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What Texas’ Tumultuous History with Literacy Means for Its Children’s Future

The state has for decades, over numerous initiatives, attempted to battle its literacy crisis by adopting the science of reading.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/Maybach Media

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This is the first piece in a two-part series that tracks Texas’ attempts to adopt the science of reading over 25 years. The lessons learned in this series are relevant to the many states who have adopted — or are attempting to adopt — the science of reading in schools.

The brick walkway along the Ella Mae Shamblee Library on Evans Avenue in Fort Worth’s Morningside neighborhood is lined with plaques commemorating the respected educators, veterans, and musicians who have come out of the historically Black community. Inside the library on a scorching July afternoon this summer, Trenace Dorsey-Hollins and a group of parents were making their own history. The Parent Shield leaders, a grassroots organization that Dorsey-Hollins launched in 2022, were hosting the first of nine “Freedom July” mobile literacy clinics.

Parent Shield’s mission is to educate and unite powerful parents to demand a high-quality education for all children. Their goal that afternoon was to inform parents in Fort Worth’s two lowest-income City Council districts about their children’s reading ability and to arm caregivers with information about what research-based reading instruction includes. True to their organization’s belief that parents are their children’s first line of defense, the team then informed parents about the actions they can take with teachers.

As the initial group of parents settled into their seats, their children gathered up free snacks and sat with assigned reading teachers. There, they walked through a set of literacy checkpoints with the certified teachers, including the DIBELS assessment, which helps measure three key components of early literacy — phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency. After the children completed their sessions, the educators explained to parents whether their child was on track with reading — and if not, where they were falling behind.

While the children were busy reading with the evaluators, Dorsey-Hollins walked the adults through a slide show that highlighted the reading realities within the city. She started by explaining that 64% of the nearly 160,000 students who attend school in one of the city’s school districts or charter schools did not read at grade level in 2022 on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness reading exam.

She broke the data down further to show that only 26% of Fort Worth Black third graders were reading at grade level. They were followed by 29% of Hispanic third graders at grade level, and 54% of White third graders on track. The average is low across all groups, but Dorsey-Hollins emphasized to the parents that “our Black and Brown babies are being left behind.” She explained that only 13% of Fort Worth students scored high enough on SAT or ACT exams to be considered ready for college, a career or the military. Parents were shocked.

Dorsey-Hollins herself is the mother of two daughters, one of whom has special needs, and a stepson. The Fort Worth native became an advocate for them after witnessing the low expectations for students when her oldest daughter was given a low reading score.

Dorsey-Hollins knew her daughter was a stronger reader than the score indicated, so Dorsey-Hollins followed up with questions. It turns out that that teacher assigned all students the same starting grade so she could measure growth over time against just one baseline. The rightfully frustrated Dorsey-Hollins took her case to the principal, who decided to reevaluate all the students in the class. I am a mama who is concerned,” she shared with the group at the Shamblee Library.

The even tone in her voice belied Dorsey-Hollins’ fierce determination to improve the reading skills of all the city’s students. Perhaps her determination comes from being the daughter of a bull rider. Whatever the origin, it certainly came through as she explained the science behind quality reading instruction.

She walked through the five elements of that instruction identified by the 2000 National Reading Panel Report:

1. Phonemic awareness — understanding the relationship between letters and their sounds;

2. Phonics — sounding out whole words;

3. Fluency — reading with expression and accuracy;

4. Vocabulary — words a student knows and understands; and

5. Comprehension — understanding of texts.

She emphasized that students need to learn to read before they can learn other subjects. “This is what will close the achievement gap,” Dorsey-Hollins stated with authority.

One mother interrupted to say she had wondered what was going on with her child’s reading. She herself had been schooled in phonics. A dad spoke up as well, saying he did not remember his child’s school sending home any information about phonics.

The end of Dorsey-Hollins’ presentation included a reminder that parents can choose another school if their child is not learning at the appropriate level. She wanted parents to know they have options.

Volunteers handed out cards with questions the parents could ask their child’s teacher. In both English and Spanish, the cards contained prompts like, “Is my child on grade level in math and reading?” and, “Where has my child done well and where do they need more support?”

Parent Shield’s Freedom July campaign, a potent combination of parent advocacy and literacy awareness, continued through the month, with follow-up social media posts promoting “A Literate Fort Worth is a Great Fort Worth.” At one Parent Shield gathering on a Saturday morning in late July, Dorsey-Hollins announced that the Boys & Girls Club of Fort Worth and the office of Mayor Mattie Parker had committed to supporting the organization’s literacy campaign.

This is not the first time Ft. Worth has made early literacy a priority, but the city has never before focused on improving instruction. Sadly, a 2016 mayoral-led campaign to get all third-grade students in the Fort Worth Independent School District reading at grade level by 2025 fell well short of the mark. While that effort increased students’ access to books and time to read, it did not focus on ensuring that students received research-based instruction and support. Only about 32% of Fort Worth ISD third graders were on grade level on the state’s 2023 reading exam.

A “Literacy Coalition” Forges Ahead with Science

Dorsey-Hollins and her team of reformers are not the only parents attempting to make a difference in reading instruction across Texas.

Amy Traynor and Elisha Kalvass are the driving force behind the Katy Literacy Coalition in the affluent Katy Independent School District outside of Houston. Each are parents of students with dyslexia, so they came attuned to their students’ reading needs. Kalvass herself has dyslexia and Traynor had worked as an occupational therapist within the Katy Independent School District.

They described their work over the last four years as righting the ship within the district on reading. Kalvass even quit her job so she could learn how to teach her daughter how to read.

“Amy and I, along with others, decided we would force them to teach all Katy students how to read,” Kalvass said.

In 2019, the Katy school board approved new four-year targets for third grade reading improvement, setting low goals that alarmed Traynor and Kalvass. They said the board accepted poor literacy rates as the norm, something that infuriated them and drove them to become advocates for the science of reading.

Kalvass and Traynor understood that for research-based instruction to take hold, the district needed to stop implementing what they said was a flawed approach — balanced literacy. Balanced literacy focuses heavily on helping children learn to read through lots of exposure to books and encourages children to use context clues like pictures to guess at words, but it eschews explicit instruction about letters, their sounds, and how they combine to make words. Many children do not just pick up reading. They need direct instruction to learn how letters and words work to access more complex texts.

In 2020, the Katy Literacy Coalition succeeded in electing two trustees to the Katy ISD school board who advocated for the science of reading and its five components of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The trustees then persuaded a majority of the board to get rid of the problematic balanced literacy reading instruction strategies and curriculum created by Lucy Calkins at Columbia University and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell at the Ohio State University.

Even then, the reading textbooks Katy administrators have adopted are not necessarily aligned with the science of reading. Notably, Traynor, Kalvass, other advocates and outside experts have not been at the table as the district selects new curriculum.

What’s more, teachers may not be receiving the proper training. Thanks to HB 3, passed by the 2019 Texas State Legislature, all K-3 teachers and principals in Texas are required to attend a Texas Reading Academy to learn the science of reading, why it matters and how to implement stronger instruction in their classrooms.

Traynor and Kalvass say Katy ISD educators were routed into a separate Katy ISD-led version of the reading academy where the science-of-reading was not emphasized. The law allows for districts to choose how they deliver the reading academies to their teachers and principals. They can hire an outside expert, or they can do it themselves in-house, an option that typically reinforces the district’s current approach. Katy ISD chose the latter.

Traynor and Kalvass are right: States and districts must make sure that educators — both teachers and principals — are trained correctly, given research-based professional learning and coaching, and have access to high quality instructional materials for their classrooms. The Katy Literacy Coalition posted to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that teaching children how to read is “the single most important thing public education should provide.”

A “Reading Initiative” That Made Strides, But Fizzled Out

What’s eerie about the work of parent leaders like Trenace Dorsey-Hollins, Elisha Kalvass, and Amy Traynor is how they mirror what was happening in Texas more than 25 years ago. In January 1996, while in his second year as governor, George W. Bush set a goal that every Texas child would learn to read, starting with reading at grade level by third grade.

The goal gave birth to the Texas Reading Initiative, which included such elements as increasing awareness of students’ reading skills in kindergarten through third grade, funding statewide intensive reading programs and stimulating private-sector programs.

The initiative let districts determine how to teach reading, but sought to hold them accountable for their success in getting students reading at grade level. At the same time, it offered teachers $150 a day to receive training in the most effective methods and provided $203 million in grants for reading academies and teacher training.

The Texas Education Agency also provided districts with reading assessments to determine the literacy skills of students in kindergarten through second grade. The Texas Legislature required districts to select from among the state education commissioner’s list of approved reading instruments to determine a student’s phonemic awareness, oral reading abilities, and reading comprehension.

The agency likewise awarded the University of Texas at Austin a grant to create the Texas Center for Reading and Language Arts, helmed by nationally recognized reading expert, Dr. Sharon Vaughn. The center ran the reading academies, which drew upon the state’s education service centers to train educators in how to effectively develop students into proficient readers. The academies were a key part of the commitment to provide every Texas student in kindergarten through third grade with the essentials to become strong readers.

At the same time, Bush toured the state, talking with the business community and local leaders about how researchers were finding substantial evidence for this approach. Similarly, TEA experts crisscrossed Texas, hosting reading summits to amplify the importance of scientifically supported reading instruction.

Later, in the 1999 Legislature, Bush proposed requiring students to pass the state third grade reading test before moving to the next grade. Legislators in the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-led Senate agreed with that proposal, and that policy remained in place until 2009. Students in fifth and eighth grades were also required to pass the state exam in both reading and math to be promoted to the next grade, a policy which ended in 2021 due to the pandemic’s disruption of education.

Texas reading scores did improve throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. Texas’ fourth graders saw their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam increase from 1994 to 2005, except for one decline in 2003. Texas fourth graders surpassed the national average for their peers around the country during that period, including a significant five-point jump from 1994 to 1998.

Over the next decade, the Texas Reading Initiative eventually lost momentum. The program’s primary champion had moved on to become president of the United States and tough budgets in Texas forced literacy instruction to compete with other pressing state needs. There are lessons to be learned from its demise.

Implementation Hampered “Reading First”

The Texas Reading Initiative, however, did form the basis of the Reading First initiative that George W. Bush launched in his first term as president. The Republican nominee campaigned in 2000 upon improving literacy around the country, and Reading First became a priority during his initial week in office.

The $5 billion initiative included money to help states and local districts implement scientifically based reading strategies. And it included funds to help model Head Start and other pre-school reading programs begin developing readers.

Reading First brought on board top reading researchers, focused on teaching phonics, sought to get rid of strategies like letting students use pictures to guess about a word, provided dollars to train reading instructors, and gave states money to adopt a reading skills diagnostic. The initiative particularly sought to help students in schools that serve low-income neighborhoods.

The program faced pushback from those opposed to these strategies. And it depended upon states to implement the programs with fidelity, a risky assumption. The program also came to an end after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General reported that consultants involved with reviewing Reading First grants had conflicts of interest with prospective publishers.

Still, the program made an impact during its limited life. As of April 2007, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences reported, grants had been awarded to 1,800 school districts and funds distributed to 5,880 schools. The program had also trained 100,000 teachers in the science of reading. As a result, IES concluded that Reading First had “consistent positive effect on reading instruction” and that it “had a positive and statistically significant impact on first grade students' decoding skill.”

At the same time, IES claimed, the program had “no statistically significant impact on student reading comprehension.” In other words, it helped how reading was taught and it improved students’ ability to turn printed letters into spoken words by connecting sounds and letters. But it did not meaningfully improve student understanding of more complex texts.

Despite its aborted run, journalist Emily Hanford, whose reporting on the science of reading has helped build a new groundswell of awareness of this issue, believes the science of reading work taking root around the country now would not have happened without Reading First. And writing in City Journal about how the program benefited students from high-poverty backgrounds, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern concluded that Reading First was “one of the best investments ever in federal education spending.”

Texas is Attempting a Return to Science of Reading

Now you will find that Texas, like a growing number of states, is attempting to return to the foundational research-based principles of reading in its more than 1,250 school districts. Except Texas legislators only went so far in the 2023 regular legislative session.

Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston, a Democrat who served in the Texas House during the Bush governorship, authored legislation that pushed for a more comprehensive embrace of the science of reading. His bill, HB 2162, would have required the Texas Education Agency to provide districts with a list of reading screeners that could assess the foundational literacy skills of K-3 students, based on the five elements of the science of reading. The legislation would have required scientifically based reading interventions for students identified for intervention. And it would have kept school districts, open-enrollment charter schools, and educator preparation programs from using three-cueing — a method that utilizes letters, sentence structure and context, rather than phonics — in reading instruction.

The bill died, although Dutton’s effort to curb three-cueing survived in HB 1605. That measure requires the use of high-quality instructional materials, among other things, and prohibits the use of or teaching of three-cueing by educator preparation programs, school districts and open-enrollment charter schools. Gov. Greg Abbott later signed HB 1605 into law.

That was at least some progress, although hard work remains, largely at the local level to change practice in classrooms and in teacher preparation programs. In a local-control world, that’s where reading instruction directives move from policy to practice, and it is where a new idea is most vulnerable to fading away.

As we will report in our next chapter, none of these reforms will work if leaders and educators don’t follow through and enact them properly. We will also dive deeper into the importance of successfully implementing effective reading strategies.

Disclosure:Anne Wicks served as an advisor to the Highland Park Literacy Coalition, a parent organization which advocated for Highland Park ISD to eliminate balanced literacy and to embrace the science of reading. The Texas district announced that change in the spring of 2022.

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