The United States faces an early literacy crisis. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results underscore a troubling and decade-long reality: nearly two-thirds of the nation’s fourth graders have not received the support necessary to develop into proficient readers. This hinders their future academic success, as the typical elementary school curriculum expects students to “read to learn” by the end of third grade. Students who do not receive the support necessary to meet this third grade reading milestone are four times more likely to drop out of high school and face lower expected career earnings. Early literacy achievement gaps between demographic and socioeconomic groups stubbornly persist due to inequitable educational opportunities, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Against this grave backdrop, we have had a front row seat to a burgeoning bright spot: Dallas, Texas. Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD, a client with whom we have partnered for the past four years) and its community partners are demonstrating the power of investing in high-quality early learning to push back against the literacy crisis.

Despite facing the challenges typical of a large urban school district, Dallas ISD has increased the number of third graders reading on grade level by 12 percentage points in the last four years. This growth is three times faster than Texas overall and outpaces other large urban school districts in the state, putting over 3,250 additional third graders on the path to success since 2015.

The district’s sustained growth has not happened by accident, nor has it been accomplished alone.

Dallas ISD’s ongoing progress on third grade reading is the product of a collective effort by the district, policymakers, funders, and the broader community to establish the conditions for early learning success, an example from which other communities can learn.

These conditions for success include three key components: a vision to guide the work, foundations to enable the work, and a strategic plan to achieve the vision.

Vision

Dallas ISD established a long-term vision for early learning success, which included clear objectives for third grade reading and an emphasis on supporting the whole child. This vision created a rallying point for the community, attracting funders and policymakers to the cause. It also codified that the district would address its early literacy crisis for the long-term by focusing support long before a student reached third grade, including by expanding access to high-quality PreK.

Foundations

These three stakeholder groups (school district, funders, and policymakers) identified their common interest in expanding access to high-quality early learning and began to work in concert to gather the resources necessary to sustain a long-term early learning transformation. This began with two key investments advocated by the administration and the district’s Board of Trustees, with broader stakeholder engagement and input. The first investment provided funding to launch and eventually scale a team dedicated to leading early learning efforts. The second investment involved a commitment of US $6 million a year out of local funds to provide access to full-day PreK for all eligible children at a time when the state only provided funding for half-day PreK. This proved critical, as attending PreK helps to level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students as they enter Kindergarten and continues to positively impact their performance through third grade.

Strategic Plan

Equipped with the necessary funding, human capital, and community support, Dallas ISD set about improving early learning outcomes for its students by focusing on expanding access to PreK, improving classroom quality through second grade, and focusing on the continuum of care to support students beyond the classroom. All of these initiatives were enabled by significant work to establish effective ways of working within the Early Learning department, including an emphasis on building analytical capacity and establishing a continuous improvement mindset.

These conditions for success are driving Dallas ISD’s ongoing early learning progress. Strong local policies provided necessary resources and accountability for this progress and have since helped to shape policy more broadly. The district’s success became a key proof point that informed the eventual passage of House Bill 3 by the Texas State Legislature, a landmark piece of school finance reform that includes substantial funding and quality requirements for early learning. The private funding that helped catalyze Dallas ISD’s efforts to improve early literacy is now being supplanted by public dollars, sustaining the district’s effort and broadening its impact across the state.

Despite Dallas ISD’s success, the district has more work to do to realize their early learning vision on behalf of students and families. Dallas ISD is using advanced analytics to identify key drivers of third grade reading performance to help further accelerate growth, exploring topics such as chronic absenteeism, student mobility, teacher performance, and more.

While Dallas ISD has more work to do to accelerate its early learning transformation, we believe the Dallas story offers a blueprint for other school districts and communities looking to push back against the early literacy crisis. We encourage other communities to learn from Dallas ISD’s progress, to connect with and rally other stakeholders in their community to the cause, and, together, to make a sustained investment in high-quality early learning. Young children across the nation and around the world deserve it.

To learn more, visit: http://www.strongreaders.org/