The Trillion-Dollar Sham in Federal Remedial Education

by Regna Lee Wood
NRRF Director of Statistical Research
The National Right to Read Foundation, December 1998

Regna Lee Wood is Director of Statistical Research for The National Right to Read Foundation. Her work has appeared in National Review, Destiny, Network News & Views, a publication of the Hudson Institute, and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) Perspective. Dr. John Silber, Boston University Chancellor, says she is “…a major national resource because of her brilliant analyses of illiteracy…”

Oklahoma taxpayers will provide nearly 600 million in local, state, and federal tax dollars this year for two unsuccessful remedial education programs in which nearly 40 percent of Oklahoma’s public-school students are now enrolled. Both programs depend on the continuing failure of instructors to teach many normal children to read.

Meanwhile, some state leaders are pushing a rigorous core-subject high-school curriculum, even though there aren’t enough qualified teachers to teach it or pupils to learn it. Both cart-before-the-horse endeavors fail to see that reading comes first. Until we teach kindergartners and first-graders to match spoken sounds with the letters that spell them, Oklahoma’s education woes will persist.

Trillion-dollar remedial education shams

Fearing that U.S. Department of Education testing would lead to a national relative-values school curriculum, Congressional conservatives recently defeated President Clinton’s proposed “world class” 4th and 8th grade reading and math exams. Though 1992 and 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores indicated that three-fourths of the nation’s 4th and 8th grade students could not even read a world-class test, the debate over who should design and administer these tests to one out of four students in those grades was prolonged.

Others, believing that national unions and federal bureaus are major reasons for America’s public school failures, have decided to fight the influence of both with competition. Hence, they promote school choice with tax vouchers. They collect millions in private funds to send a few thousand inner-city children to private schools. In several states they can and do form charter schools — public schools with fewer government controls. Thousands teach over one million children at home.

Meanwhile, everything associated with the nation’s two largest K-12 public school programs — cost, size, and federal control — has exploded. Title I or Chapter I remedial reading, math, and language classes for the economically “disadvantaged” and Special Education remedial reading, math, and language programs for the physically, mentally, and emotionally “disabled” have grown like monsters in a horror movie.

In 10 years, the cost and enrollment for Title or Chapter I remedial classes have more than doubled. Annual Title I expenses — paid largely with federal dollars — have soared from $4 billion in 1988 to an estimated $10 billion in 1998. Title I enrollment has ballooned from 5 million participants in 1988 to 10.5 million participants in 1998.

The numbers of Title I employees have increased from 150,000 in 1988 to an estimated 350,000 in 1998. About half are teachers; nearly half are teacher aides; and others are professional support personnel.

In just five years, the numbers of school-wide Title I schools have zoomed from 2,773 in 1993 to 14,000 in 1997 to an estimated 16,000 in 1998. About one in five of the nation’s public schools are now school-wide Title I schools. In big-city districts nearly all schools can be exclusively Title I because Congress changed the requirements for “school-wide Title I” designation. Before 1994, three-fourths of the children in such schools were from low-income families. Today only half of the children in school-wide Title I schools must be economically disadvantaged.

Since 1988, the annual cost of implementing IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act) with Special Education remedial programs has nearly tripled — from $19 billion in 1988 to an estimated $55 billion in 1998. State and local school districts pay 92 percent of these expenses.

Special Education school enrollment has climbed from 4.3 million in 1988 to 5.5 million in 1998. According to definitions in the IDEA legislation, just one million have handicaps defined as physical or mental disabilities. And 4.5 million with normal sight, hearing, and intelligence are in learning disability, language impairment or emotional disturbance categories.

The numbers of Special Education employees have increased from 500,000 in 1988 to 800,000 in 1997 to an estimated 850,000 in 1998. About half are teachers, a fourth are teacher aides, and a fourth are professional support personnel — psychologists, therapists, audiologists, etc.

In short, an incredible remedial education army of 1.2 million Title I and Special Education teachers, aides, and professional supporters — approaching the size of the U. S. Armed Forces — is trying to teach remedial reading, math, and language arts to 16 million supposedly disadvantaged and disabled students, who comprise 36 percent of the nation’s 45 million public students. And though the 1998 price for their remediation services will probably exceed $65 billion, they are not succeeding and they have never succeeded.

A final and an interim report on two large Congressionally mandated Title I studies, both published by the U.S. Department of Education in 1993, reached the same conclusions:

Title I remedial reading, math, and language arts instruction has not given children with low-income parents the academic advantages that children with more affluent parents receive.
The disparity in academic performance between children from high-income and low-income families increases the longer the disadvantaged students stay in Title I classes.
The level of educational achievement for disadvantaged children in Title I classes and disadvantaged children not in Title I classes is the same.
The final report is called Reinventing Chapter I because present Chapter I or Title I procedures have failed. The interim report, called Prospects: The Congressionally Mandated Study of Educational Growth and Opportunity, is a seven-year study of 40,000 Title I students in three grades.

Interim reports on a Congressionally commissioned ten-year school exit survey, called the National Longitudinal Transitional Study of Special Education Students (NLTS), are even more alarming. NLTS findings and exit information published in the 15th and 16th Annual Reports to Congress on the Implementation of IDEA reveal these troubling facts:

An astonishing 95 percent of the IDEA enrollees stay in Special Education remedial programs until they leave school. Only 7.5 percent of the Special Education students graduate with regular diplomas, and 40 percent drop out of high school.
Emotionally-disturbed Special Education students have the worst record: 6 percent graduate, 55 percent drop out, 50 percent are arrested within two years after leaving school, and 60 percent are arrested within three to five years after leaving school.
Welfare workers, prison and parole officers, employers of the handicapped, parents or guardians, and a few institutional personnel are supervising four out of five former Special Education students three to five years after they leave school. Though 80 percent of the Special Education participants have no physical or mental handicaps, only 20 percent are fully independent.
Yet in spite of these grim student performance records, Congress has reauthorized these distressing programs with nearly unanimous votes every four to six years since 1965. In 1988, only one in the House and one in the Senate objected to Title I reauthorization. In 1997, only four out of 535 in Congress declined to reauthorize IDEA Special Education.

Such irrational votes are incomprehensible. Also puzzling is the strange willingness of state legislatures and school boards to pay an astounding $460 billion out of $500 billion spent on Special Education since 1975, apparently without questioning participants and personnel or auditing the bankrupting Special Education expenditures.

If they had been just slightly curious, perhaps one legislator or one school board member in some state might have discovered the awful truth. The major job security for legions of Special Education and Title I remedial teachers and their support personnel is the continuing failure of regular instructors to teach millions of normal children to read.

If regular instructors succeed in teaching normal first-graders to match spoken sounds with letters that spell those sounds — as we know they did until the mid-1930s (because millions of military tests prove it) — then 15 million with no physical or mental handicaps, of the current 16 million Special Education and Title I remedial students, would be in standard classes doing grade-level assignments in a traditional curriculum. Obviously remedial teachers are unnecessary if regular teachers do their jobs. As Dr. Rudolph Flesch understood in his 1955 classic Why Johnny Can’t Read, “There wouldn’t be any remedial reading classes if we started teaching reading instead of guessing in the first grade.”

Americans are paying billions of tax dollars to nearly 600,000 largely graduate-degree Title I and Special Education remedial reading and math instructors after they have paid billions of tax dollars to 600,000 bachelors-degree primary grade reading and math teachers. And they are doing this 15 years after Congressionally mandated NAEP testing proved that neither regular nor remedial reading and math teachers were succeeding.

This could be the trillion-dollar scam of the millennium if any group had intentionally committed this crime. But they didn’t.

The so-called “greedy teachers,” “godless liberals,” “right-wing bigots,” and “arrogant bureaucrats” — those usually charged with producing the worst schools in all developed and most developing countries — are paper scapegoats. The real perpetrators are the senators, representatives, school board members, foundation scholars, university deans, network commentators, and news editors. Since 1950, these decision makers have ignored overwhelming evidence of rocketing illiteracy among school children who are not poor, retarded, or physically handicapped.

When a stunned Congress learned that the U.S. Army was rejecting hundreds of thousands among Korean War military registrants with years of schooling because they couldn’t read orders, maps, or road signs, they didn’t ask school superintendents in their home districts and states why their high-school graduates couldn’t read. Instead, they chided the Defense Department for being too choosy.

In 1988, when President Reagan’s Secretary of Labor, Anne McLaughlin, declared that only 80 percent of the American workers (with an average 11 years of school attendance) could read, the announcement did not make the evening news. Apparently, the network commentators didn’t know that 90 percent of the Mexican labor force were literate.

Today, 36 percent of our public school students are doing primary lessons in Title I or Special Education remedial classes, 70 percent of our high-school students can’t read 9th grade assignments; 30 percent of our 12th graders can’t read 4th grade lessons; and 50 percent of the American citizens are disenfranchised because they can’t read propositions on ballots — or newspaper articles explaining propositions on ballots. Nevertheless, a Republican Congress and a Democrat President both think that lack of money is the greatest obstacle to a college education.

Neuroscientists, using some of the billions the 1990 Congress appropriated to see how the human brain works, discovered that brain cells do not process words or sentences by seeing them in print over and over again. They do not recognize words by the overall shape of the letters. Brain cells process words by matching spoken sounds with letters that spell those sounds. The scientist concluded that children must learn English spelling rules or they can’t read.

But for the last half-century, American children who have learned to read have done so in spite of the reading instruction they received in school. They were not taught to associate letters with spoken sounds. This is the reason the U.S. literacy rate has plunged from 97 percent in 1940 to 77 percent in 1990 and is well on the way to 70 percent in the year 2000. It’s the reason that the U.S. and Haiti may well be the only two of 40 nations in the Western Hemisphere with adult literacy rates below 70 percent by the year 2001.

It is time for the decision makers to do their homework. When they do, they will reach these conclusions:

Reading comes first. Instructors can’t teach anything to illiterate students of any age except how to read. The horse comes before the cart.
Second, the argument about reading methods is over. Flat-earth proponents had little to say after ships came back to Spain by sailing west all the way. The empirical and physiological evidence that reading students must learn to spell sounds is just as overwhelming.
Third, everyone must focus on all the carrot-and-stick ways to persuade reading teachers — whether in public or private schools, libraries, prisons, or industry — to teach beginning readers how to match sounds with letters that spell them. If they don’t, this country’s highly touted “bridge to the 21st century” will be a dead-end tunnel.
Core curriculum concerns

Oklahoma’s governor and state school superintendent, Oklahoma University’s president, seven Oklahoma State University deans, and others are currently promoting an old fashioned core-subject high-school curriculum. They want students to complete four years of English and three to four years of math, science, and social science or history before graduating.

Fine. They deserve crowns for identifying a worthy goal. But they’re mistaken in thinking that Oklahoma legislators can initiate such a curriculum by passing laws.

Laws will not produce qualified core-subject teachers. Laws won’t furnish high-school students prepared to take and pass core-subject courses.

In 1990, the Oklahoma legislature passed the highly publicized HB1017 school reform act. One HB1017 stipulation required foreign-language instruction for nearly 300,000 fifth through twelfth grade students in around 1,800 public schools.

If state legislators had looked at yearly tabulations of Oklahoma college and university degrees — published annually by the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education about two years after graduates receive them — they surely would have noticed a dearth of college-degree foreign language teachers. One graduated in 1988 and six in 1989. And maybe they would have realized that video foreign-language instruction for both students and untrained teachers would produce few bilingual high-school graduates. If so, Oklahoma legislators could have saved the state 70 to 80 million dollars.

Similarly, if core-subject boosters would look at the Regents’ degree tabulations, they would surely see the futility of legislating a “4 by 4” or “4 by 3” high-school core-subject curriculum with incredibly few qualified core-subject teachers. For 28,700 of nearly 30,000 who received education degrees in the seven years before 1996 did not major in a core subject.

These are seven-year Oklahoma education degree totals in round numbers and percentages:

50% (15,000) majored in general, preschool, elementary, secondary, and adult education.
11% (3,300) earned mostly graduate degrees for teaching Title I and Special Education remedial reading and math classes.
10% (3,000) majored in non-core subjects: music, vocation-technical, art, business, physical education, etc.
8% (2,400) earned graduate degrees in administration.
6% (1,800) earned graduate degrees required for psychologists, testing specialists, and counselors.
4% (1,300) majored in core subjects: English, math, science, social science, or history.
<1% (45) majored in a foreign language. 11% (3,300) majored in unspecified subjects. And here’s some more interesting core-subject curriculum information. In seven years, virtually all 430 science education graduates majored in "general science." Only two majored in high-school science (1 in physics, 1 in chemistry). Furthermore, seven years of degree tabulations published by the Regents do not list even one core-subject education degree for six of Oklahoma’s 12 public universities (Cameron, East Central, Langston, Oklahoma Panhandle, University of Science and Arts in Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State). Further, though over half of Oklahoma’s high-school graduates have completed the ACT core curriculum since 1993, about 37,500 of 62,400 public college freshmen (60 percent) took required no-credit remedial math, English, reading, and science courses during the 1996-97 academic year. More than half of these remediation freshmen, who made unacceptable scores on at least one ACT section, were high-school core-curriculum graduates. Also of interest: between 1991 and 1996, the numbers of Oklahoma’s black high-school students completing the ACT "4 by 3" core curriculum rose by 11 percent, yet the average ACT score for Oklahoma black students fell. Oklahoma’s four- and two-year public college graduation rates of 34 percent and 13.5 percent — versus 46 percent and 36 percent for the nation — are stunning proof that the current high-school core curriculum and college no-credit remedial courses are not the answer to Oklahoma’s grim education problems. And neither are Title I and Special Education remedial reading and math courses for 150,000 students in all grades. The U. S. Education Department reading tests show that two-thirds of the nation’s high-school students cannot read well enough to do 9th-grade lessons. Because Oklahoma ACT scores and college graduation rates are below the national average, probably two-thirds of Oklahoma’s 9th graders cannot do high-school assignments. In 1989, nearly 40 percent of Oklahoma’s high-school students were doing primary grade lessons in Title I and Special Education classes. This explains why the state has so few core-subject teachers and over 6,000 remedial reading and math teachers. These figures, along with those from Special Education and Title I, tell us that the most important core curriculum for Oklahoma is a "2 by 1" curriculum for kindergarten and first grade. This is two years of teaching children to hear, pronounce, and spell 44 English sounds in the most common ways. If beginners learn to read in two years, a grade-school core-subject curriculum will be in order. Then all normal high-school students will be able to take and pass a real secondary core-subject curriculum. ------------------------- Research Notes Enrollment: Title I - The Annual Evaluation Report of Federally Funded Educational Programs for FY 1989 gives the 1987, 1988, and 1989 Title I enrollment. The 1990, 1991, and 1992 Oklahoma School Testing Program reports give Title I enrollment for those years, as a percentage of total enrollment. The Oklahoma Office of Accountability annual reports give the 1993, 1994, and 1995 Title I enrollment as a percentage of the total enrollment. The 1997 Oklahoma Office of Accountability report (for 1996) does not mention the Title I data, though the U.S. Department of Education sent Oklahoma $85,198,000 for state Title I programs. Special Education - State-by-state Special Education enrollment counts are in the Annual Reports to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Oklahoma Office of Accountability reports Special Education enrollment as a percentage of enrollment or in numbers of teachers plus average Special Education teacher/student ratios. Teacher and teacher-plus-support-personnel counts: Title I -1987, 1988, 1989 counts are from the FY Annual Evaluation of Federally Funded Educational Programs. Later figures are from State Chapter I Participation and Achievement Information, 1991-1992, and State Chapter I Participation and Achievement Information, 1993-1994, edited by Westat, Inc. and published by the U.S. Department of Education. Special Education - Annual Reports to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and Oklahoma Office of Accountability (only number of teachers in 1997). Expenditures: Title I - Annual state-by-state Title I allocations in the yearly Digest of Education Statistics, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics for the U.S. Department of Education. Special Education - Annual Reports to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act gave totals plus local, state, and federal sources for 1987 and 1988. These reports also gave state-by-state federal allocations plus the federal percentage of the total national Special Education expenses for subsequent years (through 1996). The Oklahoma Department of Special Education finance office supplied the 1993 and 1995 figures.