Policy Debate: Is Title I Helping Anyone?
Title I is the largest federal elementary and secondary education program. For 38 years it has poured more than $200 billion into K-12 school districts nationwide. And yet, there's no statistical evidence in the last 15 years that the program, and the money spent on it, has accomplished its goal.
Title I aims to close the achievement gap plaguing lower-income schools. In 2004, $12.3 billion was requested--a 9 percent increase over 2003, and a 40 percent increase from 2001. Research shows that from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, the black-white achievement gap narrowed considerably. (Data examining the achievement gap by income didn't start until the 1980s.) Many factors, including Title I, could have contributed to these large gains. The most significant effects were likely due to rising living standards for minorities and school desegregation.
Since the late 1980s, however, the gaps have stagnated or worsened. Fourth-grade reading skills from 1998 show that a large majority of students at high poverty schools (defined as schools with 75 percent or more of its students at high poverty levels) cannot read at the basic level. In sharp contrast, only one-fifth of students from low poverty schools (those with fewer than 25 percent of high poverty students) can't read at this level.
Large achievement gaps have persisted in recent years despite big increases in overall education expenditures and increased Title I funding. This leads to the obvious question: What is the country getting for its Title I money?
Of course, many factors influence achievement other than schools. Research consistently demonstrates the dominant role of student and family characteristics. Nevertheless, many studies have attempted to isolate Title I's impact on student performance.
Two major federal studies measured the progress of Title I students relative to their peers. Initiated in the mid-1970s, the Sustaining Effects study found mixed results. But even the most favorable estimates showed only a slight narrowing of the achievement gap. The most recent Prospects study, using data from the early 1990s, also found Title I failed to reduce the achievement gap. This report showed that grading standards were much lower in the poorest schools. Students receiving an A in high-poverty schools might get a C in low-poverty schools.
While evidence from myriad smaller studies is more varied, the weight of evidence suggests Title I has not been successful in improving the performance of children in high-poverty schools.
In response to Title I's apparent failure, the emphasis of the program was significantly altered in 1994. Funds were concentrated more toward the poorest schools, along with a new emphasis on measured improvement in failing schools. A schoolwide approach for use of funds was also encouraged, for schools with threshold levels of children in poverty.
The study completed by myself and Marvin H. Kosters for the American Enterprise Institute Evaluative Series uses recently available data on student achievement, Title I participation, and student and school background information from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We analyzed math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-grade students tested in 1993-94, 1995-96, and 1997-98.
If Title I is boosting achievement, it is not apparent from our analysis. Our finding is consistent with earlier evaluations. Nor do we find convincing evidence that Title I disproportionately benefits the lowest-performing students. Analyzing data before and after the 1994 reauthorization, we find recent policy changes have not improved Title I.
Many possible reasons account for our inability to prove Title I's worth. The NAEP data may be inadequate to uncover such relationships. It's possible that additional resources do not translate into higher test scores. Maybe the incremental resources from Title I are insufficient. It's possible that Title I funds are offset by reductions from other sources, as local spending is shifted from education to other spending or tax relief.
The problem of disparate achievement is real and important. Reduction of systematic differences along racial lines or between income strata could contribute greatly to social and economic mobility.
Yet the plain policy implication of our findings (and of past evaluations) is that Title I should be discontinued. This is not politically feasible, however. Locally, Title I eases fiscal pressures, and supports employment of teachers and aides.
While hiring teachers and aides is beneficial to poor communities, these are not Title I's goals. Title I grants impose large administrative burdens and accountability guidelines on states and local school systems. Why would Congress demand adequate yearly progress if they only intended to redistribute income to poor schools? General revenue sharing is a much more efficient redistribution vehicle.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which reauthorized Title I, continues the 1994 movement toward identifying failing schools and schoolwide use of funds. Yet it also takes some promising new steps. Yearly testing is required in grades 3-8, to provide schools and parents with better information on student achievement.
Title I funds are now used for the first time to provide limited options to parents of children in consistently failing schools. Districts are supposed to provide families in failing schools the option to transfer to another better performing school in their district. Low-income students in failing schools are also eligible for supplemental services dictated by school districts.
It is too early to judge NCLB. Anecdotal evidence suggests the limited choice options under NCLB are not likely to have a large impact on achievement in the near future. In New York City, for example, only 8,000 students transferred, out of 300,000 eligible students in 315 schools.
Parents are, of course, reluctant to transfer their children out of neighborhood schools. But choices are also being thwarted by local school systems. In Maryland, Montgomery County school district spokesman Brian Porter told a local paper, "If we had our druthers, we would not be doing this program. We're doing everything possible to keep families at their home schools." A month before classes started this year, D.C. schools had still not notified families eligible to transfer. Last year New York City spent less than half of its required minimum on tutoring.
Some districts may also have few spaces available in high-performing schools. In Chicago, only 1,100 of 19,000 students who applied were allowed to transfer due to overcrowding. In Los Angeles, officials stated last August that there was "no room in better schools for any to transfer to."
And now the Bush administration is apparently backing away from transfer requirements. Education Secretary Rod Paige was recently asked by school administrators about students not allowed to transfer due to lack of space. Quoted in The New York Times, he said, "The school district can come up with innovative ways to meet the student's needs. ... They can even use technology to provide choices and options to students."
Instead of reducing choice, we could expand options available to families in failing schools. Transfer options could be expanded to public schools in surrounding districts.
Congress could also dedicate some Title I money to pay for children to attend private schools--secular or religious. To provide sufficient funding, Congress could require that participating states and local school systems contribute a partial matching grant. To provide enough time for parents and schools--both private and public--to adjust, such as a program should be funded for at least five years.
Is this a proven prescription for closing the achievement gap? Of course not. But given Title I's dismal performance over the last 40 years, it is certainly an experiment worth making. www.aei.org/publications/filter.,bookID.409/book_detail.asp
Brent D. Mast is a research fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation. His book, Closing the Achievement Gap: Is Title I Working? (The AEI Press, 2003) was written with Marvin H. Kosters.