School & District Management

Secondary Schools Search for Role in ESEA

By Erik W. Robelen — May 26, 1999 4 min read


Even if Congress keeps a promise to substantially raise federal education spending this year, one thing seems likely: Secondary school students will see a disproportionately small share of the money.

For many policymakers and education advocates, that is appropriate. They cite the limits on federal dollars and the belief that the most pressing task is to get younger children started on the right track.

But experts on secondary education, while stressing they don’t want to skimp on spending in the elementary grades, insist that many middle and high school students face a crisis that federal dollars should do more to address.

It remains unclear whether efforts to direct more federal funding to secondary schools will figure prominently in this year’s emerging debate over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; some observers predict they will not.

However, the Clinton administration’s ESEA plan, unveiled last month, includes a new initiative that would provide some additional federal support for high schools. And secondary school advocates are urging Congress to pay more attention to the “S” in the ESEA.

Samuel Halperin, a senior fellow at the American Youth Policy Forum, took up the banner at a hearing last month before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Title I Funding

“When you reauthorize the [ESEA], you need to recognize that in many ways our high schools are the most troubled part of our educational system, and that is where we lose most students,” said Mr. Halperin, whose Washington-based nonpartisan organization provides policymakers with information on youth issues.

The largest federal precollegiate program, the $8 billion Title I program for poor and disadvantaged students, directs most of its aid to elementary pupils, according to recent Department of Education data. In the 1997-98 school year, only 15 percent of Title I funds went to secondary schools (generally grades 7-12), although 44 percent of students are in those grades.

The 1994 reauthorization changed Title I to require that districts first serve all schools, including secondary schools, with concentrations of students in poverty of 75 percent or higher. Although Education Department data suggest that provision has dramatically increased the number of high-poverty secondary schools receiving Title I money, overall the number of secondary schools receiving Title I aid has declined, from 36 percent of all such schools in 1993-94 to 29 percent in 1997-98.

Many educators contend that the Title I program is severely underfunded; by some estimates, its appropriation would have to triple to reach all needy students. As a result, educators say, districts are compelled to set priorities. And typically, that means decisions to send most of the federal money to the early grades.

But James M. McPartland, the director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a leader in high school reform, has criticized the assumptions behind steering most federal aid to elementary schools. In a recent essay published in a Title I report issued by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, he contests the “innoculation” theory that early intervention alone will avoid later academic failure.

Instead, Mr. McPartland suggests the need for “booster shots” in later years to capitalize on early reading skills and help students achieve at higher levels. In addition, he challenges what he sees as a widespread assumption that it is “too late” to make up for the mathematics and reading deficiencies that students bring to high school.

Gerald N. Tirozzi

Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that historically Title I’s emphasis has been on meeting the needs of elementary pupils, but that there is a growing recognition that more attention should be paid to older students.

“Everyone is beginning to take a hard look at meeting the needs of [secondary students],” said Mr. Tirozzi, who until February was the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. “You are beginning to see a shift in policy out of the department itself.”

One example of that, he said, is a proposal in the administration’s ESEA plan that would dedicate new competitive grants to supporting reforms in 5,000 high schools serving low-income students by the year 2007.

Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, said the program, which would likely receive roughly $50 million in its first year, seeks in part to recognize and encourage “interventions that have shown some influence on achievement” in high schools. “This is not meant to be a small demonstration program,” but a significant effort, Mr. Smith said.

Secondary school advocates were also encouraged by a recent speech by Vice President Al Gore, in which he outlined a series of education initiatives he would pursue if elected president, including focusing more attention and federal dollars toward fundamentally changing the American high school.

But Congress may not cooperate.

“In general, I certainly don’t think we’re likely to expand the focus on secondary schools” during the ESEA reauthorization, said Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “I think there will be a fair amount of [discussion] on focusing [more] attention on the earlier grades.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 1999 edition of Education Week as Secondary Schools Search for Role in ESEA


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