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Could Schools Be Doing More With Title I Money?

New York City

Over the last two decades, federal grants for educating low-achieving students have shifted from overwhelmingly being targeted to only the individual low-achieving students in a building to mostly being used to support schoolwide programs on high-poverty campuses. 

new nationwide study of the $15.8 billion Title I program suggests that, while the more holistic approach has allowed school and district leaders to support a broader array of staff and interventions for students in poverty,  school leaders often do not receive the training and information needed to make the most of the grant's flexibility.

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Title I grants for students in poverty make up the largest portion of all federal money for K-12 education, and the funds can be used in two ways. One way is targeted Title I programs, which must go to supports and materials that will only be used by students identified as low-achieving or from a vulnerable population, such as homeless or foster students. But schools where at least 40 percent of all students are low-income, schools have another choice: They can become a schoolwide program, which allows them to combine federal, state, and local funds. 

Now, more than two-thirds of all elementary schools and half of all public schools receive Title I funding, and the percentage of schools opting to become schoolwide programs has risen from only 10 percent in 1994-95 to 77 percent in 2014-15. 

Researchers at the American Institutes for Research studied a nationally representative sample of 823 schoolwide and 598 targeted programs. 

Teachers accounted for 67 percent of spending in targeted-assistance schools and 41 percent of schoolwide spending. Leaders of both types of programs were most likely to spend the grants on reading and math instruction, but leaders of schoolwide programs were significantly more likely to also use the grants for specialized instructors such as English-language-learner specialists, instructional coaches in other subjects, parent liaisons and technical support staff for teachers and students.

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"Often schoolwide programs do look different," said Stephanie Stullich, education research analyst with the U.S. Education Department's Policy and Program Studies Service, who oversaw the study. "They are hiring different kinds of staff and have a different focus. Some schools really are doing some creative and innovative things with Title I funds."

Yet the study also suggested most schools may significantly underestimate what they can do with the money.

Flexibility Goes Unused

"It's the gumbo approach to school funding streams," said AIR Steven Hurlburt. "You throw all these different funding streams into a pot and it all is supposed to blend together."

Yet the data show only 6 percent of schoolwide programs actually consolidated their different pots of money, and only half of schools even coordinated spending for local, state, and federal grants.

In interviews with principals of Title I schools, some didn't understand that consolidation was allowed; some thought other federal or state rules barred it; and many were afraid of simply doing it wrong. Hurlburt highlighted one principal who reported, "Everybody was just scared of having a bad audit finding and it turned into a big compliance exercise instead of an exercise of saying, how can we optimally use these funds to meet the unique needs of students?"

Chart Source: U.S. Department of Education

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