In federal education policy, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is the big kahuna, the 800-pound gorilla, the nec plus ultra.
As the Senate HELP committee prepares to take action on the long-stalled ESEA renewal next week, it is timely to consider the law’s role in innovation. ESEA is the bedrock of educational innovation, at least for high-poverty schools. It’s been around since 1965, and it may be renamed (No Child Left Behind) or repurposed, but it’s unlikely to ever go away. Including over $14 billion a year for Title I alone, ESEA is a big chunk of change, but its influence is magnified because the Department of Education can threaten to withhold ESEA funds to state and local districts if they don’t follow federal policies.
The importance of Title I for innovation lies in the fact that schools have always been forbidden to use these funds for ordinary expenses, such as salaries, buildings, or buses. Instead it is intended to help struggling children, either through additional services (such as remedial teachers or technology) or, especially in schoolwide projects, professional development and program adoption. Most Title I funds are spent on instructional aides, technology, and other services with little if any evidence of effectiveness, and studies of the overall impact of Title I nationally find very small impacts. However, when effective programs are used at scale in high-poverty schools, it is almost always Title I that pays for them.
Making sure Title I has more impact on achievement should be a simple matter: Find out which replicable strategies designed for Title I schools are effective, and then encourage their use. That would be sensible, but to date, the law has not done this. What happens instead is endless debate about the rules under which Title I funds can be spent. Rules do provide some necessary guardrails, but if they do not improve what happens to children every day in school, and if they do not result in improved outcomes for Title I schools, then they do not matter.
The solution to a seemingly complex problem could be quite straightforward: Devote, say, 5 percent of ESEA funds to creating and evaluating programs that improve outcomes in Title I schools, and then offer incentives for schools to choose them. Could Congress take an innovative approach this year?
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