Key Parts of Title I Broken, Researchers Say

By Michele McNeil — March 14, 2011 3 min read

Several pieces of the Title I program are broken and doing little for the disadvantaged students the law is intended to help, according to seven researchers offering new analyses of the multi-billion-dollar cornerstone of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

That message, delivered March 11 as part of a conference sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute, comes as the Obama administration is ratcheting up efforts to redo the ESEA, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act.

Title I, which currently carries $14.5 billion in federal aid, is intended to provide additional money for educating disadvantaged students that is distributed to schools based on the number of students in poverty they enroll.

Chief among the problems with Title I, researchers say, is the “supplement, not supplant” requirement, designed to ensure that federal dollars are truly extra dollars and not just used to replace state or local funding.

‘Out of Whack’

Also problematic is a loophole in the law’s comparability requirement, which seeks to ensure districts are offering similar services in Title I and non-Title I schools. Researchers also found problems with the law’s “supplemental educational services,” or tutoring, provision.

And, very broadly, researchers questioned whether state departments of education, which are tasked with overseeing their K-12 systems and implementing a myriad of state and federal education mandates, have the personnel to execute the broad goals of Title I.

“The expectations are really out of whack with [departments’] capacity,” said Brenda J. Turnbull, a principal at Policy Studies Associates, a Washington-based research firm.

Perennial Concerns

None of these weaknesses in Title I is being outlined for the first time, but the research discussed at the CAP-AEI event does add to a growing body of evidence that illuminates how certain provisions of the federal law may be creating unintended consequences.

Take, for example, the “supplement, not supplant provision.”

The rule has created an “enormous administrative burden” that has become a “powerful lever in maintaining the status quo,” write Melissa Junge and Sheara Krvaric, attorneys with the Federal Education Law Group in Washington.

Because the provision is complicated, and mistakes can spark audits and financial penalties, local administrators are afraid of running afoul of this law, so they tend to fund the same programs year after year, Ms. Junge said during a presentation on her research.

“Because people are scared, they end up making easy administrative decisions” that may not be as beneficial for students, she said.

Another key financial component of the law requires “comparability,” or the assurance that Title I schools are providing services comparable to those in non-Title I schools. But a loophole allows districts to avoid accounting for differences in teacher salaries among schools. This means districts suffer no consequences if their less-expensive, less-experienced teachers are clustered in Title I schools, and more experienced teachers in non-Title I schools. The U.S. Department of Education, in upcoming civil rights surveys, is seeking to eliminate this loophole by requiring districts to report more detailed school-by-school spending information.

In the meantime, data from Florida suggest that districts in that state are not spending as much as they should on Title I schools. Jennifer Cohen, a senior policy analyst with the New America Foundation, found in her research that a 10 percentage point increase in student poverty at a particular school translates into a $56 increase in per-pupil spending. But given that high-poverty schools should be receiving extra funds, “We would expect this amount to be much larger,” she said.

Another piece of Title I and the NCLB law, called “supplemental education services,” also has produced shortcomings. Schools that do not make adequate yearly progress, the key benchmark under NCLB, for three consecutive years must, in most cases, offer tutoring to students. Most of the tutoring is provided by outside contractors.

But these tutoring programs have been shown to be “minimally effective,” with only small improvements for a small fraction of students who get at least 40 hours of tutoring, according to the research.

“What we’re seeing is more school in the worst sense,” said Patricia Burch, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. And by that, she said, she means more worksheets and desk time, when what these students need is clearly “something different.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Key Elements of Title I Program Broken, Researchers Say

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