A Close Look at Title I, the Federal Program to Aid Poor Children

Report Education

A Close Look at Title I, the Federal Program to Aid Poor Children

April 13, 1999 21 min read
Nina Rees
Senior Research Fellow

Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check.

--Lyndon B. Johnson, Special Message
to the Congress: The American Promise,
March 15, 1965

One of the many programs created during President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" is Title I, the cornerstone of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. Title I is a mechanism aimed at narrowing the gap in academic achievement between low-income students and their peers by providing supplemental funding to poor school districts. More than $120 billion has been funneled into Title I since its inception, which represents the largest single federal investment in education. Despite this huge investment, the gap in academic achievement levels remains wide.

As Members of Congress begin debating the reauthorization of ESEA and Title I, they should take a close look at past research on this program to evaluate its effect on closing the achievement gap. For example, a review of two longitudinal studies of Title I students conducted in the late 1970s and early 1990s found that, even though the achievement of Title I students had improved at the same rate as "nondisadvantaged" students, it had failed to close or narrow the achievement gap. And, although a 1999 report from a congressionally mandated national assessment of Title I shows an increase in reading and math scores, the improvements cannot be correlated to the Title I program.

To ensure Title I helps states to produce better-educated students, Congress should consider the following approaches:

  • Giving states more flexibility in using their Title I funds in exchange for clear academic results;

  • Asking states to tie Title I funding to the students, instead of to the school systems, and to assure the program serves the needs of those students; and

  • Allowing parents whose children attend failing schools to redeem their children's share of Title I funding at a provider or school of their choice.

If such actions are not taken, then under its current format the Title I program will continue to waste taxpayer dollars while poor children continue to lag behind in academic achievement. As Jerome T. Murphy, Dean of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, who helped to write the Title I legislation 34 years ago, said, the program is a "classic situation where yesterday's reform becomes today's obstacle." 2 The upcoming ESEA reauthorization offers Congress the perfect opportunity to refocus Title I's attention on its original mission.


ESEA's Title I program has been a target of criticism over the years because Congress has continued to increase its funding despite a paucity of sound studies demonstrating its effectiveness. The research cited most often involves two federally funded longitudinal studies, supervised by the U.S. Department of Education: Sustaining Effects and Prospects. 3 Beginning in 1976, Sustaining Effects gathered data for three years on 120,000 students in over 300 elementary schools. 4 Similarly, Prospects studied 40,000 students over three years beginning in 1991. 5

Wayne Riddle, an education finance specialist at the Congressional Research Service, issued a report in 1996 on the inconclusive findings of these two studies and five other major national Title I studies. Although the methods and results of the studies he reviewed vary considerably, Riddle found in all cases that the achievement gains of Title I participants are generally found to be modestly greater than projections or estimates of what they would be without Title I services...[but] Title I participants tend to increase their achievement levels at the same rate as nondisadvantaged pupils, so "gaps" in achievement do not significantly change. 6

Thus, after 34 years and billions of tax dollars spent, Title I's goal of closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students appears unmet.

Faced with these findings, the Department of Education now points to a recent evaluation of Title I and the results of the latest 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. 7 Mandated by Congress during the 1994 reauthorization of ESEA, the Department of Education and an independent review panel conducted the National Assessment of Title I (NATI). In its 1999 report, NATI shows for the first time some measurable progress in Title I student achievement. For example, on the 1996 NAEP, nine-year-old students in high-poverty public schools (in which 76 percent to 100 percent of students qualify for the federal free lunch program) gained almost a whole grade level in both reading and math since 1992. 8

In addition, the NATI study reports that 10 out of 13 of the largest urban school districts in the United States showed improvement over the past three years in the percentage of students in high-poverty schools who met state standards in reading or math. 9 Such districts as Houston, Texas; Miami-Dade County, Florida; New York, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Antonio, Texas; and San Francisco, California, improved in both reading and math. 10

The 1998 NAEP test shows significant improvements in fourth-grade reading scores in nine states since 1994, although only five states have progressed past their scores in 1992, with Connecticut leading the way.

The Department of Education attributes these results to the "standards-based" reforms of the 1994 ESEA reauthorization. These reforms were inspired by a 1993 Department of Education review of the Prospects findings. According to this report, disadvantaged students were held to lower academic standards and received an average of only 10 minutes of extra instruction per day, taught by unqualified aides; thus it came as no surprise that disadvantaged students had failed to make any progress toward narrowing the achievement gap with their peers. 11

Realizing that the Title I program was in dire need of repair, Congress used the 1994 reauthorization of ESEA to leverage reform in the states. The underlying design for these "standards-based" reforms requires states to develop and align three objectives by the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year: (1) challenging curriculum standards for learning; (2) a statewide assessment of knowledge under these standards; and (3) rigorous performance standards for all students and schools. 12 In addition, the adopted assessment tool must allow for the results to be disaggregated by gender, race, disability, and low-income status to ensure that no group is permitted to fall behind. 13 The alignment of curriculum, assessments, and performance standards moves states toward the adoption of criterion-referenced tests that measure achievement in relation to curriculum standards and away from norm-referenced tests that measure academic achievement in relation to other students. The adoption of performance standards also eases states' efforts to rate their schools.

Although the Department of Education attributes the encouraging progress demonstrated by the NAEP scores to goals set in the 1994 ESEA reauthorization, the findings are in no way conclusive. Among the reasons:

  • The results cannot be attributed directly to the 1994 changes.
    Although state- and locally driven standards-based reforms appear to be leading to better academic outcomes, the results cannot be linked directly with the changes made to Title I in 1994. In practice, the correlation is weak and the cause uncertain. The NATI report itself points out that "full implementation [of the 1994 reforms] in classrooms across the country has yet to be accomplished." 14 In fact, a report by the Department of Education points out that most principals in Title I-eligible schools are unaware of the "standards-based" reforms required by the provisions in the 1994 ESEA reauthorization. Only 43 percent of principals seem familiar with Title I itself. 15

Except for a few states like Texas, which already had implemented accountability measures in the early 1990s, most states continue to lag behind in putting in place the standards and accountability system required under the 1994 changes. The majority of states still do not (1) disaggregate test data by racial and economic groups; (2) rate their schools' performance; and (3) use criterion-referenced tests to measure how much of the required curriculum a student has learned.

Today, although the federal government requires all states to identify Title I schools that need improvement, only 19 states have comprehensive ranking systems to identify low-performing schools. Four of these states will not start to rate schools until later this year, and West Virginia currently has no schools on its list. Therefore, the recent improvements in NAEP scores cannot be linked with the 1994 changes.

The Department of Education expects that all states will adopt curriculum standards, assessments, and performance measures by the start of the 2000-2001 school year. But if a state does not meet the compliance deadline, it simply may include in its plan a "strategy and schedule for developing State content standards and State student performance standards." 16 Furthermore, in states that do have standards in place, a local educational agency (LEA) that does not comply with or meet the goals theoretically can escape sanctions for up to seven years. In order for a state to take corrective actions against an LEA (such as reconstitution or withholding funds), the LEA must have failed the assessments for two consecutive years. After that, the state is not required to take corrective action until after four more years, and the state can refrain for an additional year if there are "extenuating circumstances." 17 Assuming a state has standards in place, it is possible for LEAs that fail to improve to escape sanctions until the 2007-08 school year.

Perhaps a better study to help to shed some light on the 1994 changes and their effects on Title I students is The Longitudinal Evaluation of School Change and Performance. Scheduled to be released in 2001 (with an interim report due out in May 1999), this study is evaluating the impact of the key features of the revised Title I legislation on schools, classrooms, and students. The evaluation follows the progress of Title I students and does not attempt to draw correlations between general NAEP gains and Title I students.

  • Poor students continue to lag behind their peers.
    Although NATI and recent NAEP results are encouraging, they are no cause for celebration: many students still lag far behind the national average in both reading and math. Nationally, an average of 62 percent of students in high-poverty public schools met or exceeded the 1996 NAEP basic level in math; yet 34 states fell below this average. 18 Particularly disturbing is that the NAEP basic level is an extremely low standard, merely signifying "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade." 19 Thus, in most states the majority of students in high-poverty schools does not have even a "partial mastery" of the curriculum.

On the 1998 NAEP reading test, there still was a 20-percentage-point gap in the achievement of poor and affluent students. Only 42 percent of students in the highest-poverty schools scored at or above the NAEP basic level for reading last year, while 62 percent of the students in all public schools met that standard. And only 13 percent of low-income fourth-graders taking this test scored at or above the "proficient" level, as opposed to 40 percent of the higher-income students. 20

  • Some state-reported improvements may be misleading.
    Even in states that showed significant improvement on the state-level 1998 NAEP, the results may not be as encouraging as previously thought. For example, controversy surrounds Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Carolina because of large jumps in the number of special education students exempted from testing. 21 In these three states, the number of excluded special education students approximately doubled between the 1994 and 1998 NAEP tests. 22 Suspecting that the high number of exemptions may have affected test scores, the U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring further investigation.

Fact Sheet on Title I1

Title I is the largest single program under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Most of Title I funding consists of supplemental aid to poor children, representing nearly $7.7 billion in the current (1999) fiscal year.2

Title I is the biggest federal program for kindergarten through 12th grade, but it represents only 2.8 percent of public school current-dollar expenditures. The total federal share of K-12 schooling is about 8 percent.

Title I presently serves over 11 million students,3but only about half these students live below the poverty line, leaving some 4 million poor students unserved because funding is targeted at schools that need them the most, not needy students.4

The main Title I Basic and Concentration Grant programs spend about $756, on average, for every school-age child in the United States who lives below the poverty line. The largest 20 metropolitan areas receive, on average, a little more at $766 per poor child.5

Title I allocations to the states vary because of the complex formulas that govern the program. For example, Oklahoma receives $576 per student below the poverty line, while Vermont receives about $1,326.

Even among large metropolitan areas, the variation in the distribution of Title I dollars is significant. Phoenix, Arizona, for example, gets $570 per poor student, while Boston, Massachusetts, receives $1,045.

Although Title I is meant to help predominantly poor students, its dollars serve many children living above the poverty line as well because many school districts now use Title I funds for school-wide activities.

Low-income students (who are eligible for the federal free/reduced-price lunch program) perform considerably worse in standardized tests than do their higher-income counterparts. Only 13 percent of fourth-grade Title I students who took the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test scored at or above the "proficient" level, as opposed to 40 percent of higher-income students.  6

1.  The author thanks Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., of The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis for assembling this information.

2. U.S. Department of Education Budget Service, November 1998, available at /static/reportimages/4262475FD5AE6FAFE16B142C66D04FED.pdf.

3. U.S. Department of Education, Promising Results, Continuing Challenges: The Final Report of the National Assessment of Title I, 1999.

4. Wayne Riddle, Specialist in Educational Finance, Congressional Research Service, testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, 106th Cong., 1st Sess., March 16, 1999.

5. These figures are derived using the Title I expenditure data by county from fiscal year 1998 (available at http://www.ed.gov/offices/OUS/title1.html), along with the 1995 Bureau of the Census estimates of poor children aged 5-17 by county (available at http://www.census.gov/housing/saipe/est95ALL.dat). Metropolitan areas are defined as a combination of counties by the Office of Management and Budget; the current county definitions can be found in the U.S. Department of Commerce's Statistical Abstract of the United States 1998, Appendix II, pp. 937-944. Per poor student, Title I expenditures are a simple calculation of Title I dollars divided by the number of poor children aged 5-17 for the geographic area of interest.

6. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States, March 1999.































In short, Title I has failed to demonstrate improvements in the academic achievement of disadvantaged students. As Members of Congress consider the reauthorization of Title I, they should consider three avenues to assure the program will meet its goal:

  1. Provide more flexibility to states in return for academic results
    Congress could allow states or local school districts to waive Title I requirements in return for clear academic outcomes. 23 Under such a plan, states would be free to appropriate Title I dollars according to their unique needs--in exchange for agreed-on academic achievement that was published with the data disaggregated by race and economic factors--to ensure all Title I students are held to the same high academic standards. The federal government could offer a bonus award to states that had improved the academic achievement of poor students or take affirmative steps to reform the program in states that had failed to show results.

Texas has adopted a similar approach of decentralizing control and giving districts wide discretion in running their school systems in return for measurable academic achievement for every group of students. A system of rewards and sanctions are also in place in Texas, ranging from small cash awards and an "exemplary" rating for schools that serve as models to wholesale layoffs of staff and a "low-performing" rating for schools that continually fail. According to 1996 NAEP data, following decentralization, both black fourth-graders and fourth-grade Title I students scored higher in math in Texas, on average, than their counterparts did in every other state, and its Hispanic fourth-grade student population finished sixth. 24

Such an approach would shift Title I's attention from a program designed to feed poverty to one aimed at boosting academic achievement and results.

  1. Give money to students, not school systems 
    For the past 34 years, Title I has provided aid to school systems, instead of to actual students. Local education agencies tend to concentrate most of their Title I dollars in schools they deem have the most need. As a result, 4 million low-income students today go unserved. In New York State, 63 percent of schools with poverty rates ranging from 0 to 10 percent received Title I funding during the 1992-1993 school year, but nearly 15 percent of the schools whose poverty rates ranged from 50 percent to 60 percent received no funds. 25 Meanwhile, almost half the Title I funding to schools is used to hire unqualified teacher's aides. 26 In California, the ratio of aides to teachers paid for by Title I funds is 4 to 1; in the Los Angeles Unified School District, it is 7 to 1. Furthermore, most of the instructors on the district's Title I payroll rarely teach; instead, they serve as program coordinators at their individual schools. 27

The current approach assumes that education bureaucrats are the most qualified judges of the ways in which to educate a poor student, instead of the child's parents. This approach also explicitly prohibits Title I funds from following needy students to the school of their choice.

One way to make sure Title I serves the needs of poor students would be to offer states their share of Title I funding but ask that they attach the funding to low-income students. This option would allow the funding to move with students should they leave a particular school--so long as the state allows choice. This is especially important in the case of charter schools, which currently do not receive their fair share of Title I funding since it does not follow students automatically from a Title I eligible school to a charter school.

According to a 1997 Hudson Institute study, many charter schools receive no aid from Title I even though they enroll considerable numbers of disadvantaged pupils. In Massachusetts, for example, only 8 of the Commonwealth's 24 charter schools received Title I funding for the 1996-1997 school year. In Arizona, about two-thirds of charter schools received Title I money, and in California, fewer than half. 28 Private schools often are overlooked in the administration of Title I programs as well. In 1997, 30 percent of Title I administrators and private school representatives did not receive the Department of Education's policy guidelines on Title I services for private school students. 29

To monitor student progress and provide better information to parents, states should also monitor the improvement of Title I students under this approach. Attaching Title I funding on the back of students, instead of school systems, would assure that poor students, regardless of the school they attended, receive their share of federal funding. This effort would shift the attention of the program from school systems to the students themselves.

  1. Permit parental choice for students in continually low-performing schools
    Under current law, a state can reconstitute a failing Title I school after it failed to meet state performance standards for two consecutive years. Approximately one-fifth of all schools receiving Title I funds are recognized as needing improvement, but there are insufficient penalties to motivate them to improve. 30 For example, of the 11,000 schools identified for program improvement by the Department of Education in 1996, over half had been involved in program improvement for at least two years; almost 1,000 for at least four years; and over 100 since 1988. 31 In the 1996-1997 school year, 6,905 Title I schools were identified for school improvement.

Short of the two avenues described above, at the very least the parents of students in state identified low-preforming schools should be allowed to redeem their Title I funds at a provider or school of their choice.


Title I has failed to accomplish its core mission: to close the gap in achievement between rich and poor students. As Title I expert Maris Vinovskis, a professor at the University of Michigan, told The Los Angeles Times, the "real losers in this are not just the taxpayers [but] the kids.... We haven't been able to deliver." 32

If the federal government wants to continue funding Title I, it must assure that every dollar spent on Title I is a dollar spent serving and boosting the academic achievement of individual poor children. Otherwise, ESEA's Title I program will continue to waste taxpayer dollars while generations of disadvantaged kids remain trapped in the same cycle of poverty that burdens their parents.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a former Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

1. The author thanks Jacqueline Curnutte, visiting research assistant at The Heritage Foundation and a senior at Pomona College, for her research and contributions to this paper.

2. Ralph Frammolino, "Title I's $118 Billion Fails to Close Gap," The Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1999.

3. Wayne Riddle, "Title I, Education for the Disadvantaged: Perspectives on Studies of Its Achievement Effects," Report for Congress 96-82 EPW, January 5, 1996.

4. Launor F. Carter, "The Sustaining Effects Study of Compensatory and Elementary Education," Educational Researcher, Vol. 13, No. 7 (August/September 1984).

5. U.S. Department of Education, Planning and Evaluation Service, Prospects: The Congressionally Mandated Study of Educational Growth and Opportunity, Interim Report, July 1993.

6. Riddle, "Title I, Education for the Disadvantaged: Perspectives on Studies of Its Achievement Effects."

7. The NAEP tests academic achievement in reading and math every two years, using a sample population of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 from each state.

8. U.S. Department of Education, Promising Results, Continuing Challenges: The Final Report of the National Assessment of Title I, 1999.

9. Ibid. The Council of Great City Schools also reported similar improvements in some of the cities the group represents.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. U.S. Department of Education, Mapping Out the National Assessment of Title I: The Interim Report, 1996.

13. Ibid.

14. U.S. Department of Education, Promising Results, Continuing Challenges: The Final Report of the National Assessment of Title I.

15. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement and the National Center for Education Statistics, Status of Education Reform in Public Elementary Schools: Principals' Perspectives, May 1998.

16. Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Section 1111. Available at http://www.ed.gov/legislation/ESEA/sec1111.html.  

17. Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Section 1116. Available at http://www.ed.gov/legislation/ESEA/sec1116.html.  

18. U.S. Department of Education, National Assessment Governing Board, at http://www.nagb.org

19. Ibid.

20. See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States, March 1999, http://nces.ed.gov

21. Jonathan Fox, "Disabled Exclusion Levels Challenged in State NAEP," Education Daily, March 19, 1999.

22. Andrea Tortora, "Omitting Special Ed Kids May Have Aided Ky. Scores," Cincinnati Enquirer, March 12, 1999.

23. Nina Shokraii Rees and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., "Why a `Super' Ed-Flex Program Is Needed to Boost Academic Achievement," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1261, March 5, 1999.

24. Tyce Palmaffy, "The Gold Star State," Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship, March/April 1998. The Texas accountability model has come under attack in recent months (the Austin school district was indicted recently for adjusting some of its test results). The Texas model--flexibility in exchange for results-- still is a valid one, so long as states guard against dumbing-down tests and misrepresenting test results.

25. Paul H. Carmichael, "Who Receives Federal Title I Assistance?" Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Winter 1997.

26. Sue Kirchhoff, "Can `Accountability' Get Struggling Schools on Track?" Congressional Quarterly Weekly, March 6, 1999.

27. Frammolino, "Title I's $118 Billion Fails to Close Gap."

28. Chester E. Finn, Jr., Bruno V. Manno, Louann A. Bierlein, and Gregg Vanourek, "The Policy Perils of Charter Schools," Charter Schools in Action Project, Final Report, Part III, Hudson Institute, August 1997.

29. U.S. Department of Education, Title I Services for Private School Students Under the 1994 Reauthorization of ESEA, 1997.

30. Stanley Pogrow, "Title I: Wrong Help at the Wrong Time," in Marci Kanstoroom and Chester E. Finn, Jr., eds., New Directions: Federal Education Policy in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 1999).

31. U.S. Department of Education, Mapping Out the National Assessment of Title I: the Interim Report.

32. Frammolino, "Title I's $118 Billion Fails to Close Gap."


Nina Rees

Senior Research Fellow