Voices in Education

Tinkering with Title I
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 15, number 6). Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

The debate continues about how to reauthorize Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal program that provides $8 billion to K-12 schools with high proportions of economically disadvantaged students. The discussion has examined how well the 1994 amendments have been implemented and how they should be refined.

The amendments required states to focus Title I funds on schoolwide improvements rather than on programs targeting individual students. They also included provisions that states set up standards and accountability measures for student achievement. This move toward standards-based reform was made to encourage states to hold economically disadvantaged kids to the same standards as their classmates.

Most agree that it's too soon to tell whether the changes in Title I will have a positive impact on disadvantaged students' achievement, but one 1999 Department of Education report, Promising Results, highlights some positive indicators. For instance, since 1994, National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores have increased by eight percentage points (close to one grade level) for 9-year-olds in the highest poverty schools.

And, according to Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education and chair of a recent independent panel report on Title I, states have made progress in developing quality standards. "The states are pollinating each other, and within the next five years you're going to see a real commonality among state standards around the core subjects," says Cross.

However, large gaps in achievement persist and improvements have been slow in coming. As a result, some critics say that no amount of Title I tweaking will help and that there needs to be a shift in control of funding. The "Straight A's" amendment, which congressional conservatives have enacted in the House as part of reauthorization, would allow schools with improved performance to use Title I funds at their own discretion. Former Reagan administration official Chester Finn Jr. argues that "the idea of federal government driving reform from the top down has itself been turned on its head by energetic states and schools that are not the key source of ideas."

Others, like Harvard's Gary Orfield, counter that Washington still has an important role to play but needs to get tougher on states that have not complied with Title I's accountability provisions (see "Facts, Not Fads in Title I Reform" by Gary Orfield).

According to Amy Wilkins of Education Trust, a Washington, DC, advocacy group, accountability is the newest piece of Title I. "Before 1994, you just turned on the tap and money came out. Title I was just a funding stream," she says. "[The government] didn't ask for anything back. Now Title I is holding schools accountable for raising achievement for disadvantaged students, and it'll take time to get them to understand that the money is conditional." However, the Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights, a watchdog group, reports that the Clinton administration has failed to enforce serious accountability.

While the federal government is doing what it can to encourage better accountability, there are limitations on its ability to manage change from the top, says John Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, DC. "We have a complex system intentionally set up this way to preserve our democracy," he says. "It is difficult for one level [of government] to give orders to another. It is not the role of the federal government to tell states what to do. But [citizens groups] can be a prod to the feds who can in turn prod the states. That's how our system works."

States and school districts might find some guidance in meeting the Title I provisions in a recently released guide from the National Research Council. Testing, Teaching, and Learning provides schools with frameworks for aligning standards with assessments. According to the report, "standards-based policies can affect student learning only if they are tied directly to efforts to build the capacity of teachers and administrators to improve instruction." The study's director, Robert Rothman, says, "Our aim is to speak to all states, because even those who are far along in developing accountability and assessment plans need to continually look at what they are doing."

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