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Dallas ISD is failing to teach most kids to read. We have to fix it

The vast majority of Dallas’ public school children are failing to learn to read. According to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress, only 15 percent of all Dallas Independent School District children can read on grade level by fourth grade. That is an 85 percent failure rate.

From my perspective as the former reading czar for DISD, this is a crisis. Reading achievement has plunged, a problem that snowballs after fourth grade and leads to grade retentions, escalating dropout rates and academic failure.

As was the case two decades ago, we need business and community leaders to rise up and demand that our children‘s education improve. They should support research-proven DISD initiatives already in the works and, most important, participate when necessary.

The original Dallas Reading Plan was hugely successful at improving reading achievement. After just three years implementing the Dallas Reading Plan, DISD went from being the lowest performing of Texas’ large districts in reading achievement to the most improved. Our unifying goal was simple — make every school as good as our best.

This and other successful reading initiatives had important things in common.

First, they create an awareness of the issue. I wonder if most DISD parents know that only 10 percent of African American and 15 percent of Hispanic children in fourth grade can read on grade level. According to Texas Education Agency data, 93 percent of DISD children are from these two groups. In addition, almost 90 percent of Dallas ISD’s children are from economically disadvantaged families.

All parents want their children to succeed in life. They also know that literacy is the gateway to opportunity in America. Awareness can lead to action.

Second, successful reading initiatives get everyone involved. When Dallas business leaders learned in 1997 that only 24 percent of kids were reading on level by the end of third grade, they declared an education emergency on the pages of The Dallas Morning News  and on local television and radio. They understood that an unsuccessful school district was bad for business and a deterrent for recruiting qualified professionals.

Then-Gov. George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, lent political support as part of the statewide effort that foreshadowed the national No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The mayor’s office, church leaders, teachers associations, LULAC and the NAACP, and myriad foundations also locked arms to support the effort.

Third, successful reading initiatives invest in teachers. The key is to help teachers increase their expertise in educating urban children. Research confirms that many new teachers are unprepared for the kinds of challenges they face in DISD. This is why so many teachers burn out quickly. Children from poverty, English language learners, and highly mobile families create special learning and teaching challenges. A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching reading simply doesn’t work.

Special reading academies for DISD teachers were developed. Participants learned research-proven strategies, new approaches to phonics instruction, vocabulary development, strategies for teaching reading to English learners, and much more.

With the support of the O’Donnell Foundation, we established a corps of superstar master teachers (called Lead Reading Teachers) to support teachers enrolled in the reading academy. Almost immediately student achievement in reading began to rise.

There are positive signs that DISD is moving to partially address the reading crisis. For example, the Early Learning Department is reportedly hiring 120 reading specialists. They have also developed a pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-old children. Early intervention is essential for reaching children from poverty before problems take root.

DISD’s pre-K program is free for qualifying families and available on a tuition basis for all others. The reading problem in DISD is real. It can be turned around (again). I know. I’ve seen it happen.

Robert B. Cooter is a literacy researcher and co-author of the book Teaching Children to Read. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.