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Change in Course Eyed for Flagship Federal Program

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WASHINGTON--The fundamental changes in the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program envisioned by the Clinton Administration and by a consensus in the education community are likely to include a shift in the program's primary focus from remedial help for individual children to efforts to transform high-poverty schools.

As the Administration and Congress gear up to reauthorize the program next year, observers expect the final legislation will encourage more schoolwide projects, in which Chapter 1 funds are used to improve an entire school.

Indeed, the Administration's draft proposal for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would provide for a dramatic expansion in the number of schools eligible to use their funds schoolwide. (See story, this page.)

Despite the overwhelming support of Chapter 1 experts, however, the idea of greatly increasing the number of schoolwide projects is based more on reform theory than on solid evidence that they lead to improvements in student learning.

"It is premature to assess the effectiveness of schoolwide projects, as the evaluation and anecdotal evidence is mixed,'' concluded the most recent National Assessment of Chapter 1, released by the Education Department in January.

"I think everybody believes we haven't done a very good job with schoolwide projects, but many believe we can do a lot more,'' said Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, who directs the task force that is drafting the Administration's proposal.

"There is also no evidence that [disadvantaged students] are better off in the regular Chapter 1 program,'' Mr. Smith said. "If you want to fund change, this is the way to go.''

Broader Eligibility Urged

Lawmakers took a step toward broadening the program in 1988, when they dropped a requirement that districts undertaking Chapter 1 schoolwide projects chip in some of their own money as well.

In 1988, about 200 schools were operating such projects. Once the additional financial burden on districts was removed, however, the number rose to more than 2,000 in 1991-92. Still, that number represents less than a third of eligible schools.

A key limitation in current law allows schools to launch broad-based projects only when at least 75 percent of their students come from poor families. The changes that Congress is expected to consider would permit schools with lesser percentages of poor students to use their funds schoolwide.

Administration officials said their plan would drop the threshold first to 65 percent and later to 50 percent.

Both Congress and the Administration also favor incentives for schools that are already eligible to adopt the whole-school approach.

Aides and lobbyists say the question is how far Congress will go.

"There is a strong desire to give more flexibility, but we don't want an audit report saying the money was wasted,'' said John F. Jennings, the education counsel for the House Education and Labor Committee.

"The key is to look at what has been learned from current schoolwide projects,'' he said, "so that flexibility results in better education.''

Search for Results

The Education Department estimates that about 10 percent of schoolwide projects that have been operating at least three years failed to produce the achievement gains the law requires. Schools must show every three years that their students' test scores improved at least as much as they did in the previous three years, or as much as those of other Chapter 1 schools in the district.

In a survey done for the National Assessment, 84 percent of principals at schoolwide projects said "most evidence favors'' continuing them.

But the National Assessment also reported that preliminary data from the first year of a longitudinal study of the program have shown little difference in achievement between students in schoolwide projects and Chapter 1 students in other schools.

Schoolwide-project participants score at a higher average percentile, but that is because all students in such schools are included, rather than just the lowest achievers who would be eligible for a regular Chapter 1 program. Moreover, the performance of students in both schoolwide projects and other Chapter 1 schools declined between grades in the first year of the study.

In a study of 60 schoolwide projects in Philadelphia, researchers at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University found that their students performed slightly better than other Chapter 1 students in some grades. But the 3rd graders scored slightly lower than their counterparts, and there was no large difference in any grade.

Moving Too Fast?

It would be premature to drastically expand the schoolwide-project concept before it is tested further, according to Larry F. Guthrie, the director of the students-at-risk program at the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

"There's just not a lot of solid evidence,'' and the evidence that does exist "suggests that schoolwide projects are not a panacea,'' said Mr. Guthrie, who recently published a commentary on the issue in R&D Preview, a publication of the Council on Educational Development and Research.

"The potential danger is that, if schools go into schoolwide projects without a clear vision,'' Mr. Guthrie said, "they're going to revert to where they were 25 years ago, when low achievers got lost in the shuffle.''

The National Assessment found that the vast majority of schoolwide projects used their flexibility to extend the use of Chapter 1 materials to all students and to reduce class size.

That resembles the early days of the federal compensatory-education program, when many schools viewed the new funds as general aid. Rules requiring schools to provide services only to deprived children stem from efforts to curb abuses.

Such concerns were expressed by James Ed Green, the state Chapter 1 director in Louisiana, who said he has not encouraged schoolwide projects because they might dilute services for disadvantaged children. Only 12 of about 200 eligible schools in his state are schoolwide projects, he said, although more are being planned.

"It takes a lot of planning to do this right,'' Mr. Green said. "I think schools have jumped into it for reasons other than providing a better program for kids.''

Nevertheless, research showing that Chapter 1 students still lag behind their peers has convinced many that a new approach must be tried.

The Independent Commission on Chapter 1 last year proposed making all Chapter 1 schools schoolwide projects, targeting more funds to high-poverty schools, and imposing rigorous standards and penalties. (See Education Week, Dec. 16, 1992.)

Proponents of schoolwide projects argue that results have been unremarkable because many schools have not engaged in comprehensive self-assessment and instructional reform.

"In many cases, there hasn't been the kind of intensive intervention that's needed to impact an entire school,'' said Mary Jean LeTendre, the Education Department's director of compensatory education.

"On the other hand, if you ask where there are exciting, innovative things going on in Chapter 1, it's among the schoolwides,'' said Robert E. Slavin, the director of the elementary school program at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students. "There is at least some evidence that this is the way to make Chapter 1 the vehicle for real school change.''

Going on Faith?

But even the most successful schoolwide projects--notably in Philadelphia, which has been a leader in implementing the concept--have been no more able than traditional Chapter 1 programs to close the achievement gap between their students and their affluent peers. (See box, this page.)

Two elementary schools in Philadelphia that have vigorously pushed schoolwide projects, for example, posted substantial gains when they were evaluated after three years. Yet, more than half their students do not read at grade level.

In the absence of clearer evidence, Congress must decide how much faith to place in a promising, but unproven, reform idea.

"You can only build in processes that you hope will address those concerns,'' Ms. LeTendre said. "You cannot mandate what matters, and you can't fix schools from Washington.''

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