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DC Voices: Improving early literacy outcomes

May 16, 2024
  • Hannah Mason

The District invests in early literacy at the systems level, especially in recent years. Since Fiscal Year 2016, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) has provided funding over time to a small number of non-profit, community-based organizations that provide early literacy services for students in the District or districts serving students with similar demographics through the early literacy grant.1  In 2023, OSSE released recommendations from an early literacy task-force recommendation around requiring structured literacy training for educators and administrators, providing on-the-job-support, and recommending high-quality English Language Arts (ELA) instructional materials that are rooted in the science of reading. In the same year, OSSE expanded literacy training for an estimated 1,500 early childhood and elementary educators through the Language Essential for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) program and a new Science of Reading course, high-impact literacy tutoring for 7,600 students.2 Moving forward, OSSE’s strategic plan includes improving literacy instruction as part of Advancing Excellence, in part supported by $2 million to support high-quality instructional materials in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2025 budget.3 

Despite these investments in early literacy, outcomes on the statewide assessment for elementary school students are low and even lower for certain subgroups: 32 percent of students in elementary grades met or exceeded expectations on the PARCC assessment in ELA in school year 2022-23. By subgroup for elementary school grades, 19 percent of Black students met or exceeded expectations, 28 percent of Latino students did so, and 78 percent of white students did so.4  Results were lower for 3rd graders (the youngest age that students are included in the statewide assessment): 26 percent of 3rd grade students met or exceeded expectations in ELA.5

Schools in D.C. use many early literacy assessments. According to data shared by the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), 56 out of the 65 public charter schools serving students in kindergarten through grade 26  used the Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP)7 ,8 to assess early literacy in school years 2021-22 and 2022-23. 

Looking at the two school years 2021-22 and 2022-23 of in-person learning post-pandemic, spring scores did not improve much from school year 2021-22 to 2022-23. Compared to national norms, kindergarten scores are slightly higher than national norms, while results for 1st and 2nd grade were slightly below national norms.9

Out of 79 District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) schools with elementary school grades, we used data from the 54 that administer the Reading Inventory (RI) assessment and 75 that administer the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment to students at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year.10 DIBELS measures baseline phonics skills and progress that will inform instruction11, and RI is a computer adaptive reading assessment that measures students reading levels and guides teachers in adjusting instruction according to student need.12 The percent meeting the benchmark on DIBELS improved at the end of the year across kindergarten through grade 2 from school year 2021-22 to 2022-23. The percent meeting the benchmark on RI improved for grade 2 across school years but represents a smaller share of students.

DCPS DIBELS and RI scores and public charter literacy scores

We asked stakeholders to glean their perspective on the greatest challenge D.C. has when it comes to improving early literacy outcomes. 

Elizabeth Corney, ELA Instructional Coach 

There’s so much to understand within the Science of Reading (SoR) and building every teacher’s content knowledge rooted in science is a huge challenge. D.C. has many teachers already doing the work in early literacy, but many still don’t have the scientific content knowledge integral to supporting student’s literacy acquisition, or don’t recognize how beneficial that knowledge is, not just for students but themselves. 

The District also employs far more veteran teachers than incoming teachers with post-graduate knowledge that present other challenges. More experienced teachers tend to be more hesitant to incorporating new learning in their teaching. Additionally, teachers of upper elementary and middle school grades aren’t trained to teach students phonics in professional developments despite teaching cohorts of students who may enter their grades either not knowing how to decode words or read on grade level. 

Moving forward, it’s necessary that all stakeholders, especially non-literacy subject teachers and older grade levels, are at the bare minimum, Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRs) trained.1 If all educators regardless of the subject or grade they teach are trained in the fundamental structures of reading and language related skills, then it seems more likely that students will be able to better connect their learning to build language comprehension at the very least. 

Deon Bolden, early literacy teacher 

One of the most glaring obstacles to enhancing early literacy in D.C. is the persistent achievement gap stemming from socioeconomic disparities. Children from low-income families often lack access to high-quality early childhood education programs, which are crucial for fostering language and literacy development. Without adequate resources and support, these children start school behind their more affluent peers, setting the stage for a perpetuation of inequality throughout their academic journey. Students East of the river who attend Head Start or other ECE programs/schools most times fall behind their peers from the upper Northeast and Northwest quadrants because of attendance. In those PreK3 and PreK4 grades, school isn’t mandatory so students don’t attend as often as they should.  

The city also grapples with insufficient funding for early literacy initiatives. Despite efforts to allocate resources to address educational disparities, competing budgetary priorities and fiscal constraints often hinder the implementation of comprehensive literacy programs. Without sustained investment in early intervention strategies, many children are left without the necessary foundation to start and succeed academically. 

Moreover, systemic barriers within the education system pose significant challenges to improving early literacy outcomes. Overcrowded classrooms, understaffed schools, and a shortage of qualified educators exacerbate the difficulties faced by students, particularly those requiring additional support. Furthermore, bureaucratic hurdles and administrative inefficiencies can impede the timely delivery of essential resources and services to schools and communities in need. 

Addressing the multifaceted challenge of improving early literacy outcomes in D.C. requires a holistic approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness of social, economic, and educational factors. Efforts to narrow the achievement gap must encompass targeted interventions aimed at leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students, such as expanding access to high-quality preschool programs and providing early literacy interventions tailored to individual needs. 

Improving early literacy outcomes is addressing the significant achievement gap that exists between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers. This gap is often exacerbated by limited access to quality early childhood education, lack of literacy-rich environments at home, and other socio-economic factors that can hinder children’s language and literacy development. Closing this achievement gap requires a comprehensive approach that provides targeted support and resources to children and families in underserved communities. 

Greater collaboration among stakeholders— including government agencies, schools, community organizations, and families— is essential for fostering a supportive ecosystem that prioritizes early literacy development. By leveraging collective expertise, resources, and advocacy, D.C. can forge a path toward more equitable and inclusive educational opportunities for all children, irrespective of their background or circumstances. 

Allister Chang, Ward 2 State Board of Education Member 

Funding the recommendations in the early literacy taskforce is crucial to improving early literacy outcomes in the District. The lived experiences of educators and students should inform policy, and what educators are saying is that they don’t have the tools or resources to teach their students how to read nor have they ever been taught to teach students to read. One knowing how to do something doesn’t equate to them having the ability to teach someone else that very same thing; therefore, it’s paramount that we implement the proposals the taskforce have found to be most valuable for teachers and students. 

Context matters for policy implementation. What works in other states and districts will not necessarily work here, which is why D.C. has a customized plan to approach professional development and materials rooted in structured literacy. We have done the groundwork and looked at the research to see what works, and it’s crucial that we invest in the things that work so educators can be better prepared and students can thrive inside and outside the classroom. 

To conclude, we heard from a literacy expert working to enhance outcomes for students.

Literacy expert

The greatest challenge to early literacy is attendance. All the fantastic training and materials that teachers have access to are of little use if students are not attending school. If kids aren’t in the building, we can’t help them learn to read. For many teachers, their kids that aren’t growing academically are the same ones that are missing a lot of school. 

Students need multiple opportunities to practice and not being in the building doesn’t allow for that additional practice. Extra practice is especially important for struggling readers. Students who are attending school consistently are benefiting from these extra supports.  

Early literacy work requires teachers with strong content knowledge. Yet, content knowledge alone is not enough. Structured literacy is a nuanced and challenging set of skills to apply successfully and doing it well requires the support and guidance of a coach. If we have structures in place that prevent coaches from being overloaded, along with teachers being able to use their time effectively, and we provide supports for attendance, then we’ll begin to see even more benefits of this work.  


  1. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Early Literacy Grant. Retrieved from https://osse.dc.gov/page/early-literacy-grant
  2. This high impact literacy tutoring initiative is on track to reach a total of more than 13,000 students across both math and literacy by fall 2024.
  3. Office of the Chief Financial Officer. 2024. Annual Operating Budget and Capital Plan. Retrieved from https://cfo.dc.gov/node/289642 
  4. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). 2024. DC School Report Card. Retrieved from https://schoolreportcard.dc.gov/state/report/explore/100
  5. Office of the State Superintendent of Education. 2023. 2022-23 Assessment Results. Retrieved from https://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/page_content/attachments/Assessment%202023%20Deck_.08.24_0.pdf
  6. Note: This includes The Children’s Guild DC PCS, which uses an alternative framework.
  7. NWEA. Map Growth. Retrieved from https://www.nwea.org/map-growth/
  8. NWEA. Map Growth. Retrieved from https://www.nwea.org/map-growth/
  9. NWEA. 2020 NWEA MAP Growth normative data overview. Retrieved from https://teach.mapnwea.org/impl/MAPGrowthNormativeDataOverview.pdf
  10. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). DCPS Printable Assessment Descriptions and Calendar. Retrieved from https://dcps.dc.gov/publication/dcps-printable-assessment-descriptions-and-calendar
  11.  District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). School Year 2023-2024 Elementary School Assessments Overview (Grades K-5). Retrieved from https://dcps.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcps/publication/attachments/SY%2023-24%20Public-Facing%20Assessments%20Calendar%20-%20ES%20TEMPLATE%2010.5.23.pdf
  12. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).  School Year 2023-2024 Middle School Assessments Overview (Grades 6-8). Retrieved from https://dcps.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcps/publication/attachments/SY%2023-24%20Public-Facing%20Assessments%20Calendar%20-%20MS%20TEMPLATE%2010.5.23.pdf 


Hannah Mason

Senior Education Research Analyst
D.C. Policy Center

Hannah Mason is the Senior Education Research Analyst at D.C. Policy Center. 

Prior to joining the Policy Center in 2023, Hannah served as Emergent Bilingual Coordinator and Instructional Coach at Nashville, Tennessee. She was most proud of her abilities to build community amongst her students, drive language acquisition success, and advocate tirelessly for equity in and outside of the classroom for her students. In addition, she began her teaching career in Houston, Texas where her love of teaching and literacy blossomed.

Hannah is originally from Dublin, Georgia. She holds a bachelor’s in religion and teaching English to speakers of other languages from The University of Georgia. Hannah most recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with an MPP concentrating in K-12 Education Policy.