If You Want Higher Reading Achievement, You’re Going to Have to Deal with the COVID Aftermath

  • improving reading achievement amount of instruction
  • 15 April, 2023

Teacher question:

I’m a fourth-grade teacher. This year, because of the COVID shutdowns, I’m seeing more students than ever before who don’t know how to decode. I don’t see how I can teach them what I have in previous years, and I don’t have the ability to deal with the decoding problems. Our district is making a long needed serious effort to upgrade to phonics in our K-1 classrooms, but my students won’t benefit from that. What can I do?

RELATED: Shedding Light on Reading Skills and Strategies

Shanahan responds:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing these kinds of complaints from across the country. Third and fourth grade teachers wanting to know what to do with their students who have serious gaps in decoding ability. Some tell me that it is a new problem for them, others say it has just gotten worse recently.

That may be surprising given the big emphasis these days on “science of reading” and the response of many states, districts, and schools to improve their programming for K-2 instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics.

It appears that this problem is part of the backwash from our COVID shutdown tragedy – and it is not the only ongoing disruption that pandemic has wreaked on our children’s education. I’ll address your question, and then want to talk about another COVID concern that I think deserves greater attention.

Primary grade kids missed out on a lot of teaching in the teeth of the pandemic. Some managed to parlay their shortened Zoom lessons and mom and dad’s kitchen table efforts into adequate and appropriate decoding ability. Hooray!

But, sadly, for too many others – and this appears to vary by locale – things haven’t worked so well. This school year they entered third and fourth grade at lower levels of reading ability than their teachers have witnessed previously.

Apparently, many schools started the 2022-2023 school year with the idea that things were back to normal. They were for the most part, for our young’uns entering our K-2 classrooms. Those kids may have been behind in these foundational skills, but their teachers usually have had the training, materials availability, and Tier 2 back up support needed to address those gaps.

Unfortunately, often those upper grade teachers have not received similar support. Under normal circumstance, that has been okay for most kids. But these are far from normal circumstances.

Too many kids in the upper grades missed out on the full regimen of decoding instruction usually available in the primary grades. They now find themselves in classrooms unlikely to fill those gaps. Given the ETS research on decoding thresholds and later literacy success, this is potentially a big, and perhaps, long term problem (Wang, Sabatini, O’Reilly, & Weeks, 2019).

It is up to educators to try to minimize the difficulty. Efforts should be made to evaluate the decoding status of kids in grades 3-5 and then fitting instructional responses need to be made.

If the numbers and percentages of decoding laggards are high, then explicit decoding instruction – at the appropriate levels, levels usually addressed in the earlier grade – should temporarily become a part of the upper grade Tier 1 curriculum. I know this will tick off my friends who worry about phonics taking over the world like a Dungeons and Dragons monster, but that’s the reason for the assessments – so that kids who’ve mastered those skills already can proceed as usual.

It is also important to remember that this adjustment is for a year or two – just long enough to recover from the heartrending loss of education these youngsters have suffered.

If – fingers crossed – the numbers are a bit worse than usual, but far from universal, then it would be best to clean up the mess through a stronger Tier 2 effort. No reason to disrupt the regular upper grade curriculum for small handfuls of additional needy students.

What is clear from the teachers I’ve been hearing from is that in too many places these kids really are slipping through the cracks, and this should not be happening. These teachers are frustrated by what they are confronting but they are uncertain how best to respond.

Remember, these are not the teachers to whom professional development aimed at foundational skills has been provided. Nor are they the teachers who have been assigned curriculum materials aimed at basic decoding skills. But what has been appropriate in the past, doesn’t appear to be sufficient for our current situation.

Someone in each school or district needs to assess the problem, determine its extent, and then provide a sound response to the fourth and fifth graders for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year.

The scary part of this is that we don’t have a lot of models of high quality, successful upper grade phonics instructional efforts. However, those ETS data suggest that if kids don’t reach threshold levels of decoding, then they don’t improve in reading in the middle and high school years – no matter what we try. This is not just something we should let pass by; we need to get on this before these kids leave the elementary grades.
Additionally, there is another COVID education problem lurking in the shadows.

Over the past several weeks, news reports have begun to detail some of the most serious wreckage of the pandemic. Although no national statistics are available that I’m aware of, it is evident that school enrollments are seriously down. Districts across the country, large and small, are reporting markedly higher chronic absence and lower daily attendance than usual.

U.S. schools in the 2010s were providing teaching to the largest numbers and largest percentages of students in our nation’s history. It took more than a century of effort, since education became compulsory in all our states, to accomplish that. There is no question that a big part of the reading achievement gains that we experienced from 1880-1970 were due to more kids spending more time at school.

Those attendance increases flattened out in the 1970s – as we digested Brown v. Board of Education – right about the time that educational achievement stopped increasing much in the U.S.

I suspect reversals in those enrollment and attendance figures will mean lower reading achievement nationwide for the foreseeable future. This is one that the schools can’t handle on their own. But it is one that needs to be handled.

States should assist their local districts in securing sufficient transportation so kids can get to school.

Media could help a lot by stressing to parents the importance of school attendance for their children.

Educators should think hard about how we can best reintroduce our schools to our communities, so parents feel that it is safe for their kids to be at school and understand better the need for vigilance in getting their kids to school every day.

Politicians, media, and school boards should make efforts to minimize the controversies that swirl around their local schools rather than ramping up nut-bag complaints that in the past would have been dealt with expeditiously and quietly. No one wants to send their kids into a hotbed of antagonism and animosity. 

Recently, I posted a blog that emphasized the importance of amount of instruction and curricula focused on those things that students need to learn to become successful readers (including decoding). There should be no need to retrace that ground here.

However, COVID, the greatest public health threat of our lifetime (with more than 7 million deaths worldwide and counting) has undermined the amount of teaching our kids get and has managed to prevent some kids from fully experiencing key parts of the reading curriculum. Sadly, COVID may turn out to be the biggest threat to public education of our lifetime as well. But that is up to us.

READ MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Blog


Wang, Z., Sabatini, J., O’Reilly, T., & Weeks, J. (2019). Decoding and reading comprehension: A test of the decoding threshold hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 387–401. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000302


See what others have to say about this topic.

Gina Apr 15, 2023 01:41 PM

Thank you for this. I left a job as a reading specialist last year because I could not get teachers or admin to address this. We needed changes at Tier I and referrals for kids not making progress after interventions. I couldn’t fix the problem alone.

Dorothy Leech Apr 15, 2023 01:44 PM

While i'm a teacher and believe students need to go to school, the fact of school shootings is a serious deterrent for parents. This is way outside of issues of best practices for promoting reading skill and teacher preparation. However, in my community, many parents are choosing to homeschool, and if parents don't have the means to do this, then fear that their children may not be safe in school is probably affecting their thinking and/or their actions.

Gale Morrison Apr 15, 2023 02:37 PM

So well said, as always. I am beyond distraught how much of our coverage of schools is consumed by, as you say, nut bag complaints and tempests in a teapot. We need the adults to act like adults and focus on the kids basic educational needs and the schools being safe, clean and staffed.

Lisa Apr 15, 2023 02:41 PM

As a third grade teacher, I can attest that this is spot on. An additional factor not mentioned is the lag in overall maturity and social emotional coping skills. I used to loop 2/3, and I must say many of them came in this year with the maturity and stamina for school
that I saw with early second graders during my loops. (I’m sure last year’s grade 2 teaches had their hands full!) This has affected our learning day in many ways.

I am fortunate that just prior to the pandemic our district started IMSE OG training. Now all of us have been trained in either comprehensive, intermediate or both.
It’s helped with the deciding issues immensely and the kids love it.

Cecilia Jabakumar Apr 15, 2023 02:48 PM

I want to share that Phonics 2.0 instruction and LETRS (State- & District-led efforts) have brought about positive outcomes for all students at our school. Students in K-3 are receiving a sound foundation in reading and are showing gains and growth in real time. In addition, our teachers are regaining their joy in teaching, as learning outcomes validate their instruction and support work. I am hopeful these tools and training will extend to Grade 4-5. Overall, our students next year will come in with some background in how to acquire basic reading skills.

Bruce Howlett Apr 15, 2023 02:55 PM

While phonics may help, it's not the solution to the 3rd grade reading barrier when 65% of newly encountered words in print because multisyllablic, irregular or code variations. This is also the time when readers must switch from effortful decoding to automatic word recognition. This is arguably as be a task as learning to decode.
Researchers including Ehri, Beringer, Gray, Wolf call for integrated instruction that unites Phonemic, orthographic and morphological awareness - multi-component POM instruction. This enables readers to process larger, more complicated chunks of words, with meaning. Links to research at ResdingShift.com

Meredith Apr 15, 2023 03:16 PM

Very well said. As a 4th grade teacher of 9 years and changing to 2nd this year, I completely agree with you about reaching the upper grades and making sure they have the deciding skills so they can comprehend better.
In my school, I’ve noticed an increase in Tier 2 availability for primary grades especially in 2nd (COVID Kinders) and I’m hoping it will help them when moving to 3rd and up. I hope intermediate is getting as much support because those kids need it.
I even see the struggles with my own two (5th and 8th grades) from COVID and I even helped my then 2nd/3rd grader during the pandemic. She’s still struggling. So, I can’t even imagine what other children her age now are going through.
I agree with your comment about having intermediate teachers be versed in SOR so that they can teach the deciding skills if needed for the older kids. I wish I knew more when I was a 4th grade teacher.
Hopefully schools and districts will see that Tier 1 and 2 should be at the forefront and help these babies catch up so they don’t suffer in Middle school.
Thank you for your post.

Harriett Janetos Apr 15, 2023 03:33 PM

"The scary part of this is that we don’t have a lot of models of high quality, successful upper grade phonics instructional efforts."

I highly recommend the new FREE program Word Connections for grades 3-5, written by Jessica Toste along with Devin Kearns and Sharon Vaughn--two researchers with solid track records--and two other authors, Capin and Williams, whom I don't know.


Toste, J. R., Capin, P., Williams, K. J., Kearns, D. M., & Vaughn, S. (2022). Word Connections: A Multisyllabic Word Reading Program (Version 1). figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.6259368

"There is evidence that the 40-lesson Word Connections program improves reading outcomes for upper elementary students. Specifically, we have tested the program with third to fifth grade students identified as with or at-risk for reading disability. To date, our team has conducted three empirical studies reporting positive effects from this program. Students who participated in the intervention showed greater gains in word reading and decoding, reading comprehension, spelling, and accurate reading of both isolated affixes and multisyllabic words."

JC Apr 15, 2023 03:57 PM

What are some examples of these “nut-bag” complaints?

Lauren Apr 15, 2023 04:34 PM

Thank you for this post. I agree that learning loss is a very real problem. School absences are also a very real problem. I wanted to comment on reading achievement scores. I believe that it is important to consider how achievement tests have changed since 1970 and since the implementation of the common core. State achievement assessments in reading used to be pretty quick and basic. I was recently working with fourth grade students on a comprehension exercise, and questions about the text included things like: Which statement best expresses the author's purpose for writing this text? Which statement best expresses a personal connection to the text? Which ideas are compared in the text from the foundational theme? There were also some more traditional questions like "Why did the character respond in a certain way" etc. I found that the students could correctly answer traditional questions which really focused on comprehending the content of the text, but they could not answer the questions which were imbedded in other concepts like: Personal connection, foundational theme, and author's purpose. These additional concepts have to be taught to children if they are going to do well on state achievement tests. To be honest, I'm not sure that these concepts are something that fourth graders should be expected to know. They seem to cloud the real objective of actually understanding the content and ideas contained within a text or story. I think that one important step in addressing reading achievement is to really look at the state tests. I have leaned over and read some of the questions for fourth and fifth grade state tests. They are really confusing!

Dr Todd Porter Apr 15, 2023 04:43 PM

You make some good points but miss a crucial one which is that COVID itself was not that big of a threat. It was the public health response to COVID that cost more lives and Locked our kids out of school further minimizing the perceived importance of public education overall

Marnie Apr 15, 2023 04:44 PM

So true! Thank you!

Business-as-usual has been an implicit mantra in schools for older struggling readers for decades. School closures have just underscored the folly of little or poor quality intervention.

Another factor that's scary, too, is the hit on mental health--that of the parents, the teachers, the administrators, and the students.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 15, 2023 05:24 PM

Dr. Todd -- I agree with your assessment.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 15, 2023 05:26 PM


I wish you were wrong. I know you're not. I have 8 grandchildren currently in Pre-K-12 schools. Just two weeks ago, two of them were locked down because of a student bringing a gun to school. Although statistically such events are rare, they are very public and very frightening and they have definitely contributed to the undermining of parental commitments to enroll their children and send their children to school.


Sarah Tantillo Apr 15, 2023 06:22 PM

Thanks for this post. My only disagreement is that we still have 6th and 7th graders who missed the boat, too, so the range is more like 4th-7th, sadly. For teachers who have phonics materials but not enough decodable texts for students to practice with, it turns out that Chat GPT can be super-helpful, as I've explained here: https://theliteracycookbook.wordpress.com/2023/03/09/one-way-to-solve-reading-problems-with-chatgpt/

Timothy Shanahan Apr 15, 2023 07:23 PM


That is true, there are older kids who for various reasons (not COVID shutdowns) who may have difficulty with decoding. Unfortunately, we still lack research-based ways of successfully addressing those problems in ways that improve the students' reading achievement.


Mark Pennington Apr 15, 2023 07:51 PM

Regarding grades 4 on up Tier 2 instruction. For those students demonstrating decoding and encoding deficiencies on a diagnostic, is there any research that gives guidance on gap filling? In other words, if a student does not know the /oo/ as in wood diphthong, is it best to remediate this deficiency in isolation or in the context of all diphthongs?

Angela B Peery Apr 15, 2023 08:11 PM

I think you mean parlay instead of parley... but that aside...

I agree with another commenter that many families feel school is NOT safe, so the absenteeism problem and/or ineffective instruction problem (within homeschooling, for example) is real. Young students need excellent phonics instruction, and there are so many factors right now interfering with that.

Thank you for speaking to data. I work as a consultant in many places that are putting what should be tier 2 instruction into tier 1 without checking to see who really needs what.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 15, 2023 08:50 PM


I'm aware of no research on that. To me it would make sense to fill the gap and teach the pattern that you are aware the student doesn't know. That doesn't keep you from addressing other needs, but this is a need that you would be aware of, so why not deal with it now instead of waiting and perhaps never getting to it?


Andrew Biemiller Apr 16, 2023 06:25 AM

I just agree with Tim on the current state of reading skill-especially in grades 3 - 5. But don't forget about vocabulary needs. Good decoding but inadequate vocabulary leaves students semi-illiterate.

Jo Anne Gross Apr 16, 2023 10:11 AM

In Ontario Canada we had the Right to Read Act in 2022.
All the noise, very very good noise, has gone to K-1 instruction.
The landfill is there unattended.
I keep wondering if anyone noticed, I do offer my criticism or sarcasm regularly.
And then I read your blog and felt so validated.
Will they notice now?
Here they buy more and more software to fix it.
High schools are full of these kids.

Nicola Apr 16, 2023 10:24 AM

It is not only a lack of phonics instruction that leads to poor reading progress.(I could also cite individual child factors such as low student engagement, weak executive functioning skills, weak ability to focus, suboptimal processing speed, poor working memory and so forth).

I am interested in external factors that teachers and parents can influence- I recognise that ‘engagement’ is a factor that the teacher can impact.

As another commenter mentioned, vocabulary knowledge is vitally important as word knowledge unlocks the meaning of the text at the sentence and paragraph level. We have long acknowledged that large vocabularies are associated with higher reading outcomes. Increasing work on vocabulary is impactful.

However, oral language is an area commonly overlooked, especially by parents/care givers. It is, after all, the foundation upon all literacy learning.

Many children I notice are coming to school with fewer words than I have ever observed before. Children need to experience high quality oral interactions with interested and responsive caregivers to develop strong oral language. Strong oral language skills positively influence phonemic awareness, listening comprehension and attempts to map phonemes to graphemes, as when decoding or encoding. Purposeful oral language activities are essential in the classroom and often act as a springboard to writing.

There is no doubt that sustained periods of absence from a sequential learning program will impact literacy progress. Covid has hurt our students in many ways. However, I have long feared the competition that digital devices pose to reading based practices at home- not to mention reciprocal conversations! I suspect that ‘screen usage’ has impacted shared reading between parents and children and compromised the personal reading habits of each member of the household. In turn, this leads to less word exposure and vocabulary growth, less decoding practise and fewer interactions with ‘ideas’. Are we prepared to look further into how this is hurting our students- and find ways to make parents more accountable?

Timothy Shanahan Apr 16, 2023 04:49 PM


There is no question that there could be other educational damage from the shutdowns. The reason for focusing on the decoding one is because of the need for kids to meet threshold levels and the lack of preparation for teachers to teach those skills at those grades. I would hope that the typical 4th grade (and up) teacher has some idea how to teach vocabulary (and other skills that one would usually be concerned about in their grade levels).


Amy S Apr 16, 2023 05:07 PM

The study presents the threshold as a score on that assessment - do we have a way of knowing the skills that score represents? If we need to use a free assessment like the Core Phonics Screener to get started assessing older students, what skills must we see missing to know we likely have a problem?

Timothy Shanahan Apr 16, 2023 05:48 PM


No, not at this stage. Like you, I look forward to more research on that issue.


Jamie Deitz Apr 17, 2023 01:22 AM

This is one of the big issues I have been discussing with my education students. I teach many of the literacy courses for my university and I have stressed about how we are seeing some foundational struggles with many 3rd-5th graders this year. This is why I stress that every teacher should be a reading teacher and even teach the science of reading to my secondary content area students as well, so that they can work to identify and support any struggling readers even at their level.
With regards to your point about student attendance, from a parent perspective, this is difficult. Obviously the goal is to have your child in school as much as possible. However, if you are being a responsible parent, you are not sending your child to school if they have any symptoms or could be at risk for spreading germs. Norovirus, covid, pink eye, strep and just cold and flu symptoms seemed very bad this year. Erroring on the side of caution, my children missed many days this year because we weren't sure if they were developing something. Sadly, it may be some time before we are back to some level of normalcy with less caution.

Katie H Apr 17, 2023 07:40 PM

"That is true, there are older kids who for various reasons (not COVID shutdowns) who may have difficulty with decoding. Unfortunately, we still lack research-based ways of successfully addressing those problems in ways that improve the students' reading achievement." Tim, can you help me understand the following: Recommendation 1 of The What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide: Providing Reading Intervention for Students in Grades 4-9 states, " Build students’ decoding skills so they can read complex multisyllabic words." And goes on to provide explicit ways to do so including:
1. Identify the level of students’ word-reading skills and teach vowel and consonant letter sounds and combinations, as necessary. 2. Teach students a routine they can use to decode multisyllabic words, etc. Many of us will recognize these as components of the REWARDS curriculum and perhaps others such as the one mentioned by Harriet Janetos, above. Has your research led to the conclusion that these recommendations do not work for middle schoolers (and into high school)? And related, if you agree that they do have efficacy, has the research shown that it is better to layer in a morphology curriculum that moves through a series of weeks of lessons OR to train teachers to simply onboard the multisyllabic word strategy and etc. (as outlined in the Practice Guide) with words under study in class (and build a growing morpheme study/ morpheme wall driven by these multisyllabic content words? I appreciate your input.

CD Apr 17, 2023 10:02 PM

As an intervention teacher, I have seen the effects of Covid on elementary age students. In addition to decoding and encoding gaps, many struggle with comprehension. Any suggestions on how to address reading comprehension weakness in grades 3-5? (I am an intervention teacher, grades K-5).

Thank you in advance.

paul worthington Apr 17, 2023 10:17 PM

Thanks again Tim for the expose especially addressing the late elementary issue(s) of teaching reading, in general and as related to the pandemic. It's and interesting dejavu going back to1997 where a district wide longitudinal initialtive was enacted to address the needs of all 3-5 grade students in all tiers. The findings were published in the AERJ. see - Sadoski, M. & Willson, V. (2006). Effects of theoretically based large-scale reading intervention in a multicultural urban school district. American Educational Research Journal, 43(1), 137-154. doi:10.3102%2F00028312043001137. In sum. . . . .

Based on the mandates of the Colorado Department of Education Pueblo School District 60 (PSD60), a heavily minority urban district with mostly Title I schools implemented a theoretically based comprehensive professional development process designed to improve Colorado Student Assessment Program reading scores. In this study, the authors examined achievement in Grades 3–5 during the years 1998–2003. PSD60 schools and schools statewide were compared through a series of repeated measures analysis of covariance controlling for school size, percentage of minority students enrolled, socioeconomic status, and the amount of time a school was included in the intervention. Statistically significant and increasing gains favoring the reading intervention, aggressively supported by district leadership were found both overall and in analyses of Title 1 schools. As an example, in the initial schools third grade reading went from 12 percent proficient in reading on the state mandated test to 63, to 74, to 83% proficient over the next four years with the rest of the Title I elementary schools following suit. At the policy level one of the takeaways was that this high poverty, high minority district, over time, went from the bottom of the state in reading to exceeeding the state average in reading based on the state mandated reading test for that time period.

What accounted for the success? Right, an evidence-based comprehensive reading initiative program and plan were necessary, that would not have been worth a cup of coffe at Denny's without the leadership of all administrative offices of the district, including the superintendent, the principals, and the school board. Let's be clear about what it is going to take to have any impact on addressing the reading (let's call it learning) crisis we are in. We can't be naive about what it is going to take to address the learning loss for our children.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 18, 2023 12:49 AM

Thanks for that useful recommendation.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 18, 2023 12:52 AM


Indeed, there are many pieces on this website about addressing reading comprehension instruction. Though kids may be lagging more in comprehension than usual because of COVID, I see no reason why upper grade teachers cannot address those needs by aggressively doing things and using curriculum that they already have access to. The reason for highlighting phonics is because of their lack of preparation. I suggest you go through the blogs, publications, and resources for lots of guidance on comprehension instruction.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 18, 2023 01:05 AM


There are a number of reasons for my response (including those studies looked at pull out, small group Tier 2 instruction and this blog is focused for the most part on what the teachers can do), not all of those studies noted in the practice guide focused on phonics per se (some did, some did in combination with morphology, and some were more morphological). But in the spirit of your contribution, quibble? You've added an important resource to the discussion and school districts taking on what I have recommended here would be wise to take a look at this resource. I will add it to my resource list accordingly.

Thanks for your contribution.


kathy munisteri Apr 18, 2023 01:05 PM

Unfortunately, the emphasis on school attendance isnt a focal point. Most parents don't understand the importance of consistent attendance. This lack of constency impacts the instructional support the students receive in and out of the classroom. Teachers then become burdened with circling back and trying to cover instruction that the students have missed. Additionally, students truly become out of sink with all the procedures and expectations in school. Therefore the students then become more self conscious and less likely to want to return to the classroom. This creates a cycle of absenteeism that is difficult to break...

words from a retired elementary principal...

Miriam Trehearne Apr 18, 2023 04:04 PM

Miriam P. Trehearne

Nichola and Dr Andy Biemiller stress in your blog post, that vocabulary knowledge and oral language in general are vitally important to unlocking the meaning of the text. We have long acknowledged that large vocabularies are associated with higher reading outcomes. Increasing work on oral language is crucial.

However, oral language is an area commonly overlooked, by teachers and parents. This blog post focuses on low literacy rates in part due to ineffective and/or insufficient phonics teaching and learning during the pandemic. This may be true. However, it also has recently been found that infants born during the pandemic vocalize significantly less compared to children born pre-pandemic, (Deoni, 2021, Gilkerson, 2022). These behaviours are critical for oral language development. So yes, focus on explicit sequential phonics instruction but also use research-based strategies to improve oral language. The good news is that strong oral language programs in preschool, kindergarten and the primary grades can have long lasting and significant effects on the children, well into middle school (Dickinson and Sprague, 2001, 276).

Christopher Green Apr 21, 2023 09:47 PM

"Educators should think hard about how we can best reintroduce our schools to our communities, so parents feel that it is safe for their kids to be at school and understand better the need for vigilance in getting their kids to school every day."

I'm wondering what other educators' experiences have been with community involvement. Our back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, and other open-house events have been moved online or scaled back as a result of the pandemic. I tend to get very little pushback from parents who have sat in my room and gotten to know me in neutral circumstances. When I have trouble with parents it is almost always the first time that person has contacted me.

What are you all doing to get parents comfortable with you, your curriculum, and your school?

Timothy Shanahan May 14, 2023 02:09 PM


Oh goodness, there are obviously many legitimate complaints about required services that aren't provided, abuse by teachers or other school employees, bullying, etc. But then there are the complaints that are far from reasonable. For years, parents have wanted to limit the reading assignments/choices of their children. For the most part, schools have found ways to accommodate those kinds of concerns (providing alternatives or not allowing particular kids to borrow particular books from a library, etc.). Nothing problematic there. However, these days, too many parents want to determine not just their own children's reading choices, but everybody else's as well. That's pretty nut-bag in my estimation -- especially given that these prohibitions are often sought under the guise of parents' rights (really they are efforts to allow some parents to take away the rights of other parents).

Then there are the parents or fringy parent groups who want to determine what's in the curriculum or instructional practice -- dismissing the extensive review processes that states, districts, and schools go through in adopting standards, identifying acceptable curriculum, public review and response, and so on. These complaints range from desires to have one's religious beliefs included in a school science curriculum, or efforts to prevent particular topics from being taught at all (slavery in U.S. history classes, for instance), or to banning certain instructional practices like the assignment of homework or the use of tests. Some schools are even on the firing line these days for discouraging the use of racial and ethnic slurs.

Of course, there are always the special pleadings that I'd add to the nut-bag category -- like the complaints that certain students aren't getting sufficient playing time on the football team or that tardiness should be accepted because that family goes to bed late.

It's interesting. These kinds of complaints (all of them, and probably many more) come up with some regularity. But in some cases they manage to be settled without too much attention, while in others they tear the communities apart (even those special pleadings sometimes have those kinds of more general effects).

Of course, none of these seem nut-bag to the people registering the complaints, which is why school districts need to have appropriate systems to facilitate their filing and to respond to them respectfully and appropriately (and, often , privately).

When those filing a complaint seek control over what everybody else's kids are learning or being allowed to read -- those should be handled expeditiously. Perhaps Bobby's mom doesn't want her kids to read Charlotte's Web because the animals talk, which challenges her religious beliefs. Fair enough. The teacher can find some good alternatives, I'm sure. But I have parental rights too, and I want my kids to read Charlotte's Web. I appreciate it as literature and for its values. Bobby's mom ought to keep her hands off what my kids get to read. If she's insisting that her rights as a parent allow her to determine what my children read, then she can pay for their braces. and college tuition.


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If You Want Higher Reading Achievement, You’re Going to Have to Deal with the COVID Aftermath


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.