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The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools?

reviewed by Jason A. Grissom - March 08, 2010

coverTitle: The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools?
Author(s): David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674035461, Pages: 336, Year: 2009
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In their book The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? (2009), David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt examine the promises and pitfalls of Title I from the program’s inception in 1965 to its present No Child Left Behind (NCLB) form, and through its various redefinitions and reincarnations in the intervening years. While the book highlights a number of Title I’s successes—chief among them helping make better schools for disadvantaged students a national priority—its primary focus is explaining and analyzing Title I’s deficiencies, which have placed severe limits on the capacity of the program to drive system-level change. As the authors illustrate in a detailed history of the program, many of Title I’s failings are by design, and there is little evidence that these design issues are changing in Title I’s new (or upcoming) iterations.

As the book argues, the fundamental problem with Title I, especially as originally conceived, was the disconnect between the scope of what the program is intended to accomplish and the scant tools it provides for achieving its goals. The schools low-income and minority students attended were educationally weak, and there was agreement in a Washington flush with the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty that action was necessary to give the students in those schools better opportunities. Little attention was paid to the problems of race and class inequality that undergirded the divide between good schools and weak ones, nor to the fact that few school systems had any experience with the kind of school improvement that would be asked of them. Instead, policymakers essentially directed a modest stream of financial resources toward schools and crossed their fingers that those resources would provide an incentive or a means for the schools to figure out how to fix themselves. Schools were provided no technical or professional assistance; in fact, the primary mechanism we have for affecting student learning—classroom instruction—was ignored altogether. In retrospect, the notion that a program as weak as the schools it sought to impact might effect broad change seems hopelessly naïve, but in a time when the prevailing wisdom was that weak schools just needed more resources and they would improve, Title I found a broad base of support.

Not that this broad base of support was easily achieved or that building it had no consequences for the program itself. Education was a state and local issue, and people resisted federal involvement in schooling. Moreover, the politics of antipoverty programs was such that most had to offer carrots to more advantaged Americans as well. To reduce opposition to federal involvement and ensure that resources did not flow exclusively to the poorest schools, the funding formulas supporting Title I were designed to distribute funds broadly. In fact, 90% of districts quickly came to receive Title I money, bolstering the program’s political base but also reducing the amount available to poor schools (p. 9). As a result, “the requirements of the program’s political viability were at odds with the requirements of its educational viability” (p. 47), one of the paradoxes inherent in Title I’s implementation.

Aside from allocating some federal dollars to schools, Title I initially did little to upset local control of schools. Again, this maintenance of the status quo was by design. Schools received resources but not much direction in how to use them, except that they must be spent on programs for poor children. States and districts were left to choose what forms those programs would take, in large part because they would tolerate no further intervention. In the early years schools were not even asked how funds were spent, since to ask “about how localities used the federal aid would have violated both inside-the-Beltway views about Title I’s integrity and the power of conventional resources” (p. 90). Deference to state and local control continues to be a theme even in the more prescriptive era of NCLB, as witnessed by state control of what tests will be administered and what level of mastery constitutes proficiency for satisfying NCLB achievement targets.

The transition from the Title I of 1965 to today’s NCLB was a profound one, but Cohen and Moffitt do a compelling job of breaking it down into a series of smaller interrelated shifts. Large-scale studies highlighted Title I’s ineffectiveness, at least relative to what was expected of it. Policymakers questioned whether a focus on remediating basic skills would be sufficient to shore up America’s ability to compete in an increasingly technological global economy. Members of the scholarly education community began to push standards and accountability as a formula for systemic reform. The nation’s governors discovered education as a campaign issue and pushed standards-based reform at the state level. These state reforms legitimated standards and accountability proposals at the federal level, paving the way for President Clinton’s ambitious Goals 2000 and Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) agendas in 1994. The Goals 2000 and IASA focus on standards and assessments, together with a shift in public opinion toward supporting such policies, provided a springboard for President Bush to enact NCLB. My stylized accounting of this history glosses over many historical details that the book delves into, but the point is that while many people now think of NCLB as a revolution, in many ways it is another step in the progression of a policy process that started nearly 40 years prior.

NCLB’s outgrowth from earlier iterations of Title I meant that, despite the major changes it brought to education policy, it also brought with it many of the weaknesses of its predecessors. The amount of funding local districts received was small relative to what they were already spending. NCLB continued to spread resources thin by providing them to both poor and affluent districts. Unlike its earlier versions, it did attempt to address educational practice through the “highly qualified teacher” provision, but this requirement largely mimicked existing state teacher certification requirements, and, consistent with past deference to state authority, states were given the right to set guidelines for related criteria, which negated the provision’s impact. NCLB made accountability central, but it did not provide schools with the tools to meet its standards, which were not even “its” standards since again the states controlled their content, nor did it have at its disposal testing technology that practitioners and policymakers could feel confident captured their ability to meet its expectations over time. NCLB did provide a prescription for school reform when schools repeatedly failed to meet standards, but there was little evidence that this prescription was connected to any knowledge about how to improve schools. In short, the design deficiencies of NCLB, like those of the original Title I, make an expectation of sweeping positive effects seem naïve.

The authors use the final chapter of the book to evaluate the current state of federal education policy (e.g., the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Race to the Top, and the coming NCLB reauthorization) and make some suggestions about how these new policies might learn from the lessons of Title I. These suggestions include many—figure out how to assess teachers better, figure out how to improve school leadership—that are the focus of a good deal of research and policy attention already. Others, such as pursuing common standards, common testing regimes or common curricula, are only beginning to be discussed widely. This final chapter provides a thought-provoking examination of some of the justifications for such departures from current policy and possible roadmaps for getting there.

To conclude, while I would prefer a different subtitle—Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? is a question whose answer is so obviously “no” that it might as well be rhetorical, and it does not describe what the book is about anyway—The Ordeal of Equality is a thorough analysis of perhaps the most significant stream of federal education policies. The book is useful for readers interested in Title I, but the implications are much broader. The themes it draws out of Title I’s evolution are important for understanding the American educational policy process in general, including educational federalism, policy design, and policy implementation. Education reformers would do well to learn the lessons it offers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 08, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15931, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:11:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Jason Grissom
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    JASON A. GRISSOM is an Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. His research interests include education governance, administration, and policy. Currently he is co-leading a longitudinal study of school leadership development and practice in several large, urban school districts. Recent publications include “Investing in Administrator Efficacy: An Examination of Professional Development as a Tool for Enhancing Principal Effectiveness” (forthcoming, American Journal of Education), “Can Good Principals Keep Teachers in Disadvantaged Schools? Linking Principal Effectiveness to Teacher Satisfaction and Turnover in Hard-to-Staff Environments” (forthcoming, Teachers College Record), and “The Determinants of Conflict on Governing Boards in Public Organizations: The Case of California School Boards” (forthcoming, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory).
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