In keeping with a mindset of continuous improvement, leaders and partners across Dallas have reflected on lessons learned along the way that may be helpful for other districts and communities embarking on similar journeys to improve early literacy.

Watch the Video to Hear Reflections from Leaders of the Work in Dallas and More on What Comes Next
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Lesson #1

Make a long-term commitment, and be resilient

We decided that it was so important to be in it for the long game… people saw that we weren’t going to give up, no matter what.”
Dr. Michael Hinojosa, Superintendent, Dallas ISD

Hinojosa reflected on the importance of making a clear long-term commitment to early learning while relentlessly tracking data to show early progress. He noted that it was important to take actions like working with the Board of Trustees to pass an early learning policy and creating a position to lead early learning work so that “[the community] would understand that we were serious about this.” Simultaneously, the superintendent pushed for “progress monitoring all the time,” which provided early indicators that this initiative was improving student outcomes and helped ensure continued support for early learning long-term. Getting support “was difficult early on, but now it’s much less difficult because we are having success,” said Hinojosa.

Lesson #2

Break down silos

It was important to break down silos, ignore historic constraints, and question what was possible.”
Kelsey Clark, Partner, BCG

Part of the Early Learning team’s progress involved establishing strong working relationships with other departments in the district and working together to challenge the status quo, approach an old problem with new ways of thinking. Clark, one of the leaders of the BCG team embedded in the Early Learning Department, noted this firsthand. “Sometimes, we’d be told a particular piece of data we needed didn’t exist or something we wanted to do couldn’t be done. But by asking the right person the right question, we could work together to find a solution that propelled the work forward.” Hinojosa also noted the importance of thinking outside of the box, remarking that “if you try something bold and different, then you can get a much bigger payoff.” Partnering with childcare centers was one manifestation of this bold thinking, an initiative both Clark and Hinojosa highlighted as a key contributor to Dallas ISD’s progress on early literacy.

Lesson #3

Ensure data drives the work

We needed to start getting revolutionary. And in order to get revolutionary, we needed to have data at the forefront of discussion.”
Miguel Solis, Trustee, Dallas ISD Board of Trustees

Solis noted that focusing on data was important in a multitude of ways. Data and research on the power of early learning and early reading motivated the district to make this a strategic priority. Setting clear third grade reading and kindergarten readiness goals and making these goals public established clear accountability for achieving results. Student outcomes data drove the district’s emphasis on expanding access to Pre-K, and rigorous analysis informed where and how to increase available classroom seats to make that happen. According to district leaders and the BCG team, data has driven every strategic priority over the course of the initiative, and continues to play an ongoing role in the day-to-day work of Dallas ISD’s Early Learning Department. “We use data regularly to improve our work and change course as we need to,” said Little.

Lesson #4

Focus on equity

I think the thing I admire most about Dallas ISD’s approach to early learning is their real focus on equity.”
Kimberly Manns, Executive Director, Early Matters Dallas

Manns noted that closing achievement gaps and striving for equitable outcomes for students has become a cornerstone of the district’s early learning effort. According to Manns, this focus on equity shows up in the district’s choice to partner with childcare centers, their social and emotional learning curriculum, and the emphasis on bi-literacy. Each of these early learning initiatives was designed to “meet students where they are” in order to provide quality educational opportunities for all, she said.

Lesson #5

Partner with families to support students beyond the classroom

Schooling takes up only a small part of a child’s day and doesn’t cover those crucial early years of development. We need to support kids across the entire continuum of care.”
Derek Little, Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning, Dallas ISD

While the district has long recognized the importance of engaging families and supporting students beyond the classroom, these efforts have received additional emphasis in recent years, including a focus on positively impacting development even before children reach Pre-K age. “We’re trying to do everything we can to strengthen those opportunities for young children birth-to-three so that they are ready and have a stronger foundation by the time they reach us,” said Little.

Lesson #6

start where the need is greatest, the scale

We've come to a point now where our turnaround model is really being replicated throughout the state… And so now I think it's the time to take those conditions of success to scale.”
Dr. Pamela Lear, Chief of Staff, Dallas ISD

The district’s model for rapidly and sustainably improving outcomes at underperforming schools, which included an emphasis on early learning at struggling elementary schools, has yielded strong results. Dallas ISD’s turnaround efforts have reduced the number of state-designated “Improvement Required” schools throughout the district to less than one-fifth what it was in 2014 and have contributed substantially to overall progress on third grade reading scores.1 These efforts have also yielded valuable insight on best practices for improving student outcomes, which the district is now working to scale across all schools through “thoughtful work around professional development and quality implementation,” said Dr. Lear.

Lesson #7

Engage the business community

If you approach the business community with quantifiable objectives and map out a clearly understood strategy, regardless of how risky it is…they will step forward.”
Peter Beck, Co-Chair of the Early Matters Dallas infrastructure fund and Executive Chairman of The Beck Group

The business community’s support for Dallas ISD’s early learning initiative was a crucial part of the effort, contributing a substantial portion of the funding that allowed for the sustained partnership between the Early Learning Department and BCG. Beck led fundraising efforts from among the business community, and noted that once the objectives and strategy were in place he “didn’t get a single no” from the business leaders he engaged to support the district’s work. “These CEOs and the chairs of these companies really care about education in our community,” noted Beck.

What Comes Next

The story does not end here for Dallas ISD. They understand that they have a long road ahead of them if they are to achieve the goal of 60% of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. This would more than double third grade reading results over ten years and close the gap between Dallas ISD’s performance and that of more affluent districts in Texas, though still leaving continued room for improvement. The goal is ambitious relative to the performance of other large urban school districts across the country, and reaching it will require even more rapid growth.  “Even though Dallas ISD has strong results to show from the past four years, I would still say we’re at the beginning of our journey,” noted Little. “We spent the past four years making a really big impact in our classrooms and in our students’ lives. But we also spent the past four years really figuring out how to go about the work. We can approach the next four to five years with much more sophistication and much more certainty around what we know is going to make the biggest difference.”

Even though Dallas ISD has strong results to show from the past four years, I would still say we’re at the beginning of our journey.”
Derek Little, Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning

Despite persistent challenges, the district is hopeful that it can continue to push back against the literacy crisis and improve outcomes for students and the community. This hope is made possible by aspects of the conditions for early learning success – foundational support from policy, using rigorous data to make strategic decisions, and supporting children beyond the classroom.

Texas’ House Bill 3 is pushing the district to ensure teachers are trained in the science of teaching reading, and provides additional support to help close achievement gaps. The Board of Trustees continues to provide policy support, recently approving a scholarship to expand Pre-K access even beyond what is now funded by the state through HB3. And while early literacy is still a focus, it’s not just about reading anymore. The district is also setting its sights on long-term growth in third grade math results, motivated in part by new HB3 requirements.

Another reason for hope is the use of a predictive data model to aid in their efforts. The district is currently using this model to understand the most significant predictors of student performance, exploring topics like chronic absenteeism, teacher mobility, school climate, and more.

Accelerating Growth Using Data

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The journey isn’t over: Dallas ISD has more work to do, with accelerated growth required.

Dallas ISD Early Learning and BCG have partnered to identify the drivers of third grade reading performance and better understand the district’s future trajectory by building a predictive statistical model. This model, a multivariate regression, uses past student, teacher, and campus data to illuminate which variables have meaningfully impacted third grade reading results in prior years, and how these variables impact each other across the student journey. The model then projects these variables into the future, taking into account their interaction with each other and effect on student outcomes to predict future third grade reading performance. This is helpful to give Dallas ISD a sense of how their early literacy effort is likely to perform relative to long-term goals. But the most exciting application lies in helping the district know where to focus their efforts next in order to continue improving third grade reading results. By examining the impact individual variables have on third grade reading performance, Dallas ISD Early Learning can prioritize which issues to tackle and accurately assess how improvement in one area is likely to impact overall results. For example, the district has used the predictive model to identify the role chronic student absenteeism plays in hindering student success and can project what impact a ten percent reduction in chronic absenteeism would have on third grade reading performance. This model and the data it produces will play a key role in the next phase of Dallas ISD Early Learning’s work.

Percent of 3rd graders at 'Meets' or above, STAAR reading

Finally, the district is encouraged by the potential of working closely with community partners across the city to support students outside of the classroom, including before they reach school age. Early Learning Department leaders are hopeful that these collaborative efforts to partner with families, which have ramped up in recent years, can help close achievement gaps.

Despite the challenges faced and work still to be done, all involved in Dallas ISD’s push to rewrite their early literacy story echo the sentiment that improving third grade reading results across a community is possible, necessary for students, and incredibly rewarding.

We know this work isn’t easy, but we also know that the impact that we’re making on children, particularly in this early learning timeframe, is fundamentally going to change the possibilities for their life. It will open opportunities that they never would have had available had we not stayed focused on giving them the best opportunities, the best instruction, and the best support.”
Derek Little, Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning

Learn about what you can do to improve early literacy in your community.

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