Public Education is Making Our Children Illiterate
Public Education is Making Our Children Illiterate
Written By Kristi Shaffer   |   07.05.22
Reading Time: 3 minutes

It might not be a surprise to many to hear that our public education system is failing. However, it may come as a surprise to hear that it is creating illiteracy. The depths of the problem came to light during the years of the pandemic. Now critics of poorly developed reading curriculums and parents of struggling children are asking why we are not doing a better job teaching students how to read.


Children that started school during the COVID-19 pandemic show disturbing trends in their reading abilities. It is estimated that 1 in 3 students in grades k-3 are not reading at grade level. Although a problem existed before the pandemic, it has worsened over the last few years of online learning. Schools throughout the country assess their students yearly using the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). This test was developed by Amplify and given to more than 400,000 students annually. The group then gathers the data to determine how many students are reading at level. Following the pandemic, only 47% of Kindergarteners, 48% of 1st graders, and 51% of 2nd graders are reading at grade level. Although the pandemic has undoubtedly played a role in the decline in literacy, the slow erosion of reading skills is not a new problem.


In the late 1970s, Professor Lucy Calkins entered academia at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She would develop a curriculum and teachers of the curriculum for over 40 years. Her reading curriculum is one of the best-selling in the nation, Units of Study. The problem is that researchers have found that it is ineffective for teaching children to read. Calkins has utilized a technique known as “whole word.” In the whole word method, students typically do not use sound or even focus on individual letters in a word. Instead, they use what is called “three cueing.” In this method, they use pictures and cues surrounding the unknown word to “cue” the student to what the word might be. They might try to identify the word by the content of the rest of the sentence. But the system is little more than guessing. The student never learns phonics or the sounding-out of terms.


Researchers have discovered that students need phonics and letter recognition to develop the foundations of reading and that cueing does not necessarily lead to students developing word recognition. Teachers, researchers, and others have criticized the curriculum in the last few years. Ed Reports, a private group assessing curriculum, gave Unit of Studies the lowest review possible and stated that it did not meet expectations.


Another curriculum used widely in the U.S. was developed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. The Fountas and Pinnell system does use some phonics but lacks exercises for the student to practice phonic skills. It also uses some of the whole word techniques. Phonics is only for the teacher to briefly instruct and does not even cover the entire curriculum. Ed Reports also gave the Fountas and Pinnell curriculum the lowest review and stated they did not meet expectations.

Researchers who have studied the way students learn to recognize letters, words, and sounds have stressed the need to instruct phonics. Calkins recently announced that she would be updating her curriculum this summer to include more phonics instruction. However, she had already introduced a text in 2018 that had some phonic in the curriculum. The curriculum still focuses on the whole word method, which has proven ineffective at teaching basic reading skills. Updating a useless methodology will not help our children learn reading skills. 

Before the pandemic, it was estimated that one-fourth of 4th graders were reading significantly below level. Now we have forced students out of the classroom and into virtual learning that was proven ineffective. As a result, public school has failed our children and our communities again. How can we continue to support a system that is obviously designed not to educate but indoctrinate?


During the summer, review your children’s curriculum. Did their school use one of the useless curriculums? Did their school force them to read books more focused on social indoctrination than skill development? If this sounds like your child’s school or curriculum, then perhaps it is time to remove your child from the indoctrination-centered public school system.

Kristi Shaffer
Kristi Shaffer completed an Associates degree at Lewis and Clark Community College in 2006, she then graduated Magna Cum Laude from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville with a bachelor’s in history and a minor in Anthropology in 2009. She went on to complete a Masters in U.S. History at St. Louis University in 2013. Prior to entering the field of higher education and history, Kristi worked in the medical field for 13 years, 10 of that as Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). Currently she is working as an adjunct instructor of history. She has taught in community colleges in both Illinois and...
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