Chapter 1 Study Documents Impact of Poverty

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The final report tracking students in the federal Chapter 1 program demonstrates the negative impact poverty has on the children who live in it--or even near it.

Low-income students generally start at a lower academic level than others and only catch up through determined and well-planned efforts by their principals, teachers, and parents, according to the $29 million study of the largest federal program in K-12 education.

Even middle-class and high-income students who attend schools with large numbers of impoverished students lag behind when measured against their peers in wealthier areas and--like their disadvantaged peers--fail to regain that ground in later years, the final version of the federally financed study, released this month, points out.

But that does not mean the Chapter 1 remedial program--which has since been revised and renamed Title I--was ineffective, the report's authors and the program's supporters say.

"Limitations of this study do not allow us to determine whether Chapter 1 students would have been academically worse off without the assistance they received," the report says.

"There are just less goodies of a variety of sorts in schools serving high concentrations of low-income families," said Andrew C. Porter, the director of the Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who reviewed the data from the massive report.

The Department of Education released the final version of the "Prospects" longitudinal study of Chapter 1 after delivering copies to Congress on April 4. The study tracked the progress of 40,000 students over four years, making it possibly the biggest effort ever to track impoverished students' academic progress.

Same Pace, Unequal Starts

The final report confirms the contents of its summary, which had been circulating among education researchers and on Capitol Hill for several weeks. It finds that Chapter 1 intervention failed to narrow the learning gap between the students it served and those who didn't participate in the program, which provides students with extra help in reading and mathematics. ("Chapter 1 Aid Failed To Close Learning Gap," Apr. 2, 1997.)

Critics say the research is proof that the program has failed and it should be radically overhauled, possibly to give parents vouchers to pay for tutoring or select different schools for their children to attend.

"It's been a federal subsidy of K-12 education," said Checker E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Indianapolis. "It has not been an effective compensatory-education program for low-income kids."

But supporters say grants from the $7.2 billion Title I program are vital to inner-city schools trying to raise student achievement.

"Title I is the only resource [high-poverty schools] have to do any kind of restructuring or redesign," said Sam Stringfield, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the lead author of a companion study to Prospects on successful attempts to improve high-poverty schools. "If you're going to fix things, this is the lever that's available. Everything else has failed. They failed because they eventually went away."

In the mounds of Prospects data, researchers discovered that students of all economic backgrounds learned at about the same pace. But students in high-poverty schools started at a lower level and rarely caught up, even if they received help from Chapter 1.

High-poverty schools put "disadvantaged students in double jeopardy," the authors conclude. "School poverty depresses the scores of all students in schools where at least half of the students are eligible for [federally] subsidized lunch, and seriously depresses the scores when over 75 percent of students live in low-income households."

Students in high-poverty schools scored lower on all sections of criterion-referenced reading and math exams, regardless of the students' economic status. Those results were consistent across every grade level and for every year of the testing.

While achievement in high-poverty schools lagged, the grades the students there received did not.

The average A student in a poor area scored in the 36th percentile on standardized math and reading tests--about the same level as C students in low-poverty schools. In well-off schools, A students scored in the 87th percentile in math and the 81st percentile in reading.

Even with Chapter 1, test scores at high-poverty schools trailed the national norm at roughly the same pace during the testing cycles that started with 1st, 3rd, and 7th graders in 1991, according to Abt Associates of Bethesda, Md., which conducted the research under a contract from the Education Department. Testing of students in the lower grades continued for three additional years, and two more years for the oldest children in the study.

Some Models Work

Because the mammoth study was unable to discern why the program, on average, did not help its recipients learn, it "was a foolish thing to have done," said Robert E. Slavin, a co-director of the Center for Research on Education of Students Placed at Risk, based at Johns Hopkins.

"The idea that there would be a massive impact [because of Chapter 1] runs up against a long history of research," including a similar but smaller longitudinal study in the 1970s, Mr. Slavin said.

Mr. Slavin said he wished the Education Department had dedicated more resources to Mr. Stringfield's companion study so it could have done a more thorough review of what works in school buildings.

That study, "Urban and Suburban/Rural Special Strategies for Educating Disadvantaged Children," delved deeply enough into 25 schools to determine why some of them were successful.

It found that models of reform--such as Success for All, developed by Mr. Slavin, and the Comer School Development Program from Yale University--if implemented well, could close the learning gap between low- and high-poverty schools.

Achievement in one Success for All school started below the average high-poverty schools in the Prospects study. Over the next three years, however, it jumped over the larger study's average, according to Mr. Stringfield's findings. Two other schools using reform models did not replicate their success, Mr. Stringfield found, but instead showed the same "lock step" improvement as Prospects reported.

The reason: District administrators in those lagging schools "never fully embraced" reforms, Mr. Stringfield's report says.

"There are some things out there that show some promise of working," Mr. Stringfield said. "Ten or 15 years ago, it was hard to make a case for a list of reforms that could go in and help a school with high poverty."

Lack of Specifics

Prospects, however, did not zero in on particular reforms.

High-poverty schools where students excelled created "a more orderly school environment," the Chapter 1 report says. They had lower rates of student and teacher mobility than failing schools. They also had fewer student suspensions and expulsions than their struggling counterparts.

But the authors warn that the sample of successful schools was too small be scientifically reliable.

The question facing Title I now is whether changes Congress made to it in 1994 will produce better results than its predecessor did. The Education Department has started a review of the current program, but it won't be as large as the Prospects study.

Several of 1994's revisions offer the "potential for change" for the better, Mr. Slavin said.

One allows schools with poverty rates of 50 percent or more to combine resources from Title I and other federal programs. The pool of money can be dedicated to restructuring the whole school, not just offering supplementary instruction the way Chapter I did.

"Making a reform plan rather than a remedial service plan is the most promising way to go," Mr. Slavin said. But "there's nothing magic about schoolwide projects. It depends what they are."

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