Why Doesn’t Title I Work?

November 01, 1997 8 min read

In 1984, the project director of the first longitudinal study of Title I students released some sobering news: The federal program, which spent $40 billion in its first two decades to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their more-advantaged peers, had little long-term impact. Elementary students who received Title I assistance performed slightly better on standardized tests than disadvantaged youngsters who went without the services. But those benefits didn’t last.

“By the time students reached junior high school, there was no evidence of sustained or delayed effects of Title I,” Launor Carter, director of the study, wrote in the August/September 1984 issue of Educational Researcher.

Now, 13 years and some $78 billion dollars later, another longitudinal study of Title I--known through most of the 1980s and early ‘90s as Chapter 1--has reached the same discouraging conclusion. “We cannot discern any ‘compensatory’ effect over time associated with Chapter 1 participation,” declares the final report of the four-year study conducted by Abt Associates, a Maryland-based research firm.

The results of this study, titled Prospects, didn’t surprise many education researchers. A 1993 analysis of first-year data from the study had reported little good news, and scholars were already arriving at a grim consensus: The federal government’s largest K-12 program was failing to help children overcome the impact of poverty on school achievement.

“There is a long series of studies that suggests we have never lived up to expectations” with Title I, says Maris Vinovskis, a professor of history at the University of Michigan. “Even if Title I is helping, it’s not helping enough to overcome children’s disadvantages. Prospects just confirms what we’ve known all along.”

Despite these negative assessments, Title I has continued to grow over the years. The nearly $8 billion program, after all, reaches almost every school system in the nation and thus provides jobs and services in every congressional district. When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they tried to slash $1 billion from Title I’s annual appropriation but gave up the effort in the face of widespread public criticism. Congress is expected to boost Title I spending for the 1998-99 school year by between $100 million and $500 million.

“Members of Congress see that people want the support, want the money, and want the teachers,” says John Jennings, a former aide to House Democrats. “I don’t think they hear the same criticisms locally as they do from these national evaluations.”

In 1975, on Title I’s 10th anniversary, federal education officials commissioned the System Development Corp. to conduct the first longitudinal study of the program. The research project, which became known as the Sustaining Effects study, tracked the test scores of 120,000 students for four years starting in the 1976-77 school year.

Early analysis was promising. A 1981 summary of the first two rounds of testing reported that the scores of Title I students rose faster than those of other students.

Three years later, researchers released the final findings in a series of draft reports for the U.S. Department of Education, which was then under control of the Reagan administration. The administration, which at the time was trying to dismantle the department, never officially published a final report. Carter, the study’s director, released summaries of the findings at congressional hearings and in academic articles.

The results he reported were mixed at best and not nearly as glowing as the preliminary findings. Title I appeared to boost achievement for some students but failed to help many over the long haul. “It appears that Title I was effective for students who were only moderately disadvantaged, but it did not improve the relative achievement of the most disadvantaged part of the school population,” Carter wrote in Educational Researcher.

Carter’s most troubling news, however, was that Title I had no “sustaining effects” on student achievement. When program students reached junior high, any positive impact had dissipated.

Carter and his fellow researchers suggested that Title I fell short of expectations because money went to whatever interventions local officials wanted--not necessarily to what worked. Because the instruction was often remedial and given in pull-out programs, the average Title I student did not receive any extra attention from teachers. And what special help disadvantaged students did get was often from less experienced teachers than those in the classrooms they had been pulled from.

"[Title I] did not represent a unified or coherent treatment program,” Carter wrote. “It is an amalgam of many different programs, practices, and services.”

Sustaining Effects painted a bleak picture, but that did not deter program advocates, who managed to find other, more supportive data and studies. They pointed, for example, to a December 1983 article in the education journal Kappan by Benjamin Stickney and Virginia Plunkett, who 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 authors wrote. What’s more, data from a 1976 study on reading achievement found that at-risk students in compensatory education “compared favorably” with those not in the programs.

Republican promises to slash federal compensatory programs bolstered supporters’ resolve to preserve Title I intact. They resisted any modification, fearing that to endorse changes, even those based on research, would weaken their argument that the program should continue. “The defenders became overly protective and didn’t want to make any changes,’' says Jennings, the former Democratic aide who is now director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. “It caused a hardening of positions rather than reaching for solutions.”

Like the Sustaining Effects data, the negative first-year results of the 40,000-student Prospects study failed to deter policymakers. In 1994, the Democratic-controlled Congress, with support from the Clinton administration, reauthorized the program, calling for increased spending.

Lawmakers did, however, change some of the program rules. Among other things, they gave schools more leeway with their federal dollars, allowing them to spend the money on schoolwide improvements and not just remedial programs for Title I students. Disadvantaged kids, the lawmakers figured, would directly benefit from such reforms.

When the final Prospects data were released this year, however, they confirmed the bleak results presented in the preliminary report. The data, the researchers said, did not conclusively indicate whether Title I helped individual students. But the findings definitively showed that the program failed to close the gap between high-achieving and Title I students.

“After controlling for student, family, and school differences between Chapter 1 participants and nonparticipants, we still find that participants score lower than nonparticipants and that this gap in achievement is not closed over time,” the researchers wrote.

Other researchers have analyzed the data differently and reached conclusions that put Title I in a more favorable light. In 1993, two graduate students from the University of Chicago conducted a comprehensive review of early Prospects findings as well as data from Sustaining Effects and other significant studies. They concluded that while the program failed to close the achievement gap, it did help the children it served. Among similarly disadvantaged students, says author Geoffrey Borman, who is now at Johns Hopkins University, “those kids who participated in the program tend to perform better than those who did not.”

Another 1993 study, this one by the RAND Corp., concluded that Title I “achieves modest short-term benefits” and that many Title I-supported interventions produce “outstanding results.” Because the test scores from stellar programs are averaged into laggard ones, the national picture often shows little overall impact, the California-based think tank argued in its review.

In this vein, a companion study to Prospects, conducted over the same period, tried to identify which intervention programs worked and which did not. Led by a team at Johns Hopkins University, this Special Strategies study examined how various reform models affected the test scores of Title I students. Among other things, it compared national improvement models--such as those pioneered by well-known reformers like James Comer and Robert Slavin--with locally developed approaches. In general, the researchers found, the outside programs got the best results.

The report summarizes its findings this way: “What is new in Special Strategies is the strength of evidence that some programs, well implemented, appear to help students make dramatic academic progress; that pursuing schoolwide change may well be worth the effort; that intensive early intervention may yet be the best bet; and that after a third of a century of research on school change, we still have not provided adequate human and fiscal resources, appropriately targeted, to make large-scale program improvements a reliably consistent reality in schools serving students placed at risk.”

Taken together, Special Strategies, Prospects, and Sustaining Effects drive home the fact that Title I has always been a hodgepodge of whatever local school officials want to do. The final Prospects report contends that Title I is “not a uniform program but a collection of services and practices provided in participating schools using federal resources.”

David Cohen, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Michigan, agrees that Title I has always been less a program than a funding stream. And that, he says, is a big part of the problem. “It’s not plausible to expect a funding stream to have an effect on teaching and learning.”

Still, there is a growing sense of optimism among those within the program that the changes Congress made in 1994 will eventually reap rewards. Those changes encouraged districts to use Title I money for schoolwide reform rather than pull-out remediation. They required districts to hold Title I students to the same high standards others must meet. And they allowed schools to request waivers from rules that hinder innovation.

“We have the framework in place,” says Mary Jean LeTendre, director of the Title I office at the Department of Education. “We finally know we’re going in the right direction.”

--David J. Hoff