Though research has had a limited impact on Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, partly because the nature of the program makes it difficult to evaluate, a number of key studies over the past several decades represent major efforts to draw meaningful conclusions about the nation’s single largest federal funding stream for education.
National Institute of Education Compensatory Education Study
Author: National Institute of Education
Methodology: Both mandated by and produced for Congress, this study consisted of 35 different research projects, including a national survey, detailed case studies, and demonstration projects in which 13 school districts operated under waivers from specific aspects of the law so that researchers could observe the outcomes
Main takeaways: Title I funding not only served lower-income students, it appeared to encourage localities and states to devote additional resources to this previously neglected population. Much Title I instruction occurred in pull-out programs at the elementary level. Teacher aides played such a key role in this instruction that half the nation’s aides were paid from Title I funds.
Critique: The study did not assess student achievement outcomes for Title I versus non-Title I students, but did help Congress understand why this was a difficult, if not impossible, task.
Legacy: The study informed Congress about some of the diverse uses of Title I funds, which may have bolstered support for the program because these uses tended to align with at least some of the desires of the lawmakers as well as with the goals of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The Sustaining Effects Study of Compensatory and Elementary Education
Author: System Development Corporation for the U.S. Department of Education
Methodology: Researchers collected data from a representative sample of 120,000 students at 300 elementary schools, following one cohort over the course of three successive school years.
Main Takeaway: In grades 1 through 3, Title I students made more progress in reading and in math than comparable, non-Title I students, with average achievers benefitting most from the program and low achievers benefitting little, if at all. Gains were stronger in math than in reading. Benefits seemed to fade by 7th grade for a small subgroup of students who were followed through 9th grade, but researchers urged caution in interpreting this finding because the data was problematic. Researchers also found that, while higher percentages of poor children received services, greater numbers of non-poor children benefitted from Title I.
Critique: In 1987,stronger results in favor of Title I when they used different statistical techniques to re-analyze the original Sustaining Effects data, by creating comparison groups that were more similar to the pool of Title I beneficiaries. Researchers also noted numerous limitations to their study, such as the fact that the practice of removing children from Title I services once their achievement had improved created a permanently low-achieving pool of students and made it difficult to assess the program’s effectiveness.
Legacy: Although the study results suggested several ways in which Title I might be improved, these nuances were largely obscured by the battle between Republicans, who advocated across-the-board cuts to federal education programs, and Democrats, who hesitated to support changes for fear that anything but the staunchest support might open the door to elimination.
Prospects: The Congressionally Mandated Study of Educational Growth and Opportunity
Author: Abt Associates, Inc., for the U.S. Department of Education
Methodology: The nationally representative study tracked up to 40,000 students for a four-year period, beginning when the students were in grades 1, 3, or 7. Parents, teachers, and administrators also responded to questionnaires.
Main Takeaways: Title I students and non-Title I students demonstrated similar rates of growth. As a result, the services provided via Title I (then called “Chapter 1”) did not help close the achievement gap. The program was least effective for the most-disadvantaged students. Like previous studies, the report also found that Title I services varied considerably by district and by school.
Critique: Researchers contrasted Title I students with a comparison group of more-advantaged peers although a follow-up analysis that corrected for selection bias found limited substantive differences between the two groups. A 2000 Government Accountability Office report also criticized the study for focusing mainly on elementary schools (which receive most but not all Title I funds) and for failing to examine the cost of Title I or to clearly define criteria for assessing its effectiveness.
Legacy: During the 1994 reauthorization of the ESEA, a preliminary version of the report helped spur Congress to alter Title I’s longstanding focus on pulling students out of class for remedial services.
Longitudinal Evaluation of School Change and Performance
Author: Westat and Policy Studies Associates for the U.S. Department of Education
Methodology: Between 1996 and 1999, researchers collected data from a nonrepresentative sample of 71 Title I schools from 18 districts in seven states. Children were tracked from grades 3 through 5. Rather than comparing Title I and non-Title I students, the study focused exclusively on Title I schools, exploring the impact of standards-based reforms contained in the 1994 ESEA reauthorization,
Main Takeaways: Student achievement improved faster when teachers gave high ratings to their professional development and reached out to parents of low-achieving students in certain grades. Additionally, students made more growth in math between grades 3 and 5 when their 5th grade teachers encouraged them to explore the topic. The researchers did not find a consistent relationship between student achievement growth and teachers’ knowledge of standards and assessment.
Critiques: Among the critiques of the study identified in a: Staff, contractors, and advisory panel members disagreed about the purpose of the study; the small, nonrepresentative sample made it difficult to draw general conclusions; the reform efforts being studied changed over time; and Title I schools were not compared with non-Title I schools.
Legacy: The legacy is unclear. Although interim results were made available earlier, the final report was released in the summer of 2001, when the law’s then-most recent reauthorization was close to completion.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2015 edition of Education Week as Putting a Key Program Under the Microscope