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"Title I - A Way to Go in Education Vulnerable Children,"

by Dianne Piché November/December 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Despite attempts by many conservatives in calls for block grants and vouchers to limit its role, the federal government has an important and vital mission when it comes to the education of our most vulnerable children. For decades, poor children and children of color, along with disabled, homeless and migrant children, children with limited English proficiency, and girls as well as boys, have benefited from a number of provisions in federal law prohibiting discrimination and providing for equal educational opportunities. These legal protections derive from the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as from statutes, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition, federal aid programs have provided much-needed resources to schools and school districts serving large numbers of poor and minority students. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is particularly important, because with an $8 billion annual appropriation, it is the largest federal education program at the elementary and secondary level, reaching virtually all school districts enrolling large numbers of poor students. The Title I funding formula is designed to target the highest poverty schools, and poor children of color are disproportionately enrolled in such schools.

Recently, the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights embarked on a multi-year investigation of the reforms called for by the 1994 amendments to Title I. These changes in the law sought to recast Title I from a remedial program in math and reading to a powerful tool assisting schools with high concentrations of poverty to educate students to the same high academic standards as schools in the suburbs and elsewhere. The new Title I law calls on states and school districts to:

· Raise academic standards;

· Build the capacity of schools and teachers to teach to high standards;

· Develop and use fair and accurate assessments of students' attainment of the standards; disaggregate assessment results by race, gender, income status and other categories; and refrain from using test results for purposes for which they have not been validated (e.g., for student placement or promotion decisions);

· Hold school officials accountable for results, by providing intensive help to low-achieving schools and corrective action when schools fail to improve after several years of help;

· Fully include limited English proficient (LEP), disabled, homeless and migrant children in Title I specifically and in the standards-based reforms generally, including a requirement that LEP students be assessed in their native language, or be provided with testing accommodations as appropriate.

The Citizen's Commission's Title I Monitoring Project is conducting its investigation at the federal, state, district and school levels, to determine whether and how key provisions of the new law designed to equalize learning opportunities for poor and minority students are actually being carried out. The Commission recently released a report on the first phase of this effort, assessing state plans for Title I compliance and federal enforcement. The following summarizes the Commission's findings:

The new Title I reforms are sound and workable. While the reforms called for by the 1994 amendments still are in midstream, evidence of their fin-pact is accumulating in states that had similar initiatives in effect prior to 1994 and in places that have acted rapidly to implement the 1994 reforms. At the district level, several urban school districts have made impressive gains. For example, in Philadelphia, a rigorous reform program incorporating many Title I features has resulted in citywide gains in student achievement in a system where the great majority of students are poor. In San Antonio, the number of low-performing schools has declined from forty to six over a five-year period. San Antonio is part of the Texas reform effort that has produced gains in many systems and narrowed achievement gaps. In Memphis, schools that have been redesigned along lines contemplated by Title I have produced substantial gains in achievement, and the proportion of students taking college preparatory courses in math has increased substantially. In these and other places, Title I dollars are helping to carry out well-conceived reforms.

The new Title I has not imposed onerous or unduly burdensome requirements on state or local fund recipients. Unlike the old law, which called for detailed accounting for the expenditure of dollars, the new Title I discards such regulation in favor of an emphasis on accountability for results. The Citizens' Commission's review of state plans and of waiver requests provides supportive evidence for this finding, demonstrating that neither states nor districts have seen a need to approach the Department of Education in any significant numbers with requests for waivers of their duty to comply with the law.

There is wide variance in the degree to which states have complied with the new Title I requirements, ranging from exemplary models to egregious violations of the law. Although most states reported they are taking steps to implement portions of the new law, there has been insufficient attention to key provisions designed to benefit or protect poor and minority children, particularly provisions designed to include LEP children and to hold schools accountable for the progress of all sw-dents. For example, many states consider schools to be making adequate progress, and thus take no corrective action, even when large numbers of students are still failing to achieve basic proficiency in reading and other subjects.

Failures by the U.S. Department of Education to take actions needed to implement and enforce the new Title I provisions have retarded educational progress. The Clinton Administration has been steadfast in its support for public schools and efforts to target more federal funds to poor areas. The Department of Education has taken positive action to further the purposes of the new Title I, including providing useful, though belated, guidance to the field and prodding states to adopt good procedures for identifying schools in need of improvement. But, following the Republican takeover of Congress, the Department shrank from furnishing clear messages to state and local education agencies on any issue that might prove controversial. As a result, many state and local education officials have received the impression that the new Title I is largely a deregulation law that will free them from bothersome federal conditions, and have failed to understand that the tradeoff in the law is higher standards and accountability for results. Most significantly, the Department has either failed to implement or has misinterpreted key provisions of the law designed to equalize learning opportunities between poor and non-poor children, as follows:

· Contrary to the law, the Department has limited the requirement of standards and assessments for Tide I pur
poses to two subjects - reading and mathematics - even when states had standards and assessments in other subjects. Educators and advocates know that when subjects like science and social studies do not "count," they are taught poorly, or not at all, in many Title I schools.

· Contrary to the law, which requires states to adopt uniform standards, the Department has permitted states to accept differing local standards -e.g., one set for affluent suburban districts, another for poor urban dis~ tricts - without any effective means for assuring that all children will be taught to high standards. Similarly, the Department has permitted states to use differing local assessments, again without any effective assurances of comparability.

· Ignoring the law, the Department has failed to insist that states reveal how they will assist local districts and schools in achieving the capacity to help students meet high standards. As a result, few states have made a substantial commitment to helping low-income districts acquire the resources to improve teaching, increase learning time or meet other requirements of the law.

Cumulatively, these defaults and misinterpretations have served to undermine a central objective of the new Title I: to eliminate the prevailing dual system of education that consigns poor children, children of color and children with special needs to schools and programs with lower expectations, fewer resources and fewer opportunities than those enjoyed by the great majority of advantaged children.
Progress has been further retarded by additional failures of the U.S. Department of Education, including:

· Failure to ensure timely adoption of standards that meet the requirements of the law. As of the Summer of 1998, 34 states and Puerto Rico still did not have performance standards or a process for developing them;
· Failure to explain and enforce the statutory requirement that children be assessed in the language and form most likely to yield accurate information about their ability;
· Failure to insist on processes for assuring that children with disabilities will receive accommodations and will not be excluded from assessment except in rare circumstances;

· Failure to make clear to states and local education agencies that Title I assessments are not to be used for "high stakes" purposes (e.g., promotion, graduation, placement decisions);

· Failure to require states to measure separately the annual yearly progress of poor children and children with limited English proficiency so that the requirements of the law cannot be met solely by the gains of more advantaged children; and

· Failure to place sufficient emphasis on the importance of improving teaching through effective programs of professional development.

In criticizing the Department, the Citizens' Commission does not suggest in any way that state and local officials have done their part to effectuate the purposes of the law. They have not. Nor should Congress' role in holding back progress be under-emphasized.

Despite the shortcomings of the Department of Education in implementing the new Title L there is every reason to believe that the program can be successful in the future. Since the process of reform contemplated is a long-term one, the five-year authorization period will expire (in 1999) before states have completed and implemented their reforms. But the experience of several states in raising standards, in adopting new learning strategies, in fashioning more useful assessment tools and in creating practical accountability systems has already yielded positive results in the improved achievement of disadvantaged youngsters. Prospects for further gains will be enhanced by modest improvements in the statute and a commitment by the Clinton Administration to implement the law, including a willingness to enforce its provisions where violations occur.

Dianne Piché is a lawyer and writer specializing in civil rights and educational equity issues. She directs the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights' Title 1 Monitoring Project.

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