The Masked Matthew Effect
Annie Stutzman

Times of heightened emergency have a way of bringing critical issues to the forefront. At closer look, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted constant and consistent barriers for countless disenfranchised people, and it has rightfully forced society to reflect on systemic actions that have created deep cracks in many domains, specifically the education system. Access to free education that meets the needs of each child is a key objective of the Every Student Succeeds Act (2020) and in part is meant to support disadvantaged students, which includes students in poverty, minorities, students who receive special education services, and those with limited English language skills. When many schools closed for in-person instruction due to pandemic health protocols in March 2020, the inequities called to attention were not novel. The difficulties for students accessing basic needs and proper instruction had been present prior to the pandemic but were now exposed to a captive audience.    

By the end of 2020, countless numbers of children were obstructed from equal learning opportunities, and thousands were still precluded from in-person learning. A survey of more than 2,000 educators found that two-thirds of teachers in the United States attested that a majority of their students were less prepared for grade-level work than they were at this time last year (Kaufman, et al., 2021). This is an education epidemic, and the most vulnerable are those who are already typically at-risk: students in poverty, BIPOC, and those who receive (or should receive) special education services. The Matthew Effect, or the idea that that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, is at the foundation of this literacy plight (Stanovitch,1986). The full scope of the developmental and academic effects for the multitude of students the pandemic has touched is rooted in historical educational inequality. Compounding variables of social injustice and ongoing misinformation on proper pedagogical practices have created a comorbid system. Educational inequity is a large branch growing from roots in systemic inequality. To understand the deficiencies in education during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can look to the fault lines that were already present. 

Educational inequity is a large branch growing from roots in systemic inequality. 

The 2019 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), or the “Nation’s Report Card,” assessed more than 290,000 fourth- and eighth-grade U.S. students in reading and math. A subgroup of this population is the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA), which comprises select school districts based on district size, percentages of Black or Hispanic students, and percentages of students eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program. In 2019, TUDA districts average reading scores were lower or showed no significant change from 2017 (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2019). The reasons for this can be extrapolated from issues of racial and economic disparity in the educational system. “Race matters, because white children are significantly more likely to go to public schools where more kids are successful with reading; that means when white kids struggle, their reading problems tend to stand out and get attention. And if a child has a reading disability, a white child is much more likely to get special education services” (Hanford 2020). The resources these students and school communities need, which include teacher training and implementation of proven research-based instruction methods, are consistently not made readily available.  

The onset of COVID-19 and the global transition to remote learning presented more nuanced issues, such as accessibility, addressing special education needs, and modification of instructional practices. The “summer slide” or loss of a percentage of educational gains of students during the summer (Cooper et al., 1996) was replaced with a “coronavirus slide,” as millions of students across the globe were displaced after school closings and implementation of virtual classrooms were staggered and inconsistent. Students are expected to confront a 30% loss in learning compared to a typical school year. Once again, schools and students with more resources were able to transition to online learning platforms more quickly, as the fractures of social injustice deepened. In New York City, the rollout of remote learning was met with the quandary of how hundreds of thousands of students, especially housing-insecure children who do not have stable, or even any, internet access, could effectively participate in school. An article in The New York Times in January 2021 reported, “Providing reliable internet access to the city’s 111,000 children in homeless shelters and unstable housing has been one of the most stubborn obstacles to getting online schooling right, and for many students there’s no relief in sight. The city belatedly started putting Wi-Fi in 200 family shelters in November and says it won’t finish until the end of summer, after a second pandemic school year has come and gone” (Newman, 2021). 

For these children and a multitude of others, school closings also brought to the forefront the substantial proportion of children who rely on schools for needs apart from education, such as meals and before- and after-school childcare. In the NWEA Research’s April 2020 brief, Dr. Megan Kuhfeld and Dr. Beth Tarasawa (2020) noted, "Children from more affluent communities are more likely to come from families with financial resources, stable employment, and flexible work from home and childcare arrangements that allow them to weather this storm more easily than families who are renting their housing, working in low-pay fields that are hardest hit by the economic impacts, and experiencing higher rates of food insecurity, family instability, and other shocks from this disruption."

These variables underscore how The Matthew Effect persists. In this cycle, families with more economic resources can afford accommodations, whether it be tutors, technology, or simply a secure internet connection.  

There is a large amount of data to be collected on the effects of virtual learning and school during COVID-19, and it is too early for guiding statistics. With so many factors affecting the quality of education, the cornerstone of a proven research-based program must not be ignored. At-risk populations, such as children with learning disabilities, are in heightened peril when already substandard or uninformed instruction is present. Leading reading research expert Mark Seidenberg noted, “Reading to children is important but not sufficient; children benefit from it, some quite a lot, but it neither obviates the role of instruction nor vaccinates against dyslexia” (Seidenberg, 2018). In the educational sector, there are still unfounded ideological debates about best methods of instruction. The consequences for struggling students in schools using a curriculum that does not apply direct, systematic instruction will only be exacerbated by an online learning platform. Far too many students have fallen through the cracks caused by historical inequality, social inequities magnified by a global pandemic, and unwillingness to implement practices steeped in proven analysis. As the world is finally compelled to examine how the educational system has forgotten and failed so many children, it is the precise time to keep pushing for equality through change. Activist, journalist, and teacher, Ida B. Wells astutely posed, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” 

As the world is finally compelled to examine how the educational system has forgotten and failed so many children, it is the precise time to keep pushing for equality through change. 

Expanding on the words of Ms. Wells, the light of truth we must turn on the wrongs must be a beacon. It is crucial that funding in education not only funnels to developing inclusive educational standards, but in allocating resources that will provide benefits for disadvantaged children in perpetuity. Lack of resources should no longer be a justification for lack of education. While masks provide pandemic protection, blinders must be removed to aid the most vulnerable population: our children.