Policy Study

Remedial Education Reform

Private Alternatives to Traditional Title I

Executive Summary

The federal government currently spends approximately $8.2 billion dollars per year on Title I remedial education programs. Title I is designed to meet the educational needs of economically disadvantaged children and improve student achievement. The program funds remedial reading and math instructional programs and is designed to help children who live in or near poverty.

The Department of Education’s own program evaluations demonstrate that in its 30-year history, and after more than $120 billion, the program has not raised student achievement for disadvantaged children.

Title I also has huge funding discrepancies from one school district to another. Title I allocations to the states vary because of the complex formulas that govern the program. For example, Oklahoma receives $576 for each student below the poverty line, while Vermont receives about $1,326. Among large metropolitan areas, the variation in the distribution of Title I dollars is also significant. For example, Phoenix, Arizona receives $570 per poor student, while Boston, Massachusetts receives $1,045.

In light of the failure of traditional Title I programs to raise student achievement, the U.S. Department of Education has shifted its focus away from individualized instruction to programs that reform an entire school. Schoolwide programs, especially externally developed “models,” are being overemphasized with little research evidence backing their superiority. Schoolwide programs also make measuring individual achievement difficult, which is required by the tougher accountability standards in the 1994 reauthorization and the pending reauthorization. Whole-school assessment cannot isolate which specific programs (like Title- I interventions) are responsible for increases or decreases in student achievement.

The focus on schoolwide reform also overlooks one of the few effective Title I programs: the privateremedial education partnership. Since the early 1990s some public schools have begun relying on private remedial education companies such as Sylvan Learning Systems and Kaplan Educational Services to serve disadvantaged students.

In 1998, Sylvan began a $13.8 million contract in Compton, California, where education quality was so poor that the state took control of the district. Preliminary results indicate that students in the new program have gained an equivalent of one grade level after 20 hours of instruction. “Sylvan at School” programs enroll nearly 80,000 students in 850 public and nonpublic schools, often serving the worst-performing students.

In a national database of Sylvan students for the 1997-1998 school year, 75 percent of the students began their program with California Achievement Test (a national standardized test) reading scores below the 25th percentile. The U.S. Department of Education considers a gain of two NCEs (which are not equivalent to percentage points but a common standard for measuring student progress) acceptable improvement and a gain of seven exemplary. The average gains for these students were eight Normal Curve Equivalents (NCEs) for reading.

The success of these programs is due to a number of factors:

  • Professional development that provides extensive teacher training;
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  • Instructional guarantees;
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  • A collaborative relationship with school staff;
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  • Use of extensive student assessment and a student-achievement profile for each student;
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  • Initial diagnostic testing for new Sylvan students; and
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  • Parental involvement throughout the process.

The successful private remedial-education programs illustrate the desirability of making individual students the centerpiece of the Title I program. Private remedial-education programs are well-suited to help local Title I programs meet the 1994 reauthorization and the pending reauthorization’s tougher accountability requirements:

  • Assessment is the cornerstone of private remedial-education programs. Private remedial-education companies have to test the students in their programs to demonstrate student achievement and retain their Title I contracts, as well as win new contracts. They have a comparative advantage when it comes to student testing and are also designed to be evaluated by independent evaluators. Additionally, many of the private remedial-education companies have extensive expertise in diagnostic testing as one of their core business functions aside from remedial education (Sylvan and Kaplan, for example, offer SAT, GRE, and other standardized testing programs). They could offer school districts insight into how to set up a permanent evaluation system.
  • Teacher training and quality is a cornerstone of private remedial-education companies. As schools are required to replace paraprofessionals with certified Title I teachers, relying on a private company with an extensive teacher training and recruitment program could help ease the transition from a teacheraide based system for public schools. The private remedial-education companies are contractually required to provide high-quality certified teachers for their Title I programs.

While the currently configured reauthorization of Title I may not explicitly encourage private remedialeducation pilot projects, public schools have the flexibility to experiment with different types of Title I programs. Although the U.S. Department of Education’s current favorite is whole-school reform, no legal limitations restrict how schools can use their Title I funds. As long as schools meet the accountability standards required by Title I legislation, local school administrators are free to meet these standards using private remedial-education pilot programs. These private programs can be set up with performance standards that provide incentives for the private contractor to meet federal standards.

The most-striking difference between public Title I programs and public-school contracts for private remedial-education programs is the federal Title I program’s failure to focus on individual low-performing students. That the federal Title I program would expect an at-risk student to make any progress without ever assessing that student’s individual performance to determine what kind of remedial help the student might need is counterintuitive. In fact, evidence shows that programs that focus on individual students perform well. Yet, for over 30 years, Title I, a program whose mission is to serve at-risk students, has failed to make lowperforming students its centerpiece. The 1994 reauthorization and the current pending reauthorization shift the focus farther away from individual students by encouraging whole-school reform and continues a funding mechanism based on self-reported school poverty data rather than individual student qualifications. Until Title I becomes a program focused on student outcomes with a funding system that allows public and private programs to compete for Title I students, disadvantaged students will continue to lag behind their moreadvantaged peers.