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Kids learn to read the old-fashioned way at Hobart Elementary School in 1999. (David Butow via Getty Images)

Why 65 Percent of Fourth Graders Can’t Really Read

Emily Hanford reveals how America’s educators adopted a flawed system for teaching reading to kids—and, as a result, completely failed them.

By The Free Press

February 11, 2023

Many parents saw America’s public education system crumble under the weight of the pandemic. Stringent policies—including school closures that went on far too long, and ineffective Zoom school for kindergarteners—had devastating effects that we are only just beginning to understand.

But, as with so many problems during the pandemic, COVID didn’t necessarily cause these structural breakdowns as much as it exposed just how broken the system was to begin with.

How broken? Consider the shocking fact that 65 percent of American fourth-grade kids can barely read.

American Public Media’s Emily Hanford uncovers this sad truth with her podcast, Sold a Story. She investigates the influential education authors who have promoted a bunk idea and a flawed method for teaching reading to American kids. She exposes how educators across the country came to believe in a system that didn’t work, and are now reckoning with the consequences: Children harmed. Tons of money wasted. An education system upended.

Guest host Katie Herzog talks to Emily about her groundbreaking reporting to ask how it all went wrong—and what we can do to make things right.



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