Re-examining $6 Billion Federal Program

August 29, 1993|By JULIE A. MILLER

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- With the entire Elementary and Secondary Education Act expiring next year, Congress is poised to re-examine Chapter 1, the flagship federal education program, more thoroughly than ever before in its 25-year history.

Chapter 1, which distributes more than $6 billion a year to elementary and secondary schools -- including 81 of Baltimore's 177 public schools -- is intended to benefit educationally deprived children. But the changes Congress is likely to make could have significant consequences for the entire public school system.

They will affect, perhaps dramatically, the amount of federal funding schools receive, the way they test their students and, in some places, even the curriculum that is taught.

The primary impetus behind the movement to reform Chapter 1 is a growing consensus in the education field, and particularly among the program's strongest supporters, that it isn't working.

"It's not a waste of money; the research says that Chapter 1 does work in the sense that it helps kids do better than they otherwise would have done," said Robert E. Slavin, director of the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University. "But it doesn't help them catch up with their more advantaged peers."

The most recent national assessment of Chapter 1, prepared by the U.S. Education Department and an independent review panel, draws similar conclusions, citing preliminary data from "Prospects," a $40 million longitudinal study that is the first attempt to study the achievement of Chapter 1 students over time in a comprehensive and statistically representative way. It is to be completed in 1997.

Students tested in 1991 and 1992 for "Prospects" showed "meager progress," according to the national assessment. While the students improved their reading scores between the 7th and 8th grades, their mathematics scores dropped. Scores dropped in both reading and math for students tested in the 3rd and 4th grades.

Some older studies produced more positive findings. But, at best, they have noted only modest gains among Chapter 1 students. For example, a smaller-scale study commissioned by the federal government in the late 1970s found that those students improved more over the course of a year than needy students who did not receive services -- but that even those limited gains faded after they left the program.

In December 1992, a particularly harsh judgment was rendered by the "Independent Commission on Chapter 1," a group of child advocates, researchers and educators who represent some of the program's strongest traditional supporters.

The commission proposed some radical changes that are unlikely to be adopted, such as requiring states to equalize resources among their school districts as a prerequisite for receiving federal funding. But the nature of its membership has made the panel's report an influential document, and some of its core recommendations are supported by a virtual consensus in the education field.

Indeed, most Chapter 1 experts have joined the panel in calling for a change in the program's entire philosophy -- from individual remediation to school-wide reform.

In the past, Chapter 1 chose eligible schools by the percentage of low-income students. Within schools, students with low achievement were given special help apart from their classmates. Now, there is wide agreement on freeing more schools from the rules requiring them to spend Chapter 1 funds only on eligible children and encouraging more "school-wide projects," in which the funds can be used to improve an entire school's program. Currently, only a school with 75 percent of its enrollment consisting of poor children can spend Chapter 1 money on school-wide reform.

The number of schools with school-wide reform programs has skyrocketed from 200 in 1988 -- when Congress eliminated a requirement that districts provide them with extra resources -- to more than 2,000, but that still represents only about a third of eligible schools. The Clinton administration's plan, which is to be released next month, will propose dropping the eligibility threshold gradually to 50 percent.

A whole-school emphasis represents a change in philosophy. When the program -- then called Title I -- was enacted in 1965, some of its backers viewed it as an anti-poverty initiative, while others viewed that as a convenient political cover for providing general aid to the schools. But a tighter federal budget, reports of abuses such as the purchase of swimming pools, and the need to justify the program in the face of opposition from Republican administrations led to increasingly tighter rules restricting Chapter 1 to serving high-poverty schools and educationally disadvantaged children.

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