Title I in Alabama: The Struggle to Meet Basic Needs

Citizen's Commission on Civil Rights

Vol. 21, No. 3, 1999 pp. 12-15

The Citizens' Commission for Civil Rights, a nonpartisan organization founded in 1982 to monitor Federal civil rights policies and practices, has launched a study to assess the progress made by the federal government, the states, and four targeted communities in complying with the 1994 amendments to Title I contained in the Improving America's Schools Act. Below are excerpts from the second of several reports on this issue in which the Citizens' Commission highlights field research in high-poverty communities in Alabama, a state that was chosen because of its long and severe legacy of underfunding education and denying educational opportunities on the basis of race. The study was published in the summer of 1999.

The struggle for equal educational opportunity for African-American and poor students in Alabama at the end of the twentieth century endures in the shadow of the long history of state-imposed, racially separate, and unequal provision of public schooling. Alabama fiercely resisted dismantling its dual system of public education in the face of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education and congressional enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Brown held that racial classifications imposed by the government for the purpose of separating blacks from whites violated the United States Constitution; ten years later, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it became official national policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race in education, employment, and a host of other aspects of American life. Most of the state came under federal court order to desegregate its public schools in September 1963, when Governor George Wallace issued an executive order to delay the opening of school in Macon County.

Indeed, Alabama has been a staging ground for the great legal and political campaigns to enforce both the Fourteenth and the Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution as they apply to education. But despite these battles, many vestiges of the old "separate but equal" educational system remain, including low levels of spending, the lack of capacity to teach specific advanced skills, low levels of literacy, and pervasive and staggering family poverty rates. Many poor students start school without the most basic preparation, due to family poverty, lack of quality preschool programs, and the absence of mandatory kindergarten.

Research has demonstrated that concentrations of poverty in rural and urban areas multiply the adverse consequences of poverty on a child's achievement The more students from low-income families, the greater are a school's needs for: additional highly trained staff, more personal attention, an enriched curriculum, extra instructional materials, after-school and summer classes, and parent involvement programs.

While the federal role in education is limited, the national government has a vital role in ensuring equality of educational opportunity. The national interest in education has been manifested for the past three decades primarily through the civil rights laws, and through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Title I, an $8 billion program that now serves nearly 10.5 million students in some 50,000 schools, has for years provided funds to Alabama school systems and schools that have high concentrations of poor children.

The Title I program (which was renamed Chapter 1 between 1981 and 1994) is the federal government's largest program providing financial assistance to the nation's elementary and secondary schools. In 1994, the most recent reauthorization of this law, Congress substantially overhauled the Title I program to shift the focus from remedial education to high standards and higher achievement-reforms that had been advocated by professional educators and a broad coalition of civil rights and education organizations, and endorsed by the Clinton Administration. These reforms called for raising academic standards; building the capacity of schools; adopting testing and assess-ments that fairly and accurately measure what children know ensuring accountability by school officials; and ensuring the inclusion of all children, especially those with limited English proficiency and disabilities.

The new law, while potent, is not self-executing. Whether disadvantaged children will reap its benefits depends largely on the extent to which officials at every level carry out their respective obligations. Nor is the new Title I expected to meet its goals in isolation. Rather, it must be integrated into state, district, and school efforts to improve learning for all students.

Key Findings

  • Alabama has made a start on education reform in the past four years by adopting the Courses of Study (the

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    state content standards) and by holding schools and districts accountable for at least a minimal level of student achievement for the first time in the state's history. Little progress has been made, however, in implementing the 1994 changes in Titie I and integrating them into a comprehensive and coordinated standards-based set of reforms devoted to substantial and continuous progress toward high achievement for all students.
  • Educators fear that tough new graduation requirements, including a new high school exit examination, will result in massive failure. In their view, current elementary and secondary grade preparation, high school curriculum, equipment, materials, and inadequately trained teachers are not equal to the task of ensuring student success.
  • The use of the schoolwide option under Title I to upgrade the entire educational program in schools at or above 50 percent poverty has increased enormously since 1994. The Citizens' Commission found two schools-Tuggle Elementary School in Birmingham and Adams Elementary School in Gadsden-that are using the option as the law intends and producing student progress. In other places, however, schoolwide programs exist in name only.

    Among the factors that distinguish Tuggle and Adams are:

    • ✓ The use of trained specialists to address children's specific needs-e.g., Reading Recovery teachers at Tuggle and English as a Second Language teachers at Adams;
    • ✓ Plentiful and high-quality professional opportunities for all teachers, who also possess great discretion in determining the kind of training they require to best serve students;
    • ✓ Principals who are strong instructional leaders, but who also delegate much of the decision-making responsibility to their staff;
    • ✓ High expectations for all students even though they come from very low-income or non-English-speaking families and communities with high concentrations of poverty;
    • ✓ An intense instructional focus on literacy skills-decoding, phonics, and reading comprehension-supplemented with literature in print and audio formats; and
    • ✓Strong support from district officials and recognition for accomplishments.

  • In the lowest wealth districts in the Black Belt, Title I funds are used not to address the special needs of poor children, but to meet basic needs that should be met by state and local authorities. The lack of nonfederal resources in these districts is attributable to the inequities in the state's education finance system.

    misuse of Title I funds has deprived disadvantaged, low-achieving students of those extra enhancements-such as more highly trained and qualified teachers, extended learning opportunities, and supplementary curriculum-that would enable them to achieve at much higher levels.

  • Professional development resources, which are critical to student improvement, are meager in Alabama. Most of what passes for professional development are one-shot workshops or lessons on test-taking skills and objectives, rather than concentrated, sustained, and compensated work both in classrooms and outside of school.

The Alabama Reading Initiative is a promising start in devoting attention and resources to training teachers how to teach reading, the area acknowledged to be the state's lowest area of performance. The State Department of Education has overlooked the use of Title I funds that could expand participation in the Alabama Reading Initiative to many more schools and students.

Recommendations

    High Standards for All Students
  • Alabama must substantially raise its expectations for student learning at all levels for elementary and junior high school students.
  • Stronger precollegiate education will increase the numbers of African-American and other disadvantaged students entering and graduating from college and technical training institutions.
  • Alabama must adopt performance standards.
  • Superintendents and principals must not let student performance standards become a new way to sort and track students.
  • The content standards, performance standards, and samples of student work should be translated into Spanish or other languages spoken by limited English proficient students in the state.
    Fair Assessment for All Students
  • Alabama should replace or supplement the SAT 9 with a criterion-referenced text that incorporates the performance standards and is aligned with the Courses of Study. The new assessment should cover all subjects required to be taught in the state's schools, as the SAT 9 does now.

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  • Alabama should issue new guidelines for the inclusion of and accommodations for disabled and limited English proficient students that comply with Title I and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
    An Accountability System for All Students
  • Alabama's new accountability system should be designed to measure substantial and continuous progress of all students toward attainment of proficiency. No school or district should be found "in the clear" unless all students, including those who are poor and limited English proficient, are making progress.
  • The state should establish goals in terms of the time schools and districts will have to bring virtually all students up to the level of proficiency.
  • The accountability system should not rely exclu-sively on one test.
  • Schools should be held accountable for the sub-stantial and continuous progress only of those students who are enrolled for a full school year.
  • Copies of the State Superintendent's Report Card should be sent to each parent.

Equalizing Resources among Districts So That Title I Addresses Special Needs

The findings in this report underscore how far many schools in Alabama-particularly those serving large numbers of African-American and poor children-are from achieving acceptable levels of academic performance. The children who attend such schools will have little hope of future success, including passage of the new high school exit examination, unless the state takes emergency measures to address resource disparities, to redeploy federal funds, and, ultimately, to provide such children with effective instruction. The consequences of not acting are likely to include: wide-spread failure, particularly of disadvantaged children, on the high school graduation exam; prolonged litigation; the continued low ranking of Alabama among states; and dim prospects for the state's future.

  • For Title I to serve its purpose of providing edu-cational opportunity for disadvantaged students, the state legislature must address the underfunding of Alabama school districts by taking significant steps both to equalize expenditures between well-off and poor districts and to ensure that all districts have adequate state and local dollars to provide a constitutionally adequate education. Resources should be sufficient and deployed to support effective measures to ensure that all children are provided the instruction and assistance they need to meet the state's standards.
  • In order to eliminate the temptation to use Title I to meet basic operating expenses, the State Superintendent should act swiftly to issue a directive to all school districts clarifying Title I's fiscal requirements.
  • The state should further act to provide guidance to districts and schools on the kinds of supplemental services and expenditures that would have the greatest impact in Title I schools. These may include: lowering class size further in the highest poverty schools; after-school, tutoring, and summer programs for students who need extra help; enhanced professional development opportunities; working with parents to improve their literacy and involvement with their children's education; and meetings among teachers to collaborate and provide support on school improvement efforts.
  • Finally, school districts in Alabama should target Title I funds to the highest poverty schools, those above the average of poverty for the entire district.
    _Developing the Capacity to Enable All Students to Meet State Standards
  • All teachers and support staff in Title 1 schools must receive high-quality school-based, and continuous professional development above and beyond state requirements and school accreditation standards.
  • Title I funds should be made available to support all forms of professional development and should be geared to the Courses of Study, the standards that define what students should know and be able to do. Teacher training must go beyond one-hour sessions on test-taking skills and classroom management, to include subject-matter knowledge, working with experienced mentor teachers, observing other teachers, meeting with other teachers, and visiting high-performing, high-poverty schools outside the district. Professional development must be seen as much a regular and ongoing part of daily school life as is taking attendance.
  • State Superintendent Ed Richardson should address the purpose and proper use of Title I funds at his regular meetings with local superintendents. He should send a strong and message to local superintendents that they must comply with the law and that improper expenditures will not be tolerated.
  • Title I training should be provided to members of Alabama's state education associations and of local teachers' organizations.
  • Alabama must also devote attention and resources to preparing teachers to work with its growing limited English proficient student population. A special effort must be made to recruit and certify bilingual teachers.
  • School and district officials must exert initiative and leadership to convey to parents the necessity of their children's attendance.

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    The Federal Role
  • The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Ele-mentary and Secondary Education should provide technical assistance for the Title I staff in the Alabama Department of Education on the fiscal and program requirements for school districts.
  • It is urgent that the U.S. Department of Education accelerate its continuing technical assistance to Alabama. The U.S. Department of Education also should take enforcement action where necessary, including a fiscal audit of Alabama in order to determine whether Title I funds are being used to supplant state and local funds, particularly with respect to the hiring of classroom teachers.
    The Public's Role
  • Education reform and professional organizations, child advocates, and community groups should pay more attention to how Title I funds are used in districts and schools.

Title I rules, regulations, applications, budgets, and school report cards-all of which are public documents-can be advocacy tools. Asking questions about Title I raises awareness. Principals and teachers often do not know what can be done with federal funds; school board members and parents may know even less. Federal law requires state education departments to investigate and respond to complaints about violations of Title I or misuse of funds. In addition, advocates can work with schools to involve parents in their children's education, to organize family literacy programs, and to support students' academic efforts. Alabama has momentous challenges ahead. Alabama has embraced high standards at the end of schooling-the high school diploma-but not at the beginning. Failure rates on the pilot tenth grade exam this year should not be used as a reason to back off standards. Standards for student achievement prior to high school are too low. Higher standards for all students, trained teachers who can enable students to meet the standards, and supports for student learning must exist at all ages from preschool to high school. Otherwise, state policy will perpetuate the cycle of poverty in Alabama in generation after generation.

Excerpts from Title I in Alabama: The Struggle to Meet Basic Needs were printed with permission from the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights. One free copy of the study may be obtained by contacting the Commission at: 2000 M Street, NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20036; phone 202-659-5565; web site www.cccr.org.