Just over five years ago, the Dallas Independent School District began a new approach to early education. We are just now beginning to see its effects.
Without state assistance, district leadership expanded to full-day Pre-K for all eligible four-year olds (about 95% of whom are now enrolled). They began implementation of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System in all Pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms to improve safety and instructional quality. They eliminated exclusionary discipline practices in the earliest grades and trained instructors in restorative justice practices. And they began the Accelerating Campus Excellence initiative, a program that places the district’s most effective educators on the campuses that need them most.
The students who entered our school district during this time are now fourth graders. And those fourth graders are now outpacing average statewide growth in student achievement, not just on our state’s standardized test, but on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.
The story for Dallas ISD’s 8th graders this year, however, was decidedly different. Student progress within the district declined notably, consistent with (but slightly smaller) than the state’s decline. Not only were these students not the beneficiaries of the district’s recent focus on early learning, they have also borne the brunt of reduced funding first initiated eight years ago in the 2011-12 school year when the Texas legislature sliced $5 billion, or 10%, from the state’s education budget following the impact of the Great Recession.
The good news is that with the recent passage of House Bill 3 in the 2019 session, the Legislature has restored per student funding to our Texas public schools with the investment of more than $6 billion in the current biennium. A significant portion of that funding was equitably directed toward numerous data-proven strategies enacted by various districts across Texas, such as the funding of full day pre-K and the optional ability to evaluate and pay effective teachers much more and sooner in their career, particularly if they are willing to teach at a hard-to-staff high poverty or rural campus.
But the policy contained within HB3 that may have the most power in transforming these student outcomes is one that has largely gone unremarked upon: HB3 required all districts to use a portion of their increased funding on professional development in the science of literacy acquisition for the 80,000+ teachers in grades K-3 in Texas.
A similar reliance on evidence-based best practices appears to be playing a role within one of the most notable bright spots of the 2019 NAEP results, nationwide. The state of Mississippi had the highest growth in 4th grade reading since 2017. Mississippi’s Department of Education mandated several years ago that every teacher preparation program require two courses in early literacy. Only a handful of states have instituted specific requirements about what prospective teachers learn about reading, and yet it’s clear doing so can pay remarkable dividends. It’s our hope that HB3’s literacy training requirement will help Texas replicate Mississippi’s continued progress in this area. (For more information on the science of literacy and the efforts in Mississippi, listen to American Public Media’s report.)
The most recent NAEP scores reminded all of us at Commit that we have a long way to go as a state to fulfill the promise of public education to every student in Texas. But we are optimistic that HB3 will prove to be one impactful step of many data-driven policies needed to make good on our commitment to our children.