The Matthew Effect hits Technology – And the Inner City

29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

-Matthew 25:29

In 2014, it baffles and bothers me that there continues to be huge achievement gaps for African-American students and other nationalities.  With all of the advancements of technology within education, you would think that more strides would have been made to close the academic gaps for inner city youth.  As technology takes the main stage in academic achievement, it concerns me that these advancements have yet to penetrate the inner city.

One of the possible reasons why technological advancement and integration has not been able to close the academic gaps for African-American students can be attributed to the Matthew Effect.

The Original Matthew Effect and the Digital Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect originated in the late sixties in the realm of sociology by the late sociologist Robert Merton who noticed that within the science world, “eminent scientists will often get more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher, even if their work is similar; it also means that credit will usually be given to researchers who are already famous (Merton, 1968).  Taken from the Book of Matthew, 25:29, in a nutshell, Merton theorized that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” which gave this theory its name.

In 1986, psychologist Ken Stanovich made the correlation of the Matthew Effect to education, specifically Reading. He theorized that students who struggle early in reading are much more likely not just to remain behind their peers but to gradually lag further and further behind. When they read, most or all of their cognitive resources are devoted to laborious decoding of words. Indeed, this decoding work is so onerous that they don’t often get to engage with meaning and ideas or learn new words and background knowledge. Their progress is slow and incremental at best.

Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks (Stanovich, 1986).  In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior (Adams, 1990).

Now researchers are beginning to document a digital Matthew Effect, in which the already advantaged gain more from technology than do the less fortunate. As with books and reading, the most knowledgeable, most experienced, and most supported students are those best positioned to use computers to leap further ahead (Murphy Paul, 2014).

Although there is no substantial statistical data floating around to support the Matthew Effect of technology, it is a forgone conclusion that it exists and continues to negatively impact impoverished students along the lines of culture and race.  It is much easier to mask this theory under the guise of the digital divide, but this is not the case at all.  The reality of the situation is that in terms of technology, the rich getter smarter and the poor get dumber because it’s more about how they use technology than just about having access to it.  Because of their life experiences, affluent students versus poor students select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience.

With technology integration being a mandatory component of today’s education environment, it is imperative that we look at not only how much access to technology plays a role in the advancement of youth academically, but what they do with that access when they have it.  Having access to limitless forms of technology definitely gives one socioeconomic group an advantage over another, but that’s only one part of the equation.  Students from a financially strong background tend to be taught to use technology differently than poor, inner city youth. By the time students who have access to technology enter school, they are already versed in technology use and their parents have guided their usage and have navigated a path to being responsible users of technology.  Crucially, the comparatively rich background knowledge possessed by high-income students is not only about technology itself, but about everything in the wide world beyond one’s neighborhood. Not only are affluent kids more likely to know how to Google; they’re more likely to know what to Google for (Murphy Paul, 2014).  Contrary to this, statistics show that many inner-city or low-income parents do not guide the use of technology by their children in such a manner.  By the time most inner city students get in front of a teacher that can guide their use of technology to influence their academic achievement, it is nearly too late.  Similar to the Matthew Effect of Reading, the improper use of technology coupled with this lapse in time is of serious detriment to African-American students who are falling further behind in achievement gaps.

A Possible Solution

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream, not only plan, but also believe.”

– Anatole France.

Parental engagement is vital to a child’s learning and known to help raise attainment (McLean, 2009).  Parents are the critical piece in lowering the achievement and technology gaps.  Parents must be brought into the discussion of student achievement and informed of how their influence is essential to the how their children will grow academically/ Bring them to the table kicking and screaming if we must.   Parents who are not engaged are unable to support their child effectively and more burden is put on the teacher to support their learning (McLean, 2009).

African American parents are active users of the Internet and mobile technology (File, 2013).  With the invention of smartphones and smartphone technology, there has been increased access to the internet and a variety of applications.  Though the digital divide still exists, this phenomenon gives parents the opportunity to close achievement gaps by creating a culture within their homes of responsible use of technology.   African-American parents must effectively monitor computer use and guide that use toward productive means.  The days of passing off the phone to their children to access games and online entertainment sites must come to an end.  And, the new era of accessing Khan Academy and Edmodo must begin. The strides that have been made with smartphone technology now enables parents and students to have access to websites and applications that were customarily only available to PCs.

To ensure that this happens, schools need to offer a different kind of PD – Parent Development.  As schools engage in professional development workshops to get their teachers up to par on technology integration, it would be beneficial for them to also facilitate parental development and teach parents of how essential their role is in influencing technology use for their children as well as how to work their way around a smartphone so that their child can utilize the various educational applications and Web 2.0 tools to level the playing field against their more affluent classmates.

Justice M. Stamps.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press. pp. 59–60. Retrieved from

File, T. (2013).  Computer and internet use in the united states.  Retrieved from

Merton, R. K. (1968). The matthew effect in science. Science 159 (3810), 56–63.

Merton, R. K. (1988). The matthew effect in science, II: Cumulative advantage and the symbolism of intellectual property. ISIS 79, 606–623. Retrieved from

Murphy Paul, A. (2014). Is technology widening opportunity gaps between rich and poor kids?  MindShift. Retrieved from

McLean, N.  (2009). Technology can bridge the gap between parents and schools.  Retrieved from

Stanovich, K. (1986).  Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy.  Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407Retrieved from

Additional Sources

Smith, A.  (2014).  African-americans and technology use: A demographic portrait.  Retrieved from

Zickuhr, K. Smith, A.  (2012). Digital differences.  Retrieved from


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