil rights was passed in the 60's, and that everyone has an equal chance to succeed. Charter schools are just another way of separating those that created the dysfunction from facing the reality. I am greatly shocked when President Obama even hints at supporting these schools because I know that he truly comprehends what is wrong with our nation. The only way to close the achievement gap is to have open and honest conversations about what is really causing them, and then provide the necessary funding to assist those who continue to be damaged and discarded. Please do not misunderstand me: I do believe in responsibility, and I am not excusing anyone from being responsible, but how can anyone be responsible for something he/she has not been taught (I am referring to 'the rules' that Ruby Payne writes about, not formal education)? We must remember that many of our students are children and grandchildren of those who have had terrible experiences as children in school because of a lack of compassion, understanding, and a great deal of ignorance. Those scars are carried throughout life, and they need to be acknowledged. Teachers are the most amazing people, especially those who choose to work in low-income schools, but they can't do it by themselves.
Thank you so much for bringing to light the true issues, and I look forward to the day when they are acknowledged by all and solutions are put into place.

Posted by: eduk8r | November 20, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse


I think you've misunderstood Jared's point. He's not saying that a child's socioeconomic status does not have an impact on their language ability when entering school or that a teacher can single handedly compensate for that gap. Rather, he's painting a richer picture of the sheer plethora of factors that influence a child's educational outcomes, including, but not limited to socioeconomic status. By acknowledging this more complex reality we are provided with a variety of pressure points to tap, all of which matter and none of which should be ignored.

Jared Joiner for Education Czar!

Posted by: BaltimoreBossman | November 20, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

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