D.C. Needs More Than Phonics to Lift its Students’ Reading Scores

Wexler & Chang: Pairing effective phonics instruction with in-depth knowledge-building can narrow achievement gaps that haven’t budged since 1998.

This is a street photo of Washington D.C. with the U.S. Capitol building in the distance.

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A decade ago, Washington, D.C., was hailed as a national model for education reform. The charter school sector, which now serves almost half of all public school students in the city, was expanding rapidly. D.C. Public Schools was a leader in adopting a teacher evaluation policy that linked compensation to student test scores and boasted that it was “the fastest-improving urban school district in the country.”

But while reading scores have improved somewhat, 73% of fourth-graders and 78% of eighth-graders still score below proficient on national reading tests. And the yawning gaps between groups of students have stayed the same or even expanded.

In 2022, Black fourth-graders scored 69 points lower than their white peers, a gap that hasn’t budged significantly since 1998. The disparity between children poor enough to qualify for free school meals and those who are not is now 56 points, 14 points larger than in 1998. The trend for eighth grade is similar.

Like 42 states, D.C. has taken steps to address this reading crisis. In 2020, the D.C. Council adopted legislation requiring measures like teacher training, and in September, a literacy task force recommended additional reforms.

These efforts are a good start, and the task force’s recommendations should be implemented and funded. But, like most other jurisdictions, D.C. has focused on ensuring that children receive systematic instruction in foundational skills like phonics. Important as phonics is, it’s just one ingredient in proficient reading. In addition to being able to decipher or decode words, students need to be able to comprehend text.

The key factors making this possible are background knowledge and vocabulary. If schools improve phonics instruction without also systematically building knowledge, many students will reach higher grades able to decode complex texts but unable to understand them. That explains why, when states adopt early literacy policies focused on phonics, gains on elementary school reading tests fade out by middle school or high school.

For both aspects of reading instruction — decoding and comprehension — a good curriculum is crucial. Teachers should receive training in the science related to reading, including the evidence showing that it’s vital to building students’ academic knowledge beginning in the early grades. And to help them translate their understanding into effective practice, they need a coherent curriculum that is grounded in that science. Unfortunately, most widely used literacy curricula are not, so district and school leaders need reliable guidance.

 DC Law 23-191 tries to address this need by requiring that all schools adopt a “science-based reading program” beginning with the 2024-25 school year. But the law doesn’t instruct the state superintendent’s office or any other entity to identify those that are effective. In fact, it defines a “science-based” program as one that covers foundational reading skills and “comprehension strategies” — with no specific mention of the need to build knowledge.

An increasing number of states are issuing lists of approved literacy curricula that districts are either encouraged or required to choose from. Some also incentivize districts to train teachers — and, ideally, school leaders — in how to use the curricula. 

D.C. should develop its own list, relying on evaluation tools created by The Reading League, for foundational skills like phonics, and the Knowledge Matters Campaign, for knowledge-building.

One complicating factor is that the district developed its own English language arts curriculum, which states that it includes the “build[ing] of background knowledge through reading and experiences.” For example, a first-grade unit covers “the different forms of money and how it is made and earned.” From the limited material we’ve seen, it’s hard to tell whether this home-grown curriculum builds knowledge as effectively as those created by trained experts (the Knowledge Matters Campaign, for example, has identified eight). The district’s curriculum also has not been subjected to rigorous review, as far as we know.

In any event, according to several reading instructors, there has been little or no training in how to use the curriculum. Nor is it clear how many schools are in fact using it.

One of us accidentally learned, from a staff member, that a district elementary school was using a curriculum called Core Knowledge Language Arts — one of those identified as effective by the Knowledge Matters Campaign. That’s good news, but how many other schools are still using curricula focused on comprehension skills? And what curricula are D.C.’s many charter schools using — if they’re using any at all? At this point, no one seems to know.

The district should at least collect and publish information on which literacy curricula are being used, as the literacy task force has recommended. If school choice is to be meaningful, parents deserve to know what curriculum a school is using. And armed with this information, officials could gain a clearer picture of what is working.

As D.C. moves forward with implementing science-of-reading reforms, it has the opportunity to provide much-needed guidance to schools in finding curricula that pair effective phonics instruction with effective knowledge-building — and to encourage professional learning grounded in the specifics of those curricula. By doing so, D.C. could narrow achievement gaps that haven’t budged since 1998 and provide a true success story that could be a model for the nation.

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