How one woman grifted the public school system—and set American literacy back decades

The latest example of why giving kids a choice in education is so needed.

American IQs have been decreasing for a few decades now. While you can find articles blaming everything from our food to climate change for that, the simplest solution is usually the right one—and all signs point to our public education system.

When it comes to our reading comprehension skills, a growing number of traditional public school apologists are having to admit its failure.

 

This week, the New York Times released a profile on a woman named Lucy Calkins. Most are likely unfamiliar with Calkins, but if you attended public elementary school, there’s a good chance you encountered her curriculum—a curriculum the New York City school system and others are now throwing out after many years of subjecting countless children to it.

 

Calkins grew to prominence for her work on writing instruction, but she quickly expanded her empire to include a new way of teaching American school kids to read.

For as long as most can remember, schools relied on an actual science to teach reading known as phonics. Phonics-based curriculums teach kids the sound of letters, the various combinations they’re typically found in, and how to sound words out based on that foundation. There are concrete building blocks involved throughout the entire process, and it relies on the auditory component of words as well so kids can figure out the different ways confusing words with multiple uses are employed.

Calkins and those who ascribed to her technique, known as balanced literacy, threw all that out the window. Instead of actually teaching kids to, you know, read, this school of thought relies on things like pictures and teaches kids to use the context of what they’re looking at to guess words.

Calkins has presumably made an immense amount of money peddling this theory. She has multiple businesses, her curriculums have been circulated widely in public schools, and her coaches worked with teachers to adopt her method. According to Calkins, her technique is meant to inspire kids to love reading, and she encourages allowing children to pick the books they want to explore instead of giving kids a progression of increasingly challenging works as they build. This would of course make learning a less tedious process, but it doesn’t exactly challenge kids to expand their horizons or hone their reading chops.

A reading curriculum built on feelings, what could go wrong? As it turns out, a lot.

National test scores have been plummeting for some time now. In 2022, US News reported, “average math score for fourth-graders fell 5 points since 2019, while the score for eighth-graders dropped 8 points. In reading, average scores for both grades fell 3 points.” They also pointed out, “the shares of students below the ‘basic’ level – the lowest level of academic achievement – grew. In math, one-quarter of fourth-graders were below the basic level in 2022…In reading, the percentage of students below the NAEP basic increased by 3 percentage points in both grades.”

 

In contrast, homeschooled students continue to score 15 to 30 percentage points higher on their standardized test scores compared to their public school peers across subjects. This would indicate that at least one of the problems at play here is the method, or the curriculum, public schools are using to instruct students.

One cannot inspire children to become lifelong readers, or good writers, without the fundamental building blocks of literacy. And the problems with Calkins’ approach don’t stop there. Parents of children with dyslexia, children from poorer homes with less language-rich environments, immigrant children who use English as a second language, and teachers themselves have long complained about the additional hardships this type of instruction places on many students in their educational pursuits.

As one educator wrote in the New York Post, “I witnessed this daily in my South Bronx elementary school, where fewer than 20% of students passed state reading tests. I never had a single student unable to read words printed on a page. When they were reading and writing about topics they knew — the Calkins method — students did well. But when asked to read about unfamiliar topics on state tests, they often struggled. They read it, but they didn’t get (it). One principal I worked under attributed our low scores to ‘test anxiety,’ but that wasn’t the problem. Their education was all mirrors and no windows.”

 

As a former homeschooler, I can tell you firsthand that the debate over the use of phonetics to teach reading has been quietly raging for some time. Many parents like my mother, who obtained her teaching degree in Alabama and witnessed firsthand the problems with the curriculum being taught in public schools, actually chose to homeschool their kids based on this very dispute.

But despite the criticisms, Calkins curriculum has had a death grip on public schools for some time. And unfortunately for the majority of American families, especially those in the lower income brackets, they haven’t been able to opt out of this nonsense approach to reading.

As of last year, it seems Calkins’ curriculum is finally on the chopping block. Some states have passed laws demanding phonics be taught in the classroom, others are simply opting for new curriculums, and a slew of media outlets have hung her and her methodology out to dry as the chickens come home to roost.

Calkins, however, remains unapologetic. As is so often the case when an individual is responsible for, or complicit in, committing harm against others, she seems wholly unable to recognize her responsibility in America’s academic decline. In an interview with the New York Times she was asked, “Some critics, they want something more like an apology. Some teachers have said to me, there needs to be almost a national reckoning or a grieving process for reading issues in the country.”

Her response? “I think that people who have supported phonics first would be wise to learn from others and that, sure, they could apologize for not trusting teachers, not giving kids important, engaging projects to work on, not creating classrooms that are vital. And I think that we, all of us, do the best we can.”

Ma’am. What?

The Times went on to note that Calkins has created a newer version of her curriculum, one that does involve more phonics instruction and said, “she has told the 15 percent to 20 percent of American schools that are using her old materials that they should update. And if they want to buy the new stuff, they can get a discount.”

So she’s still trying to make a buck off the sucker of the public education system.

Given the system’s history, there’s unfortunately a non-zero chance some will buy it.

This is just the latest example of why school choice is needed immediately across the country. Public schools make a lot of mistakes, and when they do, their monopoly power on education means kids and their families are stuck with their failures and forced to pay for them.

Had school choice been present all along, enough families would have voted with their feet and opted out of this ridiculous curriculum that was so clearly failing students. That’s the beauty of competition—good ideas win out, bad ones are forced to cease sooner. But under opaque government bureaucracies, change comes much more slowly. Special interests can win special favors. And groupthink prevails.

Countless American school children will continue to live with the consequences of Calkins’ ideas in their academic and professional lives. Failures in academic instruction are not easily outlived. And who knows what other failed programs school kids are also currently experiencing that will be exposed in years to come.

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Hannah Cox
Hannah Coxhttp://based-politics.com
Hannah Cox is a libertarian-conservative writer and co-founder of BASEDPolitics. She's also the host of the BASEDPolitics podcast and an experienced political activist.