Time to close the book on Chapter 1

November 30, 1993|By Brian Jendryka

IF Chapter 1 were a business, it would be in Chapter 11.

Since 1965, the federally funded "Chapter 1" compensatory education program has spent $135 billion in today's dollars to boost the academic skills of disadvantaged children -- with little to show for it.

"Reinventing Chapter 1," a study published earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education, found the achievement levels of Chapter 1 students had fallen for nearly every group tested. Scores for elementary school students, who make up 70 percent of Chapter 1 enrollees, had fallen for both reading and math.

In a recent article in U.S. News & World Report, Mary Jean LeTendre, director of compensatory education for the Department of Education, conceded the program's deficiencies. She said if Chapter 1's performance were displayed on a heart monitor, "we'd either pull the plug or get out the clappers."

Yale professor and Head Start co-founder Edward Zigler, in a recent Business Week article, wrote that policy-makers "have ignored the results that do exist, namely that participating students do not exhibit meaningful improvements in achievement levels." The Commission on Chapter 1, the only major independent group to evaluate the program, has been similarly critical.

Despite these shortcomings, Chapter 1 has become politically sacrosanct. The most recent reauthorization in 1988 passed with only one dissenting vote in each chamber of Congress. The current reauthorization of Chapter 1, which received nearly $7 billion in 1993 -- more than twice the amount of Head Start -- is pending on Capitol Hill.

To receive Chapter 1 services, children must be disadvantaged both financially (receiving free or reduced-price lunches) and educationally (achieving "below the level that is usually appropriate for children of their age"). In 1992-93, Chapter 1 served 5.5 million, or approximately one in nine, school-age children, about half those eligible. Chapter 1 services are used in approximately half of the nation's 100,000 public schools. [Baltimore City schools this year will receive $42 million in federal Chapter 1 funds, down from last year's $50.5 million.]

Some educators defend Chapter 1 as a successful program. Supporters point out that Chapter 1 has helped to make kindergartens universal, equalize resources across school districts, and help poor and minority children master rudimentary skills.

Results of testing by the Department of Education also are cited as evidence for the success of Chapter 1. However, what the results really indicate is that while the students tested (from grades two through 12) do make short-term gains during the school year, they show no sign of long-term improvement in academic achievement. In 1990-91, for example, students at every grade level gained at least three percentage points during the school year. But measured over time, these students score among the lowest 26 percent of all students in second grade and fall to the lowest 19 percent by the 12th.

The temporary improvements are easy to explain: Because Chapter 1 programs must now show improvement to keep their funding -- most often measured by test results -- many teachers "teach to the test," which raises scores in the short run. But in the long run there is no improvement.

The most glaring problem with Chapter 1 is its perverse incentive structure. The money a school district receives for Chapter 1 services is based on the number of educationally disadvantaged children in a district. If test scores rise slightly, kids may no longer be counted as educationally disadvantaged, and a school will lose its program money. If achievement is what makes the money stop flowing, no one should be surprised when success becomes elusive.

Although Chapter 1 instruction is generally offered for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, on average it contributes only about 10 additional minutes of academic instruction each day, according to the government study. The "pullout method" -- where students are taken out of class to receive Chapter 1 services -- is largely responsible for this discrepancy. It's ironic that a program aimed at helping disadvantaged students catch up academically is actually causing them to fall farther behind -- because it causes them to miss class!

The taxpayers are coughing up $7 billion a year to provide such service to five million American kids. Perhaps the Commission on Chapter 1 said it best: "[To] those who need the best our educational system has to offer, we give the least. The least well-trained teachers. The lowest-level curriculum. Our lowest expectations. Less, indeed, of everything that we believe makes a difference."

If serious reforms are not part of the reauthorization bill before Congress, it may well be time to close the book on Chapter 1.

Brian Jendryka wrote this for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

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