Cumulative Advantages and the Emergence of Social and Ethnic Inequality: Matthew Effects in Reading and Mathematics Development Within Elementary Schools?


  • Gabriel Nagy is now at the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN) at the University of Kiel, Germany.

  • We thank Olaf Köller for his comments and advice and Susannah Goss for translation and language editing.

concerning this article should be addressed to Jürgen Baumert, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Lentzeallee 94, 14195 Berlin, Germany. Electronic mail may be sent to


This article examines the development of social and ethnic disparities in academic achievement in elementary schooling. It investigated whether reading and mathematics development in 136 mixed-ability classes shows path-dependent processes of cumulative advantage (Matthew effects) from Grades 4 to 6 (Grade 4 mean age = 10.62, SD = 0.57) resulting in growing inequality. Status-dependent processes of cumulative advantage, their interaction with path-dependent processes, and consequences for the degree of social and ethnic inequality are examined. Two complementary methods for analyzing multilevel data are used: growth curve and quasi-simplex models. No evidence for a Matthew effect was found in either domain. A compensation effect emerged for reading, to the benefit of ethnic minorities. A fan-spread effect was found for mathematics, partly attributable to status-dependent processes of cumulative advantage.