by Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi  • IDRA Newsletter • March 1997

As the assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, I oversee the administration of almost $10 billion annually for federal education programs. It is my strong personal belief that our nation’s social and economic future, and its moral fiber, are inextricably linked to our ability to educate all children at high levels. Therefore the question of how we administer federal funds is crucial.

The Department of Education, under the strong leadership of Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, has made great strides in redesigning federal education programs to be more efficient, effective and flexible. Recent changes in past education legislation have promoted a new era of education reform, and the federal government now works in partnership with state and local education agencies. For 30 years, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has provided federal assistance to schools, communities and children in need. Established in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and now operating at funding level of about $11 billion annually, ESEA continues to be the single largest source of federal aid to kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

Thirty years of sustained federal commitment under the ESEA has indeed changed the face of US education. Title I has helped raise the academic achievement of millions of disadvantaged children, particularly in basic skills. The Safe and Drug-Free Schools program has increased public awareness about the role of schools in curbing violence and combating illegal drug use. Most schools now have curricula and policies to prevent violence and drug abuse. The Title II Eisenhower Professional Development program has familiarized thousands of classroom teachers with new knowledge and instructional techniques in mathematics, science and other critical subjects. Title VII Bilingual Education has helped generations of children with limited English proficiency learn English and succeed in school. Other ESEA programs have yielded a host of benefits for students, teachers and parents that would have been difficult to realize without federal support.

Consistent with their categorical nature and equity focus, ESEA programs have concentrated mainly on assisting specific groups of children and accomplishing special objectives, rather than focusing on addressing the general education program in local schools. At times, however, this categorical approach has unintentionally resulted in federally funded programs operating in isolation from one another and in services being delivered apart from the regular instructional program of the school – even in spite of recent endeavors to change perceptions and practices.

The 1994 passage of the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) signaled a new era for ESEA. This revised ESEA emphasizes high expectations for all children, a schoolwide focus for improvement efforts and stronger partnerships among schools, parents and communities. The revised ESEA also calls upon states and communities to integrate federal programs with each other and with state and local programs, while keeping many of the law’s special emphases and its focus on children considered to be at-risk. Program integration is emphasized not for its own sake, but because integrated programs have a better chance of raising achievement for all students, particularly children considered to be at-risk. When federal, state and local programs are working toward the same goals, they create a synergy that can produce greater results for students than programs operating in isolation. Other possible benefits of integration are improved efficiency and lower administrative costs.

The law contains a number of strategies that make it easier for states and communities to plan programs around a common vision and integrate them with each other: Schoolwide Programs, a key amendment, make it possible for more high-poverty schools to operate schoolwide programs. Under prior law, schools could conduct schoolwide programs only if at least 75 percent of the children enrolled in the school or residing in the attendance area came from low-income families. The IASA lowered the poverty threshold for schoolwide eligibility to 60 percent for school year 1995-96 and to 50 percent for subsequent years, making an additional 12,000 schools eligible to operate schoolwide programs. Currently, there are about 8,500 schoolwide programs, an 87 percent increase from 1994-95.

Buildings with schoolwide programs can use their Title I funds – as well as the vast majority of their other federal education funds and their state and local funding – to benefit all children in the school. They do not have to document separately the use of federal funds, as long as their activities upgrade the school’s overall education program and meet the intent and purposes of each of the federal programs included. A school with a schoolwide program must conduct a needs assessment of the entire school. The school also must develop a comprehensive schoolwide plan that incorporates components of the schoolwide program and that describes how the school will use federal, state and local resources to implement these components. The comprehensive plan can be an excellent tool for encouraging educators to design programs around the needs of their students rather than administrative demands.

The revised ESEA permits states to develop a single consolidated plan covering several ESEA programs and federal vocational education grants, instead of separate plans for each program. So far, 49 states have submitted consolidated plans to the US Department of Education. The plans describe each state’s general goals for all students and its strategies for designing and integrating ESEA programs to further these goals. Although consolidated planning does not relieve states of federal program requirements, it does enable them to plan how to use all of their federal funds to support overall state goals. A similar ESEA provision allows local educational agencies to submit a single consolidated plan to their states.

The law also permits states to consolidate funds for state administration received under various ESEA programs and Goals 2000, as long as the majority of their administrative resources comes from non-federal sources. A similar provision authorizes local educational agencies, with state approval, to consolidate their local administrative funds from ESEA programs. These provisions make cross-program planning much easier.

Working in tandem with IASA is the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Both pieces of legislation have distinct but connected roles to play in supporting school improvement. Goals 2000 can help states and school districts lay the foundations of reform: establishing state and local content and performance standards, designing a system of assessments and accountability to determine whether or not children are reaching the standards, planning how to use and coordinate available resources, and developing strategies to actively involve parents, teachers and community members in school reform.

While both the re-authorized ESEA and Goals 2000 contribute to the bottom-line goal of increased learning for all students, the greatest potential for systemic reform ultimately comes from using all fiscal resources in an integrated, coordinated way. As a former education commissioner, superintendent, principal and teacher, I know firsthand the value and power of using such resources in an integrated manner. States and school districts today have unprecedented flexibility when using federal education dollars to promote comprehensive school reform. Both Goals 2000 and ESEA ask states and communities to start with their own visions of educational success, then identify the programs that will make it possible to achieve that vision – rather than starting with program requirements and working backwards.

Looking at the needs of the whole school and the whole student is a more sensible and educationally sound approach than designing instruction solely to fit the parameters of funded programs. I am proud to be involved in the department’s ongoing efforts to give state and local education agencies the power and authority to make positive changes in their schools and communities.

Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the US Department of Education. He has worked in education for 23 years to improve teaching and learning for all young people. This includes his service as a professor at the University of Connecticut, as Connecticut’s commissioner of education, as president of Wheelock College in Boston, as superintendent of the New Haven school system, as a principal and as a science teacher.

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]