As Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), it is making some changes for the better. Exhibit A is the federal government's compensatory program for poor students, also the largest program of federal aid to education, which has been known in recent years as Chapter 1. The program is getting back its old name -- Title I -- along with a sharper focus that complements education reforms in Maryland and around the country.
Both houses of Congress have now passed bills that still have to be reconciled in a conference committee. Even so, both versions move the program a long way in the right direction.
When Title I began 30 years ago, educators worried that poor students were falling behind in basic skills. To compensate, they channeled funds into efforts that focused largely on the fundamentals of reading and math. And to ensure that the money would reach poor children, rather than being soaked up by school systems for general uses, Congress imposed strict regulations on how the money could be spent. Since then, much has changed, including the fact that competency in basic skills is no longer considered adequate preparation for a rapidly changing job market.
Under the new Title I, Congress will focus less on micromanaging the funding and worry more about results. In exchange for more flexibility in using the funds, schools in Maryland and elsewhere will be held accountable for improving student performance, not just for accounting practices. Schools will no longer be bound by practices that become counterproductive, such as removing poor students from classrooms for half-hour rote learning sessions, making them miss other class activities in the process. They can also use some funding for professional development or to hire paraprofessionals to improve instruction.
By removing the narrow emphasis on basic skills, the new approach allows schools to challenge poor students in ways that can also help develop higher-level critical thinking abilities along with the basics. It also removes the need to measure the progress of poor students differently. Those changes dovetail nicely with reforms in Maryland, since they target the same abilities Maryland's School Performance and Assessment Program is attempting to measure.
For the coming school year, Chapter 1, as it is currently known, will bring some $80 million into Maryland schools. The legislation will increase that amount while also making adjustments in the distribution formula. The new Title I will help make federal aid for poor children an ally for reform, not another frustrating obstacle.