The Matthew Effect in Sudbury

Four years before the "new" Sudbury Elementary School was built in 1980 (it was new only in the sense that the last of the really old one-room schools had been closed in the late '60's), the journal of the Australian Educational Research group used the term "the Matthew Effect" to describe how students who do well in the early grades do even better academically and personally later on, while those who don't, for whatever reasons of parental influence, peer pressure, or personal choice, subsequently do progressively worse. Now that the highest-spending typically urban districts are those with the worst achievement results, it's hard to blame inadequate spending, and now that alternative schools produce the best achievement results with the least-formally-accredited teachers, it's hard to blame the teachers, but not impossible: both higher spending and stiffer teacher certification are still pushed as establishment-recommended remedies, real-world experience notwithstanding. The Matthew Effect still isn't a widely used term, but it should be; it accurately describes how, to paraphrase the First-Century Gospel scribe, to those who have mastery of the basics early on, a lot more will come easily, while to those who have little or none, they'll fall further behind, and their future prospects aren't good.

The public-education establishment embraces some of the Matthew Effect: it's the underlying argument in favor of Head Start, for example (which has failed so indefensibly that the latest pro-HS argument is that it hires lots of adults who spend their earnings swiftly and stimulate the economy) and in disfavor of small elementary schools, which supposedly can't produce early achievement results equal to the better-resourced large elementaries, even though the latter are typically organized to emulate the former by means of sub-division into "houses" and, of course, ever-smaller classes. It rejects the other half of the Matthew Effect through efforts to neutralize it, which explains why the most teacher effort is supposed to go to the poorer (both definitions applicable) students and the least to the better ones. Nothing new about that. When I was in grade school long before the Matthew Effect was even dreamed up, we who got the lesson first time around were sent to the fixed seats in the rear of the room to read any book we had brought, while the teacher spent all her time with the third of the class which hadn't gotten it. She wasn't allowed to expand on the lesson with us. Indeed, in its current format, the federally-designed No Child Left Behind legislation is specifically structured to punish teachers and districts with poor students but not to reward or even recognize those who (and which) produce good ones.

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