WASHINGTON--An independent commission that includes several leading school-reform theorists last week released a proposal for radically overhauling the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program.
The plan would use the threat of a deep cut in federal funds to force states to equalize services among their school districts, and would set tough accountability standards--based on new types of tests--that could lead to state takeovers of low-performing schools and school districts.
The 28-member commission, which was formed by a group of child advocates, said its aim is to transform Chapter 1 from a remedial program for poor and low-achieving students into a catalyst for schoolwide improvement and for higher standards for all students.
“I think we are getting closer and closer in the U.S. to seeing that we need to produce results,’' the panel’s chairman, David W. Hornbeck, said at a news conference last week. “It’s a change that has penetrated pretty deeply in some influential quarters.’'
Mr. Hornbeck, a former Maryland state school chief, conceded that the plan to require states to equalize the delivery of services is “a long shot’’ for Congressional approval.
On the other hand, he noted that such ideas today are in a position similar to that of “national standards and a national examination system’’ just a few years ago, when they were “not even a polite subject for cocktail chatter.’'
He and other commissioners said they wanted to issue a bold plan to stimulate discussion about the future of Chapter 1.
“If we were talking about business as usual, tinkering at the margins, a lot of us would not have participated,’' said Al Ramirez, an executive deputy state superintendent of education in Illinois.
The plan is expected to influence Congress’s upcoming reauthorization of Chapter 1. The panel includes highly regarded compensatory-education experts, representatives from both national teachers’ unions and the business community, and widely known reform advocates.
Some of the panelists--including Mr. Hornbeck, Marshall S. Smith, the dean of the school of education at Stanford University, and Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center for Education and the Economy--also have ties to President-elect Bill Clinton.
Mr. Clinton has hinted that he supports using Chapter 1 in some way to increase equity among districts.
The panel would go much further and impose a mandate as extreme as any in federal education policy, with the possible exception of those requiring racial desegregation.
Under its plan, states would have to insure that students in all districts receive “comparable services for comparable needs.’'
Although states would not have to equalize spending per se, they would have to guarantee comparability among districts in “essential educational services,’' including preschools, reading programs, student-teacher ratios, counseling and social services, the credentials of teachers, and the content of the curriculum.
States could meet the mandate as they see fit, but if they failed, federal officials would cut off their Chapter 1 funds and all others under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The equity plan did not win the panel’s unanimous approval. In one of several dissenting opinions attached to the commission’s report, Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to Albert Shanker, the American Federation of Teachers president, argued that the plan would only produce “regression to the mean and mediocrity,’' and beget “an army’’ of bureaucrats.
“Instead of pursuing a leveling-up strategy, it is crudely redistributive in ways that guarantee either chicanery or a political backlash that would defeat the goals of equity,’' Ms. Rosenberg wrote.
Other panelists countered that the equity issue cannot be ignored and that Congress must be persuaded to take up the cause.
William L. Taylor, a pre-eminent school-desegregation lawyer and a consultant to the Chapter 1 panel, suggested in an interview following the press conference that some state officials would embrace the new requirement as they did federal desegregation mandates. The officials, he said, wanted to integrate schools but “needed the cover of being able to say, ‘The federal judge made me do it.’ ''
Targeting and Accountability
While the equalization requirement is likely to receive the most attention, the heart of the proposal is its accountability system.
The plan would free educators from some regulations they have long complained stifle creativity while subjecting them to sanctions if they fail to raise student achievement.
Under current law, Chapter 1 funds are supposed to be distributed to districts and individual schools on the basis of the number and concentrations of poor children they serve.
But most districts get some money, and most allocate their share among schools based partially on the number of low-achieving students.
The commission recommends scrapping the concept of student eligibility and focusing funds more narrowly on the schools with the most poor children.
Some districts with few poor children would remain eligible under the panel’s plan, but would receive less per pupil than districts with higher concentrations of poverty.
Districts would have to spend funds in schools with the highest poverty rates. Schools would be eligible if at least 30 percent of their students met poverty criteria, or if their poverty rate is at least equal to the district average.
The commission said the scheme would end the stigmatization of Chapter 1 children, as well as the “perverse incentive’’ of rules that cut off a school’s funds when student achievement improves.
The plan would also free districts from having to prove that funds are spent on eligible children, a rule that has influenced them to adopt an add-on approach to Chapter 1 instruction that pulls children out of regular classrooms.
Under the panel’s plan, all schools would become a schoolwide project, meaning that funds could be used to upgrade an entire school. Currently, only schools whose enrollments of poor children are greater than 75 percent of the total have such freedom.
In exchange for the regulatory relief, all Chapter 1 schools would be judged on the basis of their pupils’ performance.
Currently, students’ scores on standardized tests are at the heart of the Chapter 1 program-improvement process. Most compensatory-education experts agree that the use of such tests has undesirable effects on teaching, and that the improvement process has not worked.
Under the panel’s plan, accountability would be based on tests measuring students’ proficiency against new state performance standards, set under federal guidelines.
States would also set standards for curriculum content, to which the assessments would be tied, and for the delivery of services by schools. States would be responsible for enforcing these standards, but parents could also file lawsuits against districts that they claim do not meet them.
Under the panel’s three-pronged student-assessment system, Chapter 1 would be evaluated on the national level on the basis of tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Districts would track individual students’ progress using “performance based’’ measures of their choice tied to the state standards.
But it is student performance on assessments chosen at the state level that would be the basis for rewards and sanctions for schools and districts.
Children would be tested in the 1st grade for language and social skills. Later tests would measure achievement in a wide array of subjects.
The panel specified only that states should use multiple, performance-based measures to assess schools.
Members endorsed the use of a breed of tests unlike extant standardized exams, but did not explain what those tests should look like.
Rewards and Sanctions
Districts and schools would have to meet the new standards within five years of their first state assessment. States would be required to help schools that are not making “adequate progress,’' which the panel defined as raising the percentage of children who achieve at advanced levels and lowering the percentage who fail to achieve “minimal proficiency.’'
Schools and districts that continue to miss the goals would be subject to virtually any sanction state officials deemed appropriate.
They could close schools, fire their staffs, or change their governance structures. At the district level, state officials could fire superintendents and run the schools themselves.
Parents would be allowed to transfer students out of failing schools or districts.
On the other hand, successful schools would be rewarded with such incentives as reduced regulation or bonuses for educators.
Five panelists argued that basing such a system of rewards and punishments on new, largely untested forms of assessment would be a serious mistake.
“There are simply too many technical, practical, equity, and cost questions to which we do not have answers regarding the large-scale deployment of these new techniques,’' George Madaus, the director of the Center for the Study of Testing at Boston College, wrote in a dissenting opinion.
At the news conference, several commissioners countered such criticism, saying that the development of new assessments is moving faster than critics think, and that a national assessment system probably will be adopted even without concurrent changes in Chapter 1.
“I remind you this would not go into effect for almost three years,’' Mr. Hornbeck said. “It is my firm expectation that the context we find ourselves in then will be a different one that we find ourselves in today.’'
Ms. Rosenberg of the áŸæŸôŸ contended in her dissent that the panel’s definition of “adequate progress’’ is “arbitrary,’' and that the accountability process would “deliver urban districts into the hands of states.’'
She also said the plan “enshrines in federal policy’’ an unproven assessment-and-sanction system drafted by Mr. Hornbeck as part of the reform plan adopted in 1990 by the State of Kentucky.
Another panelist, Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, argued that the panelists who launched the study refused to hear from practicing educators or experts in testing or finance.
“A lot of us realized that they were going to say what they wanted to say no matter what,’' Mr. Nathan said in an interview.
Two other panelists concurred with Mr. Nathan’s conclusion, but declined to be quoted by name.
The commission also recommended:
- Using Chapter 1 to coordinate social services in schools.
States would have to draw up plans to eliminate “barriers to learning,’' such as poor health care, nutrition, and housing. Schools would screen children and refer them for services.
- Setting aside Chapter 1 funds for professional development.
Adopting new rules to encourage parental involvement in schools. The panel called for the creation of resource centers in each state, and requiring local plans to include parent training and home-based education activities.
A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Chapter 1 Panel Calls For Radical Set of Revisions