Early Ed Watch

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Another Voice for Changing How 'Title I' Works

Published:  March 16, 2011

The problems of Title I funding have been making their way into the news lately, helped in part by a symposium last week at the Center for American Progress that grappled with what’s wrong with schools’ use of this annual appropriation of $14.5 billion in federal dollars. The symposium showcased several papers – one written by New America’s own Jennifer Cohen – that provided details on how this federal program falls short.

Just 10 days before that event, at a journalism seminar here, another expert took the microphone to expound on Title I. Bob Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at John Hopkins University, persuasively argued that children’s academic performance could be improved by taking what seems like an obvious and yet so-far insurmountable step: ensuring that Title I dollars be channeled to education programs that can provide evidence that they work.

His remarks came during a discussion on how to improve the stagnating and poor reading scores of more than two-thirds of elementary school children in this country. (You can watch the video below and see others at the event page; the reading panel starts at the 5:40 minute mark and Slavin’s remarks start at 19:40.)

“We know what works,” Slavin said. But the problem is that federal programs, such as those paid for under Title I, do not stipulate that schools spend those funds on strategies with research-based evidence of effectiveness. If policymakers were to actually do that, Slavin continued, “how could you not have an impact nationwide?”

The Title I program, as many early educators in public schools know, is not really a “program” at all. It is a stream of funding tied to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The exact amount of funding, which is distributed by the U.S. Department of Education to local school districts, is approved each year by the U.S. Congress as part of the annual appropriations process. The mission of Title I, according to the law, is to “improve the academic achievement of the disadvantaged.”

Title I is of great importance to early education because school districts can use its funds for programs that serve children starting at birth. Some districts use the funds to offer or expand pre-k or to deliver full-day kindergarten. (For example, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland used Title I money from the 2009 stimulus bill to turn Head Start into a full-day program in several schools.)

Education stakeholders have been debating how districts and schools can best spend Title I dollars efficiently and equitably for many years.  Questions abound: How do you ensure that the schools getting Title I dollars are the most in need? Should Title I schools get the best-prepared teachers? What can school districts do to both abide by Title I regulations and still retain the flexibility to spend the money to do the most good?  In the event at CAP last week, for example, much of the discussion centered on Title I’s “supplement not supplant” provision, which was intended to keep school districts from replacing state and local  funding with federal dollars instead of using those federal dollars as a source of additional financial support for low-income students. The unfortunate reality is that school districts may be trying so hard not to supplant current dollars that they hesitate to shut down or redesign (or layoff people affiliated with) ineffective programs. Similarly, few districts have the flexibility to repurpose their Title I funds for new, effective programs to provide their students with better services.

Slavin’s belief that federal dollars should be spent on programs with evidence of effectiveness is especially timely as public funds continue to dry up in localities, states and at the federal level. When resources are scarce, funding must be prioritized for programs that make a difference and can be scaled up. This is in keeping with one of the recommendations made by the Early Education Initiative last month in our issue brief, “12 Ideas for Early Education in the 112th Congress.” In determining funding levels, Congress should “channel funding to effective programs,” we wrote. Policymakers should place an emphasis on effectiveness “to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being put to good use and having a positive impact on young children over time.”  

Slavin is the founder of one program that would fit that bill – Success for All, an elementary school reading program that won a coveted “scale up” grant in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) competition last year. As Slavin said during the journalism seminar, “i3 is one of the most important things to ever happen in education because – and this will astonish you perhaps – this is the first time in human history that evidence has mattered in education. It has never happened before. And that’s incredible in itself.”

Slavin’s remarks may sound hyperbolic, so we ask our readers: Have you seen signs that evidence matters in education policy? One might put the new home visiting program in that category. But it is run by the Maternal Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, instead of the U.S. Department of Education.  Do you think we’ll ever arrive at a day when Title I or education policy more generally is aligned with what research tells us is most helpful in fostering children’s success in school?

CLARIFICATION, 12:10 PM:  An earlier copy of this post paraphrased Slavin as saying that policies should ensure that Title I dollars “go only” to education programs that can provide evidence that they work. What Slavin was suggesting, however, was that Title I dollars should be channeled to evidence-based programs over time. In a follow-up email he explained that “it would indeed be disastrous to require this today.”  What policymakers should be doing, he said, is enacting policies that do more to “encourage and proactively disseminate information on proven programs, and give evidence-based programs competitive preferences on discretionary grants, and so on, so that over time more and more Title I funds go to proven programs and practices.”

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