Chapter 1 Aid Failed To Close Learning Gap

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The federal government's largest K-12 education program failed to meet its goal of closing the learning gap between low-achieving students and their classmates, according to the final results from a longitudinal study of 27,000 students.

Students who received compensatory education under the federal Chapter 1 program, now revised and known as Title I, continued to lag behind their peers by the same amount after receiving extra help in reading and math, a summary of the five-year "Prospects" study says.

"The way the old Chapter 1 program was organized was not a sufficiently strong intervention to close the gap," says the summary of the report being circulated on Capitol Hill and among education researchers. "The study does not tell us, however, why this occurred. For example, it may be that the presence of Chapter 1 was the reason that students grew at comparable rates and that without Chapter 1 the gap would have widened more."

The long-awaited conclusions are similar to preliminary findings released as Congress prepared to reauthorize the program three years ago. ("Chapter 1 Fails To Spur Gains, Data Indicate," Nov. 24, 1993.)

Congress used the early data to rewrite the program and remove its focus on remedial instruction. Now, schools are required to raise standards for students in disadvantaged schools to match those in other schools and to ensure that all students have the chance to satisfy those standards. The revised Title I program gives new flexibility to help schools in high-poverty areas make those changes without pulling students out of classrooms for remedial sessions.

Bracing for Questions

The 1994 overhaul is leading the program's boosters to downplay the findings of the study, which is undergoing final editing at the Department of Education and should be sent to Congress sometime in the next 30 days.

"It would be hard to draw parallels between what the study says and how the program is operating now," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education and the chairman of a panel that advises the department on research matters, including the evaluation of Title I.

Still, Title I backers are bracing for questions about whether the federal government should continue spending $7.2 billion a year on a program that has shown mediocre results at best. Some experts are pessimistic about the chances for improved results from the revamped program.

But despite past attempts by congressional Republicans to slash the education budget, including Title I, leading GOP members appear to agree with Mr. Cross' argument that the program should have a chance to right itself.

"This is a very large program we're dealing with here," said a source close to the appropriations process who has read the summary of the Prospects study. "If these changes are effective, it's going to take a while to take hold."

Confirming Earlier Findings

In 1991, the study began tracking 27,000 students in grades 1, 3, and 7 and tested them each year until 1994. Prospects is the largest longitudinal study of Title I since the program began in 1965. Abt Associates Inc. of Bethesda, Md., conducted the study under a contract awarded by the Education Department.

The 1993 preliminary report contained data from the first two testing cycles. The final results differ little from the ones announced then.

As in the initial results, the final study shows that the program did nothing to help participating students narrow the achievement gap that existed before they entered Chapter 1.

The final results also reconfirmed early findings that educational achievement is lower in high-poverty schools, regardless of individual students' economic backgrounds.

The test scores in high-poverty schools started lower than in low-poverty schools, and the gap "increased slightly" over the next three years, the summary says.

While the study shows that Chapter 1 fell short of its goals, the big question facing policymakers now is: Will Title I show better results?

Maris Vinovkis, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and a former adviser to the department's research office, said that he is pessimistic that the evaluation being planned for the current program will show anything different.

The department awarded a contract for a new Title I evaluation late last year. The new five-year evaluation will concentrate on the effectiveness of school reforms rather than individual achievement. ("New Study of Title I Will Examine Program Under States' Standards," Oct. 30, 1996.)

While the 1994 overhaul increased the scope of the program, it did not require schools to follow programs that have proven results. The current program lets grant recipients use whatever instructional strategies they want, even ones that might not be effective, said Mr. Vinovkis, a member of the advisory panel Mr. Cross leads.

Political Roadblock

Politics also may get in the way of changes the study suggests would help. While the study's results demonstrate that high-poverty schools need the federal assistance more than the low-poverty ones, Congress has been reluctant to change the formula to favor the poorest schools.

In 1993, Congress virtually ignored an Education Department proposal to dramatically shift the distribution of Title I money to favor impoverished areas. Instead, lawmakers chose to protect school districts then receiving the money from losses. ("Court To Hear Plea To Revoke Limits on Title I ," Jan. 29, 1997.)

While Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the House panel that sets education funding figures, has complained repeatedly that Title I benefits too many schools that don't need the money, he will struggle to be any more successful than the department was with a Democratic-controlled Congress three years ago.

The current Republican majority owes its power in large part to the suburban areas that would be losers in attempts to target money on the highest-poverty areas.

"It is one of those things that logic tells you should be done, but it's not clear that evidence can overcome politics," Mr. Cross, a former assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, said.

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