Title I: Replace the 'Belle of the Ball'?

06/11/2015 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson launched a campaign to improve education, especially of children from low-income families. An unprecedented billion dollars of new aid was sent to the schools under the first part or "title" of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

In subsequent years, Title I was the "belle of the ball" as the largest, most important federal education aid. African Americans strongly backed that program because they were poorer than the general population, and their children were more likely to attend low-performing schools which received extra Title I dollars and attention.

Today, the first African American sits in the White House occupying Lyndon Johnson's chair as president of the country. Johnson's dream of African Americans gaining their civil rights and a better education that would lead to social integration and economic success was realized, at least in part, through Obama's triumph.

Yet, as president, Barack Obama has not supported Title I as would have been anticipated from past African American belief in the benefits of that program. In six of his eight annual budget requests, Obama has asked for a "freeze" in spending or a cutback in funding for that program. The two exceptions were a one-time effort to save teachers' jobs due to the recession and a bump-up this year when the Republican-controlled Congress has already made clear that the only increased spending will be for the military.

Why hasn't Obama, as the first African American president, more fully embraced Title I, which was so enthusiastically supported for decades by African Americans? Is this an indication of broader problems with Title I?

Obama has joined the three presidents preceding him in favoring a far different policy of school improvement than that epitomized by Title I. Instead of additional dollars for extra services for children, the creation of academic standards and tests to measure achievement is seen as the way to increase the quality of American schools, especially that of schools with concentrations of low-income children.

In 2002, under President George W. Bush, the No Child Left Behind, (NCLB), took this policy one big step further by placing great pressure on teachers to raise student test scores. The consequence of not meeting that goal was the imposition of penalties on schools. This was a big mistake.

A major reason for this drastic change was the belief that Title I and other school improvement attempts had not demanded sufficient results. It was accurate that research showed Title I had a modest impact on raising student academic achievement. This disappointing result was because appropriations were never sufficient to realize the large-scale impact envisioned by Johnson, the desire to focus extra aid on the most educationally needy students isolated them from other instruction, and the schools targeted for aid were often staffed by less experienced teachers.

Despite these severe limitations, Title I and other equity-oriented programs provided services to students who would not otherwise have had that help, and assisted them to do better in school although not enough to satisfy the original expectations. When these results were not considered sufficient, the national spotlight shifted to NCLB and related test-based reforms meant to force increases in test scores.

Title I is now considered by many as just another pot of funds for poor schools to raise test scores under NCLB. It is also thought of as being from another time -- not part of the current movement to improve the schools.

The irony is that NCLB, the remedy for Title I's deficiencies, has itself not produced the broad improvement in student academic achievement that George W. Bush and his congressional allies promised. Obama endorsed that test-driven approach through his own reforms, and similarly there is a lack of significant success, at least as of now.

In sum, Title I tried to provide a little extra money and services to help students without changing the basics of schooling. NCLB applied pressure to raise scores without providing extra assistance to help students and teachers reach that goal. Neither outside intervention produced the broad improvement in the schools that was originally envisioned.

Therefore, it is time to re-think school improvement strategies. What would it take to help teachers educate better, and how can students learn more?

Research that wasn't available 50 years ago, or even 15 years ago, provides answers. Better pre-school programs, more highly-qualified teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and fair and adequate school funding can lead to increased student achievement. Children of low-income families, including many African American students, would especially gain from these improvements because they tend to be in schools lacking many of these elements.

A two-prong strategy can achieve the goal of a better education for all children based on this research. States choosing to implement those research-based approaches should receive more and less-restricted aid. Further, constitutional and legal guarantees should be established so that every child has an education incorporating those elements, implementing George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's designation of education as the civil rights issue of our times.

It is necessary to move beyond Title I and NCLB's use of outside interventions to bring improvement. Now, the very essence of schooling -- creating conditions for teachers to teach better and for all students to learn more -- should be the focus.

The nation, including African Americans, should not give up on building better schooling; rather, we should learn from the past half century's experiences and adopt a more direct, research-based approach. In Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press, March, 2015), I lay out the path to implement this change.

Honesty and courage are needed to create a better way to achieve the noble purpose of Title I that all children ought to have a good education. To do this, the "belle of the ball" needs to be replaced.