As new federal money comes to DC to reverse pandemic-related learning losses and to improve literacy outcomes, the District has a unique opportunity to fix a structural problem that has plagued us for decades: insufficient teacher training to support student literacy.
Past attempts to improve literacy in DC have failed, even as struggling education systems in other parts of the country have seen a turnaround in this regard. The difference? Investment in professional development for teachers.
From 2009‐2013, DC was last in state rankings for fourth grade reading outcomes. The District developed a Statewide Literacy Plan in 2013, but we did not come close to achieving the plan’s five-year goal of “at least 75% proficiency.” In 2019, only 30% of fourth grade students in DC performed at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in reading, putting us at 47th in state rankings.
During the same 10 years, Mississippi leapfrogged from 47th to 30th in state rankings. One consequential explanation involves teacher training in structured literacy instruction. This teaching approach prepares students to decode words in an explicit and systematic manner, including instruction on phonology, sound-symbol association, syllable instruction, morphology, syntax and semantics.
In 2014, the Mississippi Department of Education began offering state-funded investment in teacher development. Alabama, Ohio and North Carolina have also recently expanded funding for professional learning activities so teachers can improve how they teach reading. Massachusetts — consistently ranked at the top of state rankings — offers reading teachers continuing professional development opportunities, including individualized coaching.
I worked with my colleagues on the DC State Board of Education to convene a panel on literacy during our April 21 public meeting. During this meeting, representatives from Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee discussed how they have been offering teachers structured literacy training and the tremendous results this has generated for students.
At least 20 states have passed or are considering measures related to teacher preparation around the science of reading and structured literacy. Unfortunately, DC is not among them.
We will continue to lag at the bottom of state rankings for literacy outcomes if teachers do not have access to professional development opportunities to improve how they teach reading. A recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality describes DC as “inadequate” in preparing teachers to teach reading. Here, it’s neither a requirement nor the norm for teachers to learn “effective reading instruction.”
It’s not that DC has hired bad teachers. We don’t even know how many of our teachers have had structured literacy training.
What we do know is that our teachers want professional development that will help their students succeed. In a recent survey conducted by Decoding Dyslexia DC, 93% of teachers surveyed agreed that they would benefit from additional training related to the foundations of reading. Loud and clear, our teachers want to learn how to better support their students’ literacy education. Existing structured literacy programs for teachers that operate locally, such as the DC Reading Clinic and URBAN Teachers, have waitlists to enroll.
DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education is currently developing a new literacy plan, which will include how to spend $16 million in federal funds to improve literacy outcomes. The 2013 literacy plan was not successful in reaching its goals. The 2021 plan offers a new opportunity. We should learn from our mistakes, adapt promising practices from other states, and invest in our schools’ greatest assets: teachers.
Allister Chang is the Ward 2 member on the DC State Board of Education and a member of the advisory board for the Library of Congress Literacy Awards.