How Title I Can (Still) Save America's Children

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The verdict is in, and it's very bad. "Prospects," the national longitudinal study of Chapter 1, was recently released by Congress. Its overall conclusion: Chapter 1 had little if any impact on the achievement of the children it served. ("Chapter 1 Aid Failed To Close Learning Gap," April 2, 1997.)

The danger in this finding is obvious. In a time of budget-cutting and downsizing of government, a multi-billion-dollar program with little evidence of effectiveness is certainly at risk. At more than $7.2 billion per year, Title I, the successor to Chapter 1, is by far the largest federal investment in elementary and secondary education. It is the bedrock of federal attempts to assist schools serving many disadvantaged students. When effective programs are used in high-poverty schools, it is almost always Title I that pays for them. Maintaining Title I funding for high-poverty schools is essential. Yet it is impossible to justify continuing to spend Title I dollars on services that don't work, can't work, and have never worked.

The problem is that Chapter 1 funds were overwhelmingly used for two purposes: to hire teachers to provide remedial services to children who had fallen behind, and to hire aides to work in classrooms. These uses have rarely if ever been found to be effective. This is not to belittle the skills and dedication of Title I teachers and aides, or even the need for them. It's just that they've been given the wrong jobs to do. In fact, there is evidence that both pullout teachers and aides can be effective in providing one-to-one tutoring to at-risk children, and many programs that do have evidence of effectiveness use extra teachers and aides to good effect. Yet the idea that small-group remedial sessions or aides helping children with seatwork will have a measurable impact on achievement has been tested and rejected many times over the entire history of Chapter 1/Title I.

Of course, Chapter 1, the program studied by "Prospects," no longer exists. In 1994 it was replaced by Title I, and the changes mandated in this reauthorization have only gradually gone into effect. Isn't it possible that while Chapter 1 had little impact, Title I is having a much better one? This is indeed a possibility; at a minimum, Title I made it far easier for schools with at least 50 percent of their students in poverty to become schoolwide projects, able to serve all children and to use Title I funds for whole-school reform, not just services to individual eligible children. This change at least creates the potential for schools to adopt more effective schoolwide strategies, and hundreds of schools have taken advantage of this opportunity. Yet no honest observer of practices in Title I schools could maintain that Title I is used in ways that are radically different from Chapter 1 in the majority of schools. Most continue to use these funds to hire pullout teachers and classroom aides.

Title I must become an engine for rational, research-based reform in our nation's high-poverty schools.

The problem is that schools are typically given little guidance in writing their Title I plans. The safest thing for a principal or school planning committee to do in a Title I plan is to propose what the school proposed last year, or what Title I/Chapter 1 has always supported: pullout teachers and classroom aides. New accountability pressures (or an honest perception that too many children are failing) may motivate principals to try other configurations or programs, but the path of least resistance is to support the salaries and roles of existing staff members. To do otherwise risks turmoil, hard feelings, and uncertainty.

It is time to radically change Title I. As much as Title I is a popular program, going to more than 90 percent of school districts, it cannot continue to survive year after year without evidence of effectiveness. More important, millions of our most impoverished children depend on Title I, which provides the best chance they have that their teachers will have access to the best in curriculum and instruction. Complacency in the face of continued evidence of ineffectiveness is cruel to these children and ultimately self-defeating. We can do much better. Title I must become an engine for rational, research-based reform in our nation's high-poverty schools.

As a starting point for a discussion of how Title I must change, consider a vision of what Title I might look like five years from now, in 2002.

In this vision, principals, working with representatives of teachers and parents, would propose Title I plans to their districts and states, much as they do today. However, each school's staff would not be expected to reinvent the wheel. Instead, school staffs would select programs from a list of proven, replicable models. These would include whole-school change models, incorporating curriculum, instructional methods, assessments, services for at-risk children, family-support programs, professional development, and other features. Alternatively, schools could select programs in specific subject areas or for specific purposes (for example, tutoring for poor readers, classroom management, or parent involvement), and then assemble these into their own comprehensive plans.

Each of the programs on the proven list would have to have been evaluated against rigorous standards of evidence by third-party, neutral evaluators. They would have been compared to matched control schools on achievement measures linked to national standards, plus other measures if appropriate. Schools would have available the results of these assessments, and would use them along with other factors, such as cost, appropriateness to their unique needs, and availability, to make a rational, considered choice. No program is effective in every circumstance, and every program depends for its effectiveness on the quality of implementation provided by the school itself. But school staffs could have confidence that if they adopted a given method and implemented it with fidelity, intelligence, and enthusiasm, they would be likely to produce at least the results obtained in the third-party evaluations.

The entire school staff, plus parent representatives, would be involved in the selection of innovative programs. In fact, staffs might be required to vote by secret ballot to adopt a given model, with a supermajority requirement of, say, 80 percent in favor. Effective implementation of any innovation is unlikely if the professionals implementing it had no part in choosing it.

Schools would not be required to select a program from an approved list; they would be able to propose an alternative if they could provide adequate justification. They might, for example, propose to use programs that are in the process of being evaluated, or to develop their own comprehensive approaches. However, this would require careful thought and planning. In contrast to the situation today, the path of least resistance would be to select a proven model, not to simply hire pullout teachers and aides or to propose a poorly planned home-grown model.

Over time, the list of proven programs would grow and continually improve. Substantial federal funding would support a nationwide enterprise of development, evaluation, and dissemination of programs designed to address every subject, every age level, and every need of Title I elementary and secondary schools. Programs found to be effective by their developers would be evaluated by third-party evaluators and, if successful, added to lists of proven programs.

Title I, the most important resource for at-risk childern, is itself at risk. At its best, Title I can make a substantial difference in children's success.

Title I offices in large districts or intermediate units would build a capacity to help school staffs make rational and informed choices among proven models. They would maintain libraries of videotapes, print materials, curriculum samples, and evaluation reports to help schools in their decisionmaking process. They would also build a capacity to help coordinate the activities of external providers of professional-development services, to ensure that these providers are following through on their commitments, and to help schools and trainers assess and continually improve the quality of implementation of each design.

The Title I of the future would be somewhat like the medical-innovation system today. Just as physicians are constantly upgrading their practices in light of new evidence and adopting new medications, devices, and procedures approved by the Food and Drug Administration, educators of the future would be constantly upgrading their instructional practices, curricula, and services in light of new knowledge, especially program evaluations by neutral and skilled evaluation agencies.

What would it take to make this vision a reality? First, it would take a substantial, long-term federal investment to greatly expand the "shelf" of effective and replicable approaches. This would mean funding evaluation agencies to carry out rigorous evaluations of existing promising programs, paying for development of new models capable of being widely used in Title I schools, and experimenting with innovative methods for professional development, quality control, network building, and brokering new school designs into Title I schools. It would mean building the capacity of current and future training networks to work with large numbers of schools without sacrificing quality and integrity. This program of development, evaluation, and capacity building could cost as much as 5 percent of Title I; a huge amount ($360 million per year) in comparison to current R&D expenditures, but a tiny amount in comparison to the total spent on Title I and on other compensatory education services.

Of course, there are many replicable programs already working in hundreds of Title I schools today that do have evidence of effectiveness. A companion study to the "Prospects" Chapter 1 evaluation, called "Special Strategies," investigated promising alternatives to traditional Chapter 1 approaches. Two schoolwide models, our own Success for All program and James P. Comer's School Development Program, produced outstanding gains when well implemented. The whole-school designs funded by New American Schools have promising initial evidence of effectiveness. Many proven subject-specific approaches can be readily assembled into schoolwide approaches. Yet there is still a need for a great deal more independent evidence on replicable programs, and for more programs to meet the full range of needs in Title I elementary and secondary schools.

As the list of proven and promising programs grows, Title I schools could increasingly be encouraged to consider these models as alternatives to their current practices. A special fund could be set aside to help schools with one-time start-up costs associated with adopting particular reform models. However, adoption of proven programs could only be encouraged, not mandated, at least for several years, if only because the current national training capacity of all existing reform networks taken together is nowhere near adequate to serve all Title I schools. Yet as the number of proven models increases, and as the evidence of effectiveness for these models becomes stronger and more widely known, Title I services should increasingly focus on these programs.

Title I, the most important resource for at-risk children, is itself at risk. At its best, Title I can make a substantial difference in children's success. We know a great deal about effective programs for Title I schools, but we need to learn a great deal more, and to see that this knowledge has a far greater impact on daily practices in Title I schools. Our children deserve no less.

Vol. 16, Issue 34, Pages 40, 52

Published in Print: May 21, 1997, as How Title I Can (Still) Save America's Children
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