Bright Spots

A Decade Of Driving Achievement In Dallas ISD

In 2011, Dallas ISD was at a crossroads. Its superintendent had just announced his departure. Its school board elections were canceled due to a lack of willing candidates. The district faced roughly $100 million in painful budget cuts, in part due to a massive cut in state funding. Facilities needs greatly exceeded the investment capital provided by successful but inadequate historical bond issuances. And less than a quarter of students experiencing economic disadvantage (the district’s largest demographic, comprising 85% of all students) were meeting grade level expectations.

Twelve years later, the story in Dallas ISD looks much different. The percentage of Dallas ISD students experiencing economic disadvantage who are now meeting grade level expectations across all subjects has nearly doubled since 2012.

The district experienced a gain of 16 percentage points from 2012 to 2023 – in spite of its uniquely high concentration of poverty and a global pandemic that momentarily reversed its steady progress. Since 2012, the district has also executed two bond elections totalling over $5.0 billion, reflecting strong taxpayer confidence in the direction the district is heading.

What led to these gains, which exceeded gains for the state as a whole? What actions and policy changes led to these gains, and how can we learn from them?

The above data visualization attempts to answer that complex and nuanced question. Longitudinal data in the above graph measures student progress, while the numbered bubbles represent the timing of systemic reforms implemented by Dallas ISD over the past decade. All were enacted to address the root causes that frequently contribute to low student achievement. We’ve also contrasted the district’s performance with both the state of Texas and Houston ISD, the school district in Texas most similar in size and demographics to Dallas ISD. Numbered in chronological order, Dallas ISD’s reforms are as follows:

  1. The Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) is Dallas ISD’s performance evaluation and compensation system for educators that not only drives continuous improvement by providing actionable feedback but encourages the district’s best educators to stay in the classroom by providing a path to a six-figure salary. In the intervening years since its implementation, teacher turnover has significantly reduced, and the district announced last month that it had the lowest number of unfilled teacher slots at the beginning of the school year in its history.
  2. With the expansion of Pre-K classes across district elementary campuses, as well as the board’s passage of a first-of-its-kind Pre-K policy, the district renewed its commitment to serve our city’s earliest learners, going from trailing the county and the state to meaningfully exceeding them both in terms of percent of eligible students enrolled. Kindergarten readiness and 3rd grade reading rates have responded accordingly as more and more students enter Kindergarten prepared.
  3. The Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) school turnaround model sent the district’s most effective educators (identified through TEI scores) to the struggling, historically-underserved campuses that needed them most and saw historic gains as a result.
  4. Simultaneously, by shifting to open enrollment and creating multiple in-district school options ranging from single-gender to Montessori to personalized learning campuses, Dallas empowered parents and ensured that all students, regardless of zip code, had access to the campuses and resources that best fit their needs.
  5. Recognizing the rising costs of higher ed and the desire of many students to enter the workforce with skills that allow them to quickly earn a living wage, the district expanded P-Tech and early college offerings to every comprehensive high school. Now, roughly 10% of Dallas ISD high school graduates earn an associate degree concurrently with their high school diploma. A recent commitment of over $200 million in four geographically dispersed Career Institutes across the district will only expand the career and technical training options for its students.
  6. In 2017, Dallas ISD became a District of Innovation, taking advantage of state law flexibility to change the start date and length of its school year and recruit qualified career and technical instructors more quickly and easily.
  7. By ending exclusionary discipline practices, first for early learners and eventually all grades, the district now provides much needed counseling and mental health support for students while keeping many more of them in the classroom who would otherwise miss valuable instruction time when suspended out of school.
  8. Dallas ISD also increased the number of instructional days during the 2021-22 school year in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic on over 40 elementary campuses.
  9. Now, Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde has committed to a district-wide comprehensive rollout of high-quality instructional materials – which has already generated success at pilot campuses and promises to continue the district’s progress. She has concurrently pledged to no longer “teach to the test,” relying on a robust teacher evaluation system and a rigorous, aligned curriculum to deliver the quality of instruction that students need.

Taken together, these student-centered decisions speak to the leadership of Dr. Elizalde and former Dallas superintendents Dr. Michael Hinojosa and Mike Miles, as well as the collective commitment of their board, the district’s educators and administrators they lead, and the students and families they serve. No individual policy could have likely made the same impact in isolation; instead they (along with other forward-thinking measures too numerous to list here) mutually reinforce one another to the benefit of all students.

We’re thrilled to applaud the excellent work by Dallas ISD teachers and school leaders over the years. But what is most exciting about reviewing this data is the promise it holds for the other 1,000+ school systems across our state.

TEI and ACE both informed the creation of the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA), a statewide policy that provided additional funding for districts to both reward their best educators and send them to the campuses that need them most. Over 60% of Texas students attend a school system that either already receives TIA or is in the implementation process. Tens of thousands of students attend elementary campuses with extended school years, and tens of thousands more attend Early College High Schools.

Similar to Dallas ISD, school systems across North Texas and statewide are innovating to increase the economic mobility of their students, and we’re excited to continue featuring them in the coming weeks and months. This is especially important because demographic data shows the majority of Texas students come from households experiencing economic disadvantage. But as Dallas ISD’s data over the last decade has shown, students of all backgrounds can thrive when school systems meet their needs and leverage informed instructional practices to help them reach their full potential.

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