Federal Opinion

The Challenge for Title I

By Marguerite Roza — April 04, 2001 8 min read
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The truth is that in most cities, poor and minority youngsters are systematically taught by the least qualified teachers.

Let’s face it. Poor schools already get the worst teachers; now, with shortages looming, they’ll choose from the bottom of even deeper barrels.

Picture the cycle: A high-poverty school starts with a complex student population. Poor performance gives the school a bad rap. The best teachers (and principals) opt to work elsewhere, and the school experiences ever-escalating staff turnover. High turnover continues to take its toll as parents have few relationships with school staff members, programs lack coherency, and the faculty is perpetually inexperienced. The school’s reputation continues to dive, and as the teacher pool shrinks, it becomes even harder to hire qualified teachers for this school.

In this kind of spiral, it really doesn’t matter how much you put into reorganization, accountability, or other reforms. The bottom line is that the school still needs proficient teachers to teach the kids. Without a good, stable teaching force, the school has almost no chance for recovery.

It is possible to break the cycle, but in most cases, schools in a downward spiral need a substantial jolt to get them off their dismal course.

Title I is supposed to be this jolt. This $8 billion federal program allocates funds to improve the teaching and learning for children at high-poverty schools. For many schools, Title I amounts to a significant chunk of money. San Francisco’s Gordon J. Lau Elementary School gets an additional $220,890 per year from this program alone. And remember, this money is above and beyond the level at which the district already funds each school. The problem is that because of limitations in the way districts fund their human resources, this money is rarely used to get better teachers.

Instead, the money is used to pile on extra programs, lower class sizes, add full-day kindergartens, specialists, or provide professional development. And sure, who would argue against any of these efforts? The sad reality, though, is that none of these remedies helps improve the quality of basic instruction as better teachers would. In fact, in many cases, class-size reductions actually weaken the teaching force, as schools are forced to hire further down the applicant lists.

While it is unpopular to pick on the dedicated, hardworking teachers in these schools, the truth is that in most cities, poor and minority youngsters are systematically taught by the least qualified teachers.

And it’s getting worse. A recent RAND study demonstrates that teachers are transferring at greater rates out of poor and minority schools—those most in need of attracting teachers.

After three years of poor teachers in a row, the effects on student performance are catastrophic. Many of these children never recover.

For many years, we ignored the impact of the teacher on student performance in favor of less controversial variables, such as class size. However, recent research from the state of Tennessee and from Dallas and Boston indicates that kids placed with one bad teacher emerge a full year behind their peers taught by a good teacher. After three years of poor teachers in a row, the effects on student performance are catastrophic. Many of these children never recover.

Now that Title I is up for reauthorization by Congress, the challenge is clear: Title I money needs to be used to break the cycle by getting better teachers into the poor schools.

There are hurdles, many of which can account for the uneven distribution of teachers that we now have. For starters, most districts operate with a fixed salary scale, and thus less desirable schools are left with few if any monetary options for luring better teacher applicants.

Union contracts that defend seniority practices also have stood in the way. In New York City, the combination of a teacher shortage with seniority policies meant that low-performing schools (New York state’s “schools under registration review”) were filling their classrooms with substitutes and unlicensed teachers. It got so bad that the state education commissioner sued the district, and some state officials battled for a redistribution of the most qualified teachers. In the end, the settlement left the experienced teachers where they were, as decades of union contracts make this move almost impossible.

But what most educators don’t realize is that many poor schools are also the victims of their own districts’ accounting policies. The popular strategy of averaging teacher costs across schools is what makes the uneven distribution of teachers possible. This discriminatory policy enables districts to funnel funds from poor schools to wealthier schools—a transfer that is hidden even on budget reports.

Here’s how it works: Teachers are paid on their years of experience and education. For instance, in Seattle, a brand-new teacher makes $28,000, and a 15-year veteran with a master’s degree and advanced credits makes $56,000. In order to compute the school-by-school budgets, the district uses a district- average salary of about $41,000 for each teacher.

Title I money needs to be used to break the cycle by getting better teachers into the poor schools.

Now it gets interesting. Some schools, like Wedgewood Elementary in Seattle’s high-rent north-shore area, are staffed with some of the most expensive teachers in the district. While others, such as M.L. King Elementary, can’t attract the best teachers, and end up with mostly rookies in their classrooms. If we add up the real salaries, the district spends much more on Wedgewood than it does on King. Wouldn’t you know it, the district’s budget hides this fact by using the $41,000 figure to calculate the cost of each teacher.

A study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington shows the impact of this budgeting scheme in Seattle. Personnel funds designated for schools with larger numbers of poor and minority students— schools that consistently operate with less expensive teachers—are essentially used to pay for the costly teachers in the high-rent north end. Schools like M. L. King Elementary that can’t attract the most expensive teachers are cheated out of about $300,000 per year—resources that could be going toward luring better teachers.

Sadly, it is this kind of budgeting scheme that makes the uneven distribution of teachers possible. If all schools had to pay real salaries out of their budget allotments, the most popular schools would have to turn away some of the more expensive teachers, making them available elsewhere. More importantly, struggling schools would have a pot of cash left over after paying out their salaries, and might use the money to offer incentives, bonuses, or other perks that could then help lure better teachers.

This accounting system can mean that a lot of Title I money is spent on schools that are not supposed to receive any. Because Title I teachers are often the lowest- paid teachers in the district, salary averaging can mean that Title I is charged much more for salaries than the teachers are paid. The surplus—the difference between what Title I teachers cost and what the district charges—is used to subsidize the high costs of senior teachers in wealthy neighborhoods.

Seattle, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and countless other districts use this budgeting practice for distributing their Title I money. Since upwards of 80 percent of these funds go to salaries and benefits, the amount of federal dollars lost to the wealthier schools through average teacher costing is substantial. The very program that is intended to help poor children ends up underwriting the wealthier schools.

While some localities are waking up to the problem of inadequate teachers in poor schools, their efforts are directed more toward broadening the teacher pool and offering targeted bonuses for service in struggling schools. Still others, such as Milwaukee; St. Paul, Minn.; Columbus, Ohio; and Philadelphia, have been renegotiating union contracts to eliminate some seniority policies. But many regions are slow to respond, and few if any are addressing these budgeting evils.

As Congress and the U.S. Department of Education re-evaluate this flagship federal program, they should think about ways that Title I can ensure that poor kids get better teachers. Here are some suggestions:

What most educators don’t realize is that many poor schools are also the victims of their own districts’ accounting policies.

First, Title I can require that its districts monitor the disparities in their teacher resources, comparing average teacher qualifications and costs from one school to the next. This kind of valuable data, if known, could raise awareness of this problem and help districts be more proactive in managing their human resources.

Next, the Title I program can allow for its funds to be used directly toward recruiting, hiring, and keeping excellent teachers where there is a demonstrated need for them.

Finally, Title I can require that its districts do away altogether with average teacher costing. Some districts, such as Denver and San Diego, have eliminated this practice for their federal grant money, and a few use fair budgeting even for their state and local funds. We know from these districts that budgeting with real dollars is not too difficult, burdensome, or politically infeasible.

In any case, the federal government has the power to require fair budgeting for the districts that receive its funds. We simply cannot tolerate Title I money subsidizing wealthy schools in the face of such inadequacies for poor schools.

The time to act is now. Title I is an important federal program that can have a serious impact on the education of poor children ... if the money is used responsibly.

Marguerite Roza is a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans school of public affairs, in Seattle.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Challenge for Title I


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