Title I Study Finds 'Promising' Student Gains
The Department of Education last week unveiled optimistic findings on the effectiveness of the revamped Title I program, saying they bolster the agency's position that Congress should stay the course in reauthorizing the program this year.
In releasing "Promising Results, Continuing Challenges: The Final Report of the National Assessment of Title I," department officials conceded that there was still a dearth of data on the program's effectiveness. But they argued that emerging research from national reading and mathematics assessments and other sources paints a picture of progress for the high-poverty students served by Title I.
The report, which was delivered to Congress March 1, is meeting with skepticism, however, from some Republicans and conservative education experts. They say it is still too early to judge the effectiveness of Title I reforms made five years ago.
Valena White Plisko, the director of the division on planning and eval- uation service in the office of elementary and secondary education, said that, before it was reformed in 1994, the federal program for disadvantaged students reinforced low expectations for children in poverty.
"But it's now a different story we have to tell," Ms. Plisko said. The new study, she said, shows that "progress is possible, and it's possible in our highest-poverty schools."
The report also makes recommendations on improving Title I, including phasing out the use of teachers' aides for instruction, strengthening parental-involvement provisions, and targeting high-performance school grants to the highest-poverty schools.
Congress mandated the Title I assessment under the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which dramatically changed Title I by aligning it with standards-based reforms in states. The assessment draws from multiple sources of data at the national, state, and local district levels to reach its conclusions on the $8 billion program. Congress appointed an independent review panel to advise the department in its effort, and the report comes as Congress gears up to again reauthorize the ESEA this year.
The department found that, between 1992 and 1998, reading scores from the National Assessment for Educational Progress for 9-year-olds in the highest-poverty public schools increased by 8 points, close to one grade level. Similar gains were shown in math between 1990 and 1996. The report also found NAEP math and reading gains for low-performing 4th graders.
Department officials acknowledged last week that much work was still needed to reduce the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers. Even so, results reported by a select number of states and school districts showed progress in the percentage of students in high-poverty schools meeting standards for math and reading proficiency. For instance, six large urban districts, including Houston and San Francisco, made progress in both areas.
Critics argue, though, that it is premature to reach any meaningful conclusions.
"The fact is, the data is just not there," said Vic Klatt, the educational policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "No state has fully implemented the Title I provisions."
Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, added that there is no way to discern the impact Title I had on improved test scores. "Correlation does not prove causation. ... I don't think their report proves a thing [about Title I]."
Even supporters of Title I, such as Roxie F. Knupp, the Title I program manager for the San Diego Unified School District, suggest it is a little soon to judge its success. "It takes a while to actually put change in place," she said.
Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, observed that the very reason it is difficult to isolate Title I's impact is that the program now allows states and districts greater flexibility in using its funding. "The more that it gets woven together with state and local [dollars] for the same purposes, the harder it is to isolate the effects, but the better the effect," he said.
Education Department officials said that more research was needed and that the results cited in the report were intricately tied to state and local efforts to implement new standards and tests.
But acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith maintained that there was some evidence of progress. "What [the report] found is a consistent pattern of gains over time since the new program came in," he said.
Mr. Klatt of the House education committee said that, in general, the report's recommendations on improving Title I "are ones we should take a careful look at." He cited the phaseout of teachers' aides as one example. "Everyone has shied away from that issue for a while," he said.
The report indicates that, in the 1997-98 school year, nearly all Title I aides were either teaching or helping to teach, and three-fourths spent some time teaching without a teacher present, even though most aides lack a bachelor's degree.
Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 20