The literacy crisis affects students and communities across the United States. Dallas is demonstrating how to fight back.

Rewriting the story on early literacy in Dallas and beyond


Only 35% of students receive the support necessary to read proficiently by fourth grade

The United States is currently plagued by an early literacy crisis of staggering scale and unfortunate resilience due to a systemic failure to develop young children into strong readers. Inadequate support and a lack of opportunity have prevented 65% of students across the nation from reading proficiently by fourth grade.1 National reading performance has stagnated over the past decade, even demonstrating a significant decline between 2017 and 2019. At the state level, it is difficult to find bright spots: only one state has significantly improved its reading results since 2017, with seven states demonstrating a significant decrease in performance.2

Through third grade, students learn to read; from fourth grade onward, they read to learn, which means that failing to provide a student with the support necessary to read hinders their academic success across the board. Students not supported to read on grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, their future opportunities are reduced, their potential earnings are lower, and their cost to society can increase.3 This persistent early literacy crisis has impacted millions of young children, severely limiting their long-term academic and career prospects before they have even finished elementary school.

The literacy crisis is an even more pressing issue for communities of color and for students from economically disadvantaged households. Hispanic and African-American fourth grade reading achievement lags behind that of White students by about 50% and 60% respectively, illustrating inequitable opportunity. Similarly, forced to confront the additional challenges created by poverty, students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program based on economic disadvantage are 59% less likely to read proficiently in fourth grade than those above the income qualification threshold.4 These achievement gaps, coupled with the long-term obstacles that come with not reading on grade level by the end of third grade, magnify inequity between demographic groups and contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty.

This issue has significant long-term consequences not only for [children] but for their communities, and for our nation as a whole. If left unchecked, this problem will undermine efforts to end intergenerational poverty.” 5
Ralph Smith, Managing Director of The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, an organization focused on fighting the early literacy crisis
2019 Grade 4 Reading State Proficiency Standards Classified into NAEP Achievement Levels
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The impact of America's literacy crisis is broad, grave, and inequitable. However, there is a substantial opportunity to improve results through investments in early childhood education.

By expanding access to high-quality early learning programs, we can begin eliminating opportunity gaps that confront far too many American children even before they enter Kindergarten.”
Dr. Libby Doggett, former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education 6
By supporting a child’s learning from birth through third grade communities can:
Improve Early Literacy Outcomes Icon
improve early literacy outcomes
Level the Playing Field for Students Icon
level the playing field for students
Contribute to Overall Economic and Societal Health Icon
contribute to overall economic & societal health

Early learning delivers particularly high returns on investment in terms of the long-term impact on students’ lives, compared to later interventions.7 In short, investing in early learning is a win-win-win-win for students, policymakers, the business community, and society as a whole.

The Benefits of Quality Early Learning to a Child – and Society

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Professor James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, has identified clear benefits of high quality early learning to a student’s long-term success – and more.5

…and their parents…
… and their future children…
…and society

High-quality early childhood education leads to long-lasting improvements in cognitive, social, and emotional skills for students. This drives improved lifetime outcomes, including increases in future income and improved health.

Early learning benefits a child…

Birth-to-five early learning programs include quality childcare. This allows parents to develop new skills, progress in the workforce, and earn more income. This can be especially helpful to increase mothers’ participation in the workforce.

According to new research, children who participate in high-quality early learning may go on to build families that better set their children up for lifelong success and upward mobility. This indicates that “early childhood education can be an effective way to break the cycle of poverty.”

Heckman’s research estimates a 7-10% return on investments in high-quality PreK and a 13% return for investments in high-quality birth-to-five early learning for disadvantaged children. This takes into account the plethora of long-term positive impacts to both children and their parents, including the additional income generated by both.

Dallas Independent School District and its community partners across the city are betting big on early learning in an effort to change the lives of thousands of students. And while the effort is still ongoing, it appears to be paying off.
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Learn more about Dallas' success in the face of this early literacy crisis.

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