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Tracking Title I

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The two major studies of the massive federal program designed to help poor children catch up in school have raised as many questions as they have answered.

In 1984, after completing the first longitudinal study of Title I, the research project's director released sobering news. The $40 billion in federal aid spent to help millions of poor children over two decades had, in the long run, done little to improve their achievement.

The low-achieving elementary school students who received extra help from Title I--the largest federal K-12 program--gained at a slightly faster rate than their peers who went without the services, according to a synopsis of the Sustaining Effects study. But those increases didn't last.

"By the time students reached junior high school, there was no evidence of sustained or delayed effects of Title I," Launor R. Carter, the retired vice president for the System Development Corp. and the director of the study, wrote that year in Educational Researcher.

Thirteen years later, the most recent longitudinal study of the program found that little had changed--even after the federal government spent another $78 billion from 1984 through 1997.

The two studies have concluded that well over $100 billion has been spent across three decades for a program that research says doesn't reach its goal--of helping children overcome poverty's negative impact on their school achievement. They do, however, note that many individual Title I programs succeed, while the poor performance of others drags down the effectiveness of the program overall.

A companion study to the most recent longitudinal analysis identified specific programs that are producing substantial, even dramatic, achievement gains, and other research has tracked areas where Title I produces results.

The program's administrators are hoping that recent changes in the program will help correct the shortcomings the research has cited. And, given the political popularity and diverse numbers of schools participating in the program, the future of Title I seems secure.

The challenge, then, is for educators, policymakers, and researchers to focus on the question that has dogged the Great Society-era program throughout its history: How can it be structured so the lowest-achieving students will beat the long odds poverty lays against them?

The two major studies, as well as related analyses and other research completed and under way, may provide some answers for the program, which funds instruction, mostly in reading and math, intended to compensate for the learning problems children encounter because they live in or near poverty.

Continued Growth

"We cannot discern any 'compensatory' effect over time," concludes the final volume of the four-year Prospects study, released last spring by Abt Associates, a research firm in Bethesda, Md.

Many researchers expected the four-year study to reach that conclusion. The first-year results, released in 1993, found essentially the same thing.

"There is a long series of studies that suggest ... we have never lived up to the expectations," said Maris A. Vinovskis, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, who has tracked the research on Title I throughout its history. "Even if Title I is helping, it's not helping enough to overcome children's disadvantages."

Studies have concluded that well over $100 billion has been spent for a program that doesn't reach its goals.

Despite these negative assessments, the growth of the program has not stopped.

Congress, especially when it was under Democratic control, kept feeding Title I more money because it reaches almost every school district and thus provides jobs and services in every congressional district.

Members of Congress "see that people want the support, want the money, and want the teachers. That says something to them," said John F. Jennings, who was an aide to House Democrats when Congress first enacted Title I and through the changes made in 1994. "I don't think they hear the same criticisms locally as they do from these national evaluations."

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they tried to slash $1 billion from Title I's annual appropriation, but were forced to retreat in the face of angry public reaction. Spending on the roughly $8 billion program is poised to jump between $100 million and $500 million for the 1998-99 school year, depending on the decision of a House-Senate conference committee now meeting.

"It's not research driven," said Denis P. Doyle, a Washington-based senior fellow for the conservative Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis think tank. "The issue raised is: Who gets the goodies? There's no pressure to do program improvement."

In 1999, policymakers will revisit the issue once again when Title I next comes up for reauthorization. As they debate the issue, lawmakers will be faced with data from Prospects and a smaller-scale study the U.S. Department of Education has commissioned of the revised program.

Early Analysis

In 1975, on the 10th anniversary of Title I's passage, the U.S. Office of Education commissioned the System Development Corp. to conduct a longitudinal study of the program. Beginning with the 1976-77 school year, researchers from the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company tracked the test scores of 120,000 students for four years.

The early analysis was promising. According to a 1981 summary of the first two rounds of testing, Title I students at every grade level increased their test scores at a faster rate than others in a comparable group that did not receive services. Mathematics scores jumped faster than reading scores.

The growth even stayed with the Title I students over the summer, according to the analysis written by a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, which replaced the Office of Education in 1979.

In 1982, the study's directors released the findings in a series of draft reports for the department, which was by then under control of the Reagan administration. The new administration, which was seeking a dramatic reduction in the federal role in education, never published a final report. Mr. Carter, the study's director, released summaries of the findings in congressional hearings and academic articles.

The final results were mixed and not as glowing as the early findings. Title I appeared to have a positive impact for some students over the short term, but it did not help many over the long haul.

That was the most troubling news from the study--that Title I had no "sustaining effects" on student achievement. When students reached junior high school, any positive effects had dissipated, the data showed.

Despite the bad news, the report offered hints about why Title I didn't have the positive impact its advocates had hoped.

A big reason was that money went to whatever intervention local officials wanted, not necessarily to anything of proven merit, the study found. "There is no simple explanation or description of compensatory education; it is an amalgam of many different programs, practices, and services," Mr. Carter wrote.

"Even if Title I is helping, it's not helping enough to overcome children's disadvantages."

Maris A. Vinovskis,
University of Michigan

Because the instruction was often remedial, drill-and-practice instruction given in pullout programs, the average Title I student did not receive any extra attention from teachers. And often what special attention they did get was from less-experienced teachers than those in their regular classrooms, Mr. Carter concluded.

Positive Findings

While the Sustaining Effects study painted a bleak picture, the program's supporters found other data to promote it.

For example, in a December 1983 article in the Phi Delta Kappan--the journal of Phi Delta Kappa, the education honor society--Benjamin D. Stickney and Virginia R.L. Plunkett cited scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and other standardized tests.

"The NAEP reported that students in schools eligible for Title I posted significantly greater gains between 1970 and 1980 than did students in non-Title I schools at all three age levels tested," the article said.

And 1976 data from a comprehensive study on reading achievement found that the academic growth of students in Title I and other compensatory education "compared favorably" with that of students not in the programs, the authors reported.

These varied results played little role in the changes Congress made to Title I in the early 1980s. The impetus for change was the political debate between newly powerful conservatives, who wanted to scale back federal K-12 programs, and Democrats who wanted to preserve them, said Mr. Jennings, the former Democratic aide, who is now the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy.

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