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Mathews has worked at the Washington Post since 1971, writing news reports and books about China, disability rights, the stock market, and education. Mathews won the 1999 Benjamin Fine Award for Outstanding Education Reporting for both features and column writing. He writes the Class Struggle blog for the Washington Post.
He has prepared the annual ranking of "America’s Most Challenging High Schools" for the Washington Post (and previously for Newsweek) for 18 years. He developed the "challenge index" by counting how many individuals take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests at a school each year, divided by the number of graduating seniors.  Top-performing schools are excluded. 
Mathews’s book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America traces Jaime Escalante’s career from his native Bolivia to Garfield High School in East Lost Angeles, where he taught advanced mathematics courses to disadvantaged high school students, mostly Latino. Escalante’s story was the subject of the film Stand and Deliver, which starred Edward James Olmos.
Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public High Schools, was published in March 1998. It explored elite American public high schools and criticizes the selection process that offers Advanced Placement studies to only the top students. His national ranking system for high schools, the Challenge Index, formerly in Newsweek, runs on the Washington Post website, as the High School Challenge. His other books explore the growth of International Baccalaureate programs, the Ivy League admissions system and the rise of the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools.
He and his wife, Linda Mathews, former Los Angeles Times Beijing correspondent and assistant foreign editor, New York Times national editor, ABC News producer and USA Today enterprise editor, have three children. His son, Joe Mathews, is an author, journalist and syndicated columnist at Zocalo Public Square, and his daughter-in-law, Anna Wilde Mathews, is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.
|1985||One Billion||448||Ballentine||ISBN 0345298950|
|1985||China and the U.S.||Foreign Policy Association||ISBN 0871240947|
|1986||Sino-American Relations After Normalization: Toward the Second Decade||63||Foreign Policy Association||ISBN 0871241056|
|1988||Escalante: The Best Teacher in America||322||Henry Holt & Co.||ISBN 0805011951|
|1992||A Mother's Touch: The Tiffany Callo Story||265||Henry Holt & Co.||ISBN 0805017143|
|1998||The Myth of Tiananmen and the Price of a Passive Press||12||Columbia Journalism Review|
|1998||Class Struggle : What's Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public High Schools||320||Times Books||ISBN 0812931408|
|2003||Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That is Best for You||304||Three Rivers Press||ISBN 0761536957|
|2005||Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools||237||Open Court||ISBN 0812695771|
|2009||Work Hard. Be Nice.||328||Algonquin Books||ISBN 9781565125162|
|2012||"The War Against Dummy Math"||140||American Institutes for Research||ISBN 1456340115|
|2015||"Question Everything"||266||Jossey-Bass||ISBN 9781118438190|
- "Education: How the America’s Most Challenging High Schools list works," The Washington Post April 19, 2015
- Jay Matthews, "That’s the Idea: Some schools serving low-income students believe in a challenge" Washington Post April 12, 2016