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The Matthew Effect


The Matthew Effect is a phenomenon in educational psychology that states that students who struggle to develop proper reading skills early on will do progressively worse on educational benchmarks. This is because students who fall behind in reading early will learn to hate reading, which will make them less motivated to try hard in school. As the years progress, they have fewer and fewer skills compared to their peers. In fact, a famous court case centers around this phenomenon. A student in a school district was found to have a decreasing IQ, due to doing progressively worse in school. The judge found the school district to be neglectful of students’ needs because they didn’t address the Matthew Effect.

We can actually interpret the Matthew Effect as an example of the Rich-get-richer model. If we imagine students and teachers are nodes in a network, then the students who do well academically, by the Matthew Effect, receive more attention from other nodes. Students who do poorly will not receive new links in the network because they will distance themselves from school more and more. The nodes who are already getting attention in the network will get more and more inlinks, as more teachers and students will take notice of their success. This imbalance in power follows the Rich-get-richer model.

It might be interesting to try to derive power laws for this type of network. If we sample a school, we might find the distribution of standardized testing scores follows the power laws, because the students who do exceptionally well, while rare, receive more and more attention to do even better the next time, while the opposite is true for students who do poorly. The Matthew Effect should be studied more in practice, since it is an important issue that could cripple a population of students over time.


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November 2018