Thinking Citizen Blog — The “Matthew effect”

Thinking Citizen Blog — Friday is Education and Education Policy Day

Today’s Topic: the “All Important Third Grade,” the “Matthew effect,” and the Third Leg of the Stool

This is a continuation of last week’s post on “The Most Elementary Error of Elementary Education” (namely the illusion that what you read does not matter, so long as you read). The illusion aggravates disparities and the effect is cumulative (the “Matthew effect — a reference to the biblical passage “to him who has more shall be given”). In this invidious downward spiral to ever greater inequality of opportunity third grade has been seen as the critical “pivot point.” Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman was right — the earlier the intervention, the higher the long term return. For me the divorce of content from skills is just half the problem. The missing third leg of the educational stool is discipline, aka manners, aka morality, aka attitude. Whether in the classroom, on the playing field, or in life attitude is paramount. Some students arrive at school with attitudes that are more conducive to success in life than others. High standards lead to high performance whether you are thinking skills, knowledge, or attitude.

The “Matthew Effect” holds true here too. Sweeping this third dimension of the challenge of educational opportunity in America under the rug is no more productive than other forms of denial. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. “It’s the year that students move from learning to read — decoding words using their knowledge of the alphabet — to reading to learn.”

2. “The books children are expected to master are no longer simple primers but fact-filled texts on the solar system, Native Americans, the Civil War.”

3. “Children who haven’t made the leap to fast, fluent reading begin at this moment to fall behind, and for most of them the gap will continue to grow.”

NB: “Third graders who lack proficiency in reading are four times more likely to become high school dropouts.” 83% of low income students test below proficient at the start of fourth grade!!!!!!


1. “Too often the story unfolds this way: struggles in third grade lead to the “fourth grade slump,” as the reading-to-learn model comes to dominate instruction”

2. “While their more skilled classmates are amassing knowledge and learning new words from context, poor readers may begin to avoid reading out of frustration.”

3. “A vicious cycle sets in: school assignments increasingly require background knowledge and familiarity with “book words” (literary, abstract and technical terms) — competencies that are themselves acquired through reading.”

NB: “Meanwhile, classes in science, social studies, history and even math come to rely more and more on textual analysis, so that struggling readers begin to fall behind in these subjects as well.”


1. “Recognizing the importance of this juncture, some states have been taking a hard line: third-graders who aren’t at grade level don’t get promoted to fourth grade.”

2. “Mandatory retention bills” have already passed in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Oklahoma, and are being considered in Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and Tennessee.”

3. “But many education researchers say holding kids back isn’t the answer. The ideal alternative: teachers and parents would collaborate on the creation of an individualized learning plan for each third-grader who needs help with reading — a plan that might involve specialized instruction, tutoring or summer school.”

NB: The “Matthew Effect” should be thought of in the context of the upstream/downside public health parable (see third link below) and the alleged “30 million word” gap (or is it 3 million? or one million? does it matter?). Just as knowledge, skills, and attitude are inseparable, so too are homes, schools, and communities. The inseparability of parenting, teaching, and community standards of behavior and attitudes to learning (eg. is the “acting white” phenomenon real or not?) can be denied only at immeasurable cost to the neediest of children.

Why Third Grade Is So Important: The ‘Matthew Effect’

Matthew effect

The Upstream-Downstream Parable for Health Equity

What’s so important about 3rd grade? | Parenting

A $5 Children’s Book vs. a $47,000 Jail Cell — Choose One

Word gap

Let’s Stop Talking About The ’30 Million Word Gap’

Click here for the last three years of posts arranged by theme:

PDF with headlines — Google Drive


Please share the coolest thing you learned in the last week related to education or education policy. Or the coolest thought however half-baked you had. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to education or education policy that the rest of us may have missed. Or just some random education-related fact that blew you away.

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something that is dear to your heart.

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.

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John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.