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Why Chapter 1 Failed: The 4 Percent 'Structural Flaw'

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The typical response to Chapter 1's failure is a call for more money, more specially trained teachers ... more of the same. That has not and will not work.

In a recent front-page story titled "Chapter 1 Aid Failed To Close Gap," this newspaper reported the findings of a five-year study of 27,000 students sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. ("Chapter 1 Aid Failed To Close Learning Gap," April 2, 1997.)While recording an extremely strong case for the fact that Chapter 1 has failed, the article also noted that "the study does not tell us, however, why this occurred."

There should be no surprise about the study's findings. As an educational trainer for the past several years, I have asked literally thousands of educators this question: "How many of you believe, after the extensive resources, effort, and energy that have been expended, that Chapter 1 (now again known as Title I) has made any clear improvement in your school?" The response to this question has been universal: virtually none.

Title I/Chapter 1, the federal compensatory education program for disadvantaged K-12 students, has been around for 30 years, consumed billions of dollars, involved tens of thousands of teachers and tens of millions of children. It has been a Herculean effort, to put it mildly. Why it has failed should be a primary concern to educators, to say nothing of taxpayers and politicians. It is precisely such massive and ineffective use of resources that is destroying public support for education.

Several years ago, I was a participant on a New York state education department team sent to review a Chapter 1 program in a New York City intermediate school where test scores for Chapter 1 students had gone down for three years in a row.

The school had seven full-time Chapter 1 teachers. I spent a whole period observing the classes of each teacher. (I should note that I taught reading for 10 years and have a master's degree in the subject. I feel quite comfortable observing compensatory education reading classes.) To my surprise, everything I saw ranged from very good to excellent. Not one of those teachers was doing a poor job of instruction. On the contrary, I believe that Title I teachers as a group may be the best teachers we have. (They do a lot of one-on-one instruction, which is the best way to learn to teach.)

But during those observations, I was continually scratching my head. Here was a school with seven full-time Chapter 1 teachers, every one of them unusually good. Yet the scores of their students had declined for three years in a row. How could this be?

The typical response to Chapter 1's failure is a call for more money, more specially trained teachers, more of this, more of that, more of the same. That has not and will not work. The late management expert W. Edwards Deming had the answer. He observed that 95 percent of the chronic problems in organizations are structural or systemic. They are not coming from the workers themselves but from how the work is structured or organized. When we examine Title I closely, we find an obvious structural flaw that makes the program ineffective.

Title I was created to help students who fall far behind in their work, especially in reading and math. The program design called for these students, who could not function in the regular program, to receive 90 minutes per week in small Title I classes with specially trained teachers. These classes were specifically designed to meet the needs of such students.

This sounds good at first. But extend the picture. Title I students spent 90 minutes, or 1-1/2 hours per week, in a program designed to meet their needs. What happened to them the other 33-1/2 hours? They were returned to a program that frustrated them, a program that they didn't understand.

Some simple mathematics reveals to us Mr. Deming's structural flaw: One and one-half hours equals 4 percent of time per week in a helpful program; 33-1/2 hours equals 96 percent of time per week in a frustrating, defeating program.

To this day, most principals do not know their school's Title I budget, much less have any influence over it.

Thus, while the 1-1/2 hours spent in compensatory education might be highly effective time for these students, 96 percent of their time is unaffected, still unproductive, frustrating, and defeating.

Given this structural flaw, it is not at all surprising that Chapter 1 has failed. We could double the current Title I funding, spend hundreds of billions more, but the current structure would yield the same results.

It is true that Title I recently changed the rules to "permit" whole-school improvement if schools satisfy certain bureaucratic "requirements." In fact, however, little has changed. The overwhelming proportion of Title I funding is still allocated to improving 4 percent of the students' educational time.

When the program was first initiated, I was a new teacher in the South Bronx section of New York City. My school received a large allotment of money accompanied by a large number of federal and state regulations. A memo came around from the new Title I coordinator. Training in the teaching of reading was to be conducted for Title I teachers. I asked to be included. My supervisor told me that was not possible. Title I funds, he explained, were to be used only directly for training Title I teachers. When I pointed out that I taught reading to five classes of virtually illiterate 8th graders (practically all of them Title I-eligible), that I would attend the training sessions without any stipend, and that there would certainly be room in the training class, since the number of Title I teachers was small, he responded that the regulations were very clear. I, as a regular-classroom teacher, was ineligible for such training. Thus, Title I training, over the years, has deliberately and systematically excluded about 97 percent of the teachers in our schools.

Title I was designed to be completely apart from the rest of the school. There was to be a separate budget, separate staff, separate materials, and so forth. There was to be no mingling of this program and the regular program. To this day, most principals do not know their school's Title I budget, much less have any influence over it.

One attempt to fix the problem was to move away from "pullout" programs to "push in" programs. Title I teachers work in the regular class with the classroom teacher. But while this is a small step in the right direction, it still only affects 4 percent of the students' time in school. Hardly a move that has had a major impact.

The answer is as obvious as the problem is simple: Title I should require all schools involved in the program to do whole-school improvement. Unless we improve 100 percent (or as close as possible) of students' learning time, Title I will continue to produce the same dismal results.

The good news is that a tiny percentage of Title I could, if properly used, accomplish whole-school improvement. The bad news is that federal and state regulators, abetted in many cases by local Title I administrators, are still acting out of habits and patterns of the original program and continue to stifle needed changes. Beyond that, the people who run the program at all levels, for the most part, do not yet understand the structural problem, much less its solution.

The answer to the question of whether Title I can be successful is absolutely yes. How that can be accomplished requires reconceiving and restructuring the program. And this must be done soon, before the public and the politicians eliminate it completely. After 30 years, time and patience are running out.

First, we must abandon the absurd notion that improving 4 percent of a student's time in school, while he remains frustrated and defeated for the remaining 96 percent of the time, will help.

Second, we must use Title I resources to leverage the much greater resources being expended on the 96 percent failure time. Each school must periodically assess its needs and improve itself accordingly.

At a minimum, the portion of Title I funds used for whole-school improvement should be allocated to the principal and school planning team. I happen to believe that all of the Title I funds should be so allocated. But while this may still be politically impossible, even 5 percent to 10 percent of the funds, appropriately used, could bring massive improvement. One thing is certain: Business as usual is going to put Title I out of business. Only improving the whole school will do.

Thomas F. Kelly is a trainer in school improvement based on the work of W. Edwards Deming and William Glasser. His latest book is Systemic Assessment for Quality Schools. He lives in Shoreham, N.Y., and can be reached by e-mail at

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