Education, Development, and Change
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Matthew effect

By
Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Monday, 15 Feb, 2010

“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”— Gospel of Matthew (XXV:29)


THIS biblical allusion was first used in education by Keith Stanovich, a renowned psychologist, in his article

Matthew effects in reading, where he focused on the cumulative advantages of early reading. This Matthew effect can also be seen in the educational system of Pakistan where the rich are getting richer and the poor are becoming poorer.

During a research study in Karachi I observed some elite schools and public schools to study their English language teaching and learning practices. I found a huge difference in the educational environment which is central to learning the language. Let us first look at the physical side of the environment. I observed in elite schools neat and clean classrooms where reasonable facilities were available.

On the other hand in state-run schools I observed some classes being held in a verandah where students could see what was happening in the playground and were thus distracted. It was summer and the students were sweating. Most students in public-sector schools belonged to the lower middle class where it was unthinkable to have an English newspaper at home and where parents were not familiar with the English language.

Contrary to this, students in the elite schools had early exposure to English. In some cases their parents would talk to them in English. They had access to English newspapers and books and they belonged to a social circle where English was part of the culture. In elite schools the faculty members were fluent in English and came from a sound socio-economic background. On the other hand, the faculty in public schools came from the lower social strata and was not proficient in English.

The essence of this observation is that students hailing from a poorer socio-economic background had less or no exposure to English at home, and were in schools where there were fewer physical facilities (library, classrooms, furniture, fans, safe drinking water, etc.). Moreover, the quality of English language teaching at these schools was very poor as the teachers themselves were not very confident about using English.

On the other hand the students from a better socio-economic background had exposure to the English language at home and had therefore acquired greater proficiency in the language. They had access to elite schools, where there were better physical facilities. The teachers had few problems speaking English. This shows that students who needed more quality input were getting less of it and those whose English language skills were already good were getting greater input. This is exactly what the Matthew effect is all about.

It is claimed that education and development are correlated, i.e. education opens the doors to development, including getting better jobs. But there is need to look deeper into the issue of the identity of those with access to quality education which then acts as a passport to a higher economic and social status. The French sociologist Bourdieu suggested that economic advantage leads to higher gains in education which in turn paves the way for many social, economic and cultural advantages.

The elite in society thus, enjoy ‘positional superiority’ (a term used by Edward Said in Orientalism) that enables them to get quality education and enhance their opportunities in life. Can education help reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots? Theoretically the answer is in the affirmative but it is certainly a daunting prospect especially with the neo-liberalism that is seeping into our educational system. The call for globalisation supported the notions of privatisation, de-regularisation and the maximisation of profit. These three slogans capture the essence of neo-liberalism and globalisation in education. In the absence of state interference, education has become totally dependent on market forces. As neo-liberalism has no preference for ‘values’ only those subjects that ‘sell’ are taught in schools and social sciences and humanities take the backseat.

Schools under the economic model of neo-liberalism are engaged in mass production through their outlets at various intra-city and inter-city points. These schools are not only perpetuating unequal economic, social and cultural gains, they are further widening the gap by offering more to the rich and less to the poor. Such gaping differences can be seen on the basis of social class, gender, ethnicity, etc. where marginalised groups are given the lesser share of resources.

This situation needs our urgent attention. The attributes of justice and equity are essential for any civilised society. To help schools play their positive role we need to bring some radical changes in other social institutions as well. Giving equal educational opportunities is the first step towards social justice and equality.

The writer is director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

shahidksiddiqui@yahoo.com