38 minute read

Compensatory Education


Geoffrey D. Borman

Fernando Reimers


The detrimental effects of poverty on children's academic outcomes and general well being are well documented. Children who grow up in poverty suffer higher incidences of adverse physical health, developmental delays, and emotional and behavioral problems than children from more affluent families. In school, children and adolescents living in poverty are more likely to repeat a grade, to be expelled or suspended, to achieve low test scores, and to drop out of high school. Though more research is needed to understand many of the dynamics and general effects of poverty, there is also evidence suggesting that the depth, duration, and timing of poverty are important considerations. Specifically, children who live in extreme poverty or who live below the poverty line for multiple years seem to suffer the worst outcomes. The impact of poverty during the preschool and early school years also appears to be more deleterious than the effects of poverty in later years.

About one in five children in the United States has the misfortune of living in a family whose income is below the official poverty threshold. In general, these families have trouble meeting basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Household resources, including engaging toys, books, and computers–important for children's cognitive development–are also limited. Because of the tight connection between neighborhoods and schools in the United States, poor children tend to be served by schools that offer fewer resources for learning, provide fewer and less challenging opportunities to learn, and are less inviting and friendly places than schools serving children from more affluent communities. These individual, family, neighborhood, and school effects that are associated with poverty conspire to place children at considerable risk for failing in school and in life in general.


The idea behind compensatory education is to, in a sense, "compensate" for these disadvantages by expanding and improving the educational programs offered to children living in poverty. The largest and most celebrated compensatory education programs grew out of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" in the early 1960s. During an era in which civil rights and desegregation were of profound national significance, the advent of compensatory education programs served as an unprecedented symbol of the federal commitment to equality of educational opportunity. In the nineteenth century, the educator Horace Mann had expressed the notion that one of the classic American ideals for education was that it be the "great equalizer," or "balance wheel of the social machinery." Similarly, President Johnson, a former school teacher, held the belief that if poor children were provided a higher quality education they could attain the same high levels of educational and occupational outcomes as their more advantaged counterparts and, ultimately, could escape the vicious cycle of poverty.

Although state governments have primary responsibility for elementary and secondary education in the United States, the federal government provides support in a few notable areas. Federal support for compensatory education grew out of two legislative acts: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act established Title I and the Economic Opportunity Act established the Head Start program. Of the total dollar amount spent nationwide on education at all levels, 93 percent comes from state, local, and private sources and about 7 percent comes from federal revenues. That federal investment represents only about 2 percent of the federal government's overall budget. Though this funding level seems slight, a substantial portion of these funds has continued to be targeted on a single mission: ensuring equal access to high-quality education across the nation. President Johnson's War on Poverty surely has lost some of its initial momentum. The federal concern for the education of poor children, though, has remained compelling enough to support the continued funding and commitment to compensatory education policies from the mid-1960s to the early twenty-first century.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

The central educational component of President Johnson's "Great Society" programs was put into law by Congress as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. Title I of the law provided approximately five-sixths of the total funds authorized under the ESEA legislation. Serving more than 10 million children in nearly 50,000 schools, and funded at nearly $9 billion during fiscal year 2001, Title I has remained as the federal government's largest single investment in America's schools. Title I was mandated "to provide financial assistance to … local educational agencies serving areas with concentrations of children from low-income families to expand and improve their educational programs by various means … which contribute particularly to meeting the special educational needs of educationally deprived children" (Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, 79 Stat. 27, 27). Title I funds may be used to upgrade the educational programs of children from preschool through high school, but most of the students served are from elementary schools. The overall goal of Title I is to help close the achievement gap separating economically disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.

In the early twenty-first century, Title I serves eligible schools and students in diverse ways. Indeed, Geoffrey Borman and Jerome D'Agostino pointed out that Title I is better thought of as a funding mechanism rather than a coherent educational program or set of educational practices. Throughout much of the history of Title I, it has operated as a supplemental targeted, or categorical, program. Specifically, the funds allocated under Title I are provided to schools in order to supplement the regular school program and to target the needs of a certain category of students. Although Title I funds are distributed to schools based on the percentage of poor children they serve, the services within schools traditionally have been targeted toward the most "educationally disadvantaged" students. That is, targeted Title I programs must be established to serve low-achieving students (e.g., more than one-half grade equivalent below grade level or below the thirty-fifth national percentile) attending schools with a significant percentage of children whose families are below the poverty line.

Early years. The early years of Title I, during the late 1960s, resulted in poor implementation and large-scale violations in the operation of the program. These outcomes were due to several factors. First, the original program mandates were ambiguous concerning the proper and improper uses of the federal money, and the guidelines and intent of the law were open to varying interpretations. Some local school system officials originally thought of Title I as a general aid fund, which was labeled as a program for the disadvantaged for diplomatic and political reasons only. Second, in 1965 the educational knowledge base for developing effective compensatory education programs was extremely limited. The vast majority of local administrators and teachers had no experience developing, implementing, or teaching compensatory programs. Third, although the federal money provided localities an incentive to improve education for the disadvantaged, a viable intergovernmental compliance system was not in place. Without effective regulation, the receipt of funds did not depend on meeting the letter or the spirit of the law. Responding to local self-interests, and utilizing Title I dollars for established general aid policies, was an easier option than the new and more complicated task of implementing effective educational programs for poor, low-achieving students.

Although federal policymakers were hesitant to restrict local control, these early results, combined with growing pressures exerted by local poverty and community action groups, prompted the U.S. Office of Education to reconsider the legislative and administrative structure of Title I. During the 1970s, Congress and the U.S. Office of Education established more prescriptive regulations related to how schools and students should be selected to receive services, the specific content of programs, and program evaluation, among other things. In addition, the Office of Education made efforts to recover misallocated funds from several states, and warned all states and localities that future mismanagement would not be tolerated. Funded in part by federal dollars, larger and more specialized state and district bureaucracies emerged to monitor local compliance. In turn, state and local compliance was confirmed through periodic site visits and program audits by the U.S. Office of Education and by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Delivering Title I to local schools. One of the most important regulations affecting program delivery has been the provision that the compensatory services provided through Title I must supplement, not supplant, the regular educational programs provided to eligible students. In case of program audits, and to clearly account for the federal money, educators and administrators must be able to show that the targeted Title I program is actually providing something "extra," and that it is not merely replacing services that the students would have received through the regular school program. This regulation led to widespread use of the "pullout model" as a means for delivering supplemental compensatory services to eligible Title I students. Most often, the students who qualify for services are removed, or "pulled out," from their regular classrooms for thirty to forty minutes of remedial instruction in reading and math. This arrangement has the advantage of making it clear that the funds are providing something separate from the regular school program, as special teachers, books, and other materials are clearly allocated only to the pulled-out Title I students and not their regular classroom peers. Through the 1970s, 1980s, and much of the 1990s, about three of four Title I schools used the pullout model to deliver supplemental services.

After the initial problems with implementation in the 1960s and early 1970s, the tighter regulations began to have their desired effect. As the 1970s progressed, the services were delivered to the children targeted by the law. The implementation of Title I became a cooperative concern and professional responsibility of local, state, and federal administrators. In addition, Paul Peterson and his colleagues noted that Title I had inspired greater local concern for, and attention to, the educational needs of the children of poverty. In marked contrast to the first decade of the program, during the later half of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s the specific legislative intents, and the desired hortatory effects, were achieved on a far more consistent basis.

After this basic standard of implementation was achieved, during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, new legislation contained in the Hawkins-Stafford Amendments of 1988, the Improving America's Schools Act (IASA) of 1994, and other laws focused on reforming and improving the educational services offered in Title I schools. This new legislation granted schools greater freedom in designing and implementing effective programs, but also included new provisions that held them accountable for improved student outcomes and designated a program improvement process for those schools with poor or declining performance. Rather than the popular but fragmented pullout programs, the law encouraged educators to establish more frequent and regular coordination between the Title I program and the regular school program. Also, rather than targeting only low-achieving students, all schools serving very high proportions of poor children became eligible to use their Title I funds for schoolwide projects designed to upgrade the school as a whole. Instead of developing fiscal and procedural accountability, Title I policymakers have attempted to develop laws encouraging, and to some degree mandating, accountability for educational reform and improvement.

The Title I of the twenty-first century offers great promise for upgrading the educational opportunities of the nation's poor children. The emphasis is on high academic standards with aligned curriculum, assessment, and professional development. Title I's focus is on helping disadvantaged students meet the same high standards expected of all children. As part of its emphasis on high standards, the new law requires Title I funds to be used in new ways. For instance, schools are encouraged to extend learning time–before school, after school, and during the summer months–rather than pulling children out of their regular classrooms. Instructional programs support higher-order thinking skills rather than rote learning, accelerated curricula rather than remediation, and the use of research-proven strategies rather than services designed to satisfy program audits. These new policies, along with the federal government's increasing support of whole-school reform, are designed to transform Title I from a separate system of remedial teachers, materials, and assessments to an integral component of standards-based, whole-school reform and improvement.

Head Start

In 1964 the federal government convened a panel of child development experts to develop a program that would help communities meet the special needs of preschool children living in poverty. The recommendations of that panel became the blueprint for project Head Start. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 helped initiate the War on Poverty on three fronts by introducing: the Job Corps program to provide education and training for employment; Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic Peace Corps program; and Community Action Programs to empower community planning and administration of their own assistance programs for the poor. As part of the Community Action Programs initiative, Head Start was born as an eight-week summer program in 1965, but was quickly converted to the more comprehensive nine-month program that it is in the early twenty-first century.

Recruiting preschoolers, primarily aged three and four, Head Start was designed to help break the "cycle of poverty" by providing young children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs. Similar to Title I, the educational services provided through Head Start are diverse. There is no single, standardized educational curriculum that every program uses. From the beginning, Head Start program providers have been granted considerable flexibility in planning educational offerings that meet the specific needs of the children and parents within the community. The curricula are designed to improve not only the cognitive abilities of young children, but also their physical well being, social skills, and self-image. In addition to services focused on education and early childhood development, Head Start grantee and delegate agencies offer a broad array of medical, dental, mental health, nutritional, and parent involvement programs.

Goals. As noted by Edward Zigler and Jeanette Valentine, the following seven goals set forth by the founders of Head Start in 1965 have remained as the basis for the program's mission and values.

  • Improving the child's physical health and physical abilities
  • Helping the emotional and social development of the child by encouraging self-confidence, spontaneity, curiosity, and self-discipline
  • Improving the child's mental processes and skills, with particular attention to conceptual and verbal skills
  • Establishing patterns and expectations of success for the child that will create a climate of confidence for future learning efforts
  • Increasing the child's capacity to relate positively to family members and others, while at the same time strengthening the family's ability to relate positively to the child and his problems
  • Developing in the child and his family a responsible attitude toward society, and encouraging society to work with the poor in solving their problems
  • Increasing the sense of dignity and self-worth within the child and his family

In addition to the strong focus on comprehensive services for preschoolers, Head Start has served as a community empowerment initiative for the parents and community members who live in the impoverished areas that are served by programs. Believing that children develop in the context of their families, culture, and communities, Head Start services are family centered and community based. Rather than passive recipients of services, Head Start casts economically disadvantaged families as active, respected participants and decision makers who help plan and run their own programs. In contrast to Title I, which allocates nearly all of its resources to state and local school systems, Head Start programs are operated by a diverse collection of approximately 2,000 community-based organizations. Grantees include universities, community health centers, tribal governments, city and county governments, school districts, community action agencies, and other for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

During fiscal year 2000, the program served more than 800,000 low-income children and their families at over 18,000 centers with an average per-child cost of nearly $6,000. During fiscal year 2001, Head Start allocations exceeded $6 billion. Although these funding levels still do not provide services for all eligible children and families, the level and quality of services clearly compare favorably to those offered during the hasty beginnings of Head Start in 1965.

Performance Standards. Starting the program so quickly and ambitiously may have led the program managers to ignore quality controls during Head Start's early years. Indeed, it was not until 1975 that the Head Start Program Performance Standards were fully implemented. During the 1970s and 1980s, funding cutbacks and inflation, combined with increasing demands for services, further exacerbated problems regarding the quality of services. In 1990 Congress passed the Head Start Expansion and Quality Improvement Act, which, for the first time in the program's history, made a significant commitment to addressing issues of program quality. The act mandated that 10 percent of all appropriations for 1991 be devoted to program improvement rather than expansion and that 25 percent of all new funding in subsequent years be set aside for the same purpose.

Since the 1990s, Head Start programs have placed more emphasis on helping children meet specific academic performance standards, employing well-prepared teachers, and improving the overall quality of the interactions between staff and children and parents. This progress is similar to the story of Title I. In both cases, during the early years of the program the primary concern was simply ensuring eligible children's access to the services. As the years have gone by, though, new legislation and new efforts by those who actually implement and operate the programs have stressed the overall reform and improvement of compensatory education.

Evaluation of Effectiveness

The Title I and Head Start compensatory education programs have come a long way, but neither has reached its full potential. Title I has evolved from an ineffectual, poorly implemented program to one that is relatively well implemented, modestly effective, but in need of further improvement. Intergovernmental conflict, poor implementation, and a lack of an achievement effect marked the first stage of the program. A second stage, during the 1970s and 1980s, was marked by the development of increasingly specific program implementation and accountability standards, federal and local cooperation, improved implementation, and growing, but modest, program effects. During the late 1980s and during the 1990s, changes in the Title I legislation stressed reform and improvement but, aside from some tinkering around the edges, the administration and operation of Title I remained fairly stable, and the program's effects remained essentially unchanged. In the twenty-first century, a new stage of the program's evolution has emerged; one in which widespread implementation of research-proven programs and practices is increasingly regarded as the key to improving the effectiveness of Title I.

Borman, Samuel Stringfield, and Robert Slavin pointed out that researchers, policymakers, and politicians have disagreed about the effectiveness and overall merits of Title I. Most seem to agree, though, that Title I has not fulfilled its original expectation: to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers. Given the rather modest level of funding the program provides, though, it may have been naive to have ever thought that Title I, alone, could close the gap. The results from Title I research also appear to show that without the program the children served since 1965 would have fallen further behind academically.

Some of the most exciting research evidence related to Head Start has suggested that if early childhood programs begin early enough, during the preschool years or even during infancy, children may realize lasting benefits through school and into adulthood. Indeed, a long-term experimental research project conducted by Lawrence Schweinhart and colleagues on the Perry Preschool program, which operated during the early 1960s in Ypsilanti, Michigan, has documented sustained effects on the participants through the age of 27 on diverse outcomes including: arrest rates; earnings and economic status; and educational performance. Though Perry Preschool was not a Head Start program, and was funded at a level that was approximately twice as high as a typical Head Start program, the results from this study have been held up as examples of the effects that high-quality early childhood programs can have on participants' outcomes.

The results from Head Start evaluations have been less compelling, but a review of the well-designed evaluations showed that the program has been successful in meeting many of its objectives, including strong short-term effects on participants' cognitive outcomes. Contrary to the findings for Perry Preschool, most long-term studies of Head Start participants have shown a "fade-out" of the initial program effects. Craig Ramey and Sharon Ramey (1998) indicated, though, that no developmental theory is based on the assumption that positive early learning experiences are alone sufficient to ensure that children perform well throughout their lives. Despite the early optimism of some researchers and policymakers, it is not likely that Head Start, or any other preschool program, could be the educational equivalent to an early inoculation, which provides a child with protection for a lifetime all in one early dose.

Indeed, neither Title I or Head Start may ever serve as the "great equalizer" that President Johnson had envisioned. To compensate for poor schools, suboptimal health care, poverty, and a variety of other contextual conditions known to have adverse effects on students' development, more of a commitment than one or two isolated federal compensatory educational programs is needed. In the history of both programs, neither has had sufficient funding to provide services to all eligible children. To the millions of children that Title I and Head Start have served, though, it has made important differences in their lives, their families' lives, and in their schools.


BORMAN, GEOFFREY D. 2000. "Title I: The Evolving Research Base." Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk 5:27–45.

BORMAN, GEOFFREY D., and D'AGOSTINO, JEROMEV. 1996. "Title I and Student Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of Federal Evaluation Results." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 18:309–326.

BORMAN, GEOFFREY D.; STRINGFIELD, SAMUEL C.; and SLAVIN, ROBERT E., eds. 2001. Title I: Compensatory Education at the Crossroads. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

BROOKS-GUNN, JEANNE, and DUNCAN, GREG J. 1997. "The Effects of Poverty on Children." The Future of Children 7 (2):55–71.

McKEY, RUTH H., et al. 1985. The Impact of Head Start on Children, Family, and Communities: Final Report of the Head Start Evaluation, Synthesis, and Utilization Report. Washington, DC:U.S. Government Printing Office.

PETERSON, PAUL E.; RABE, BARRY G.; and WONG, KENNETH W. 1986. When Federalism Works. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

RAMEY, CRAIG T., and RAMEY, SHARON L. 1998. "Early Intervention and Early Experience." American Psychologist 53:109–120.

SCHWEINHART, LAWRENCE J.; BARNES, HELEN V.; and WEIKART, DAVID P. 1993. Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 27. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope.

ZIGLER, EDWARD, and VALENTINE, JEANNETE, eds.1979. Project Head Start: A Legacy of the War on Poverty. New York: Free Press/Macmillan.


Questions that have puzzled education scholars, policymakers, and social reformers since the 1960s are the following: Do schools reproduce social stratification? Do they enable social mobility? Can schools help poor children learn at hight levels? Do deliberate attempts to reform education policy influence school life?

Theoretical and Historical Context

Whether education policy can change the distribution of educational opportunity depends on the context of schools and of the students they serve. Comparative analysis shows that school quality is more significant in helping disadvantaged children learn. More privileged children, whose parents have higher levels of schooling, often learn much from them. Hence, the potential of education policy to influence schools is greater in marginalized schools. This entry discusses the results of policies aimed at expanding the learning chances of poor and marginalized children in Latin America during the 1990s.

It is fitting to study the potential of policies aimed at improving educational opportunity for the poor in Latin America. During the twentieth century, Latin America experienced a dramatic educational expansion, as did most developing regions. This expansion allowed for intergenerational education mobility: social differences were no longer expressed in terms of access to only the lower levels of schooling, but rather as social differences in the quality of education, as most of the expansion was possible in fragile institutions of insufficient quality to enable the newly incorporated groups to succeed academically. This in turn transferred preexisting social differences to differences in the likelihood to successfully complete the lower levels of education and therefore to access secondary and tertiary education. With the expansion of public education many of the dominant groups transferred their children to private institutions, hence contributing to further differentiation and stratification of schools.

In spite of the significant educational expansion of the twentieth century much inequality is still reproduced across generations in terms of the lower-education chances for the children of the poor. Low-income groups are the last to access education at any given level, are largely excluded from higher education, and also to a great extent from secondary education and preschool education. Most of those who are still excluded from primary education come from the poorest families. For children of a given education level, disparities exist among schools in per pupil expenditures, in the levels of education of their teachers, in the amount of instructional time they receive, and in the instructional resources to which they have access. These disparities also mirror the inequalities of origin between the children of the poor and the affluent. Low-income children are more likely to be assigned to poorly endowed schools, with less-experienced teachers who are in school fewer hours with the consequent less time on task than their higher-income counterparts.

During the 1980s the region faced a series of economic shocks resulting from a debt crisis and ensuing programs of economic adjustment that negatively affected the already fragile public education systems. These and related changes in the delivery of social services and in economic conditions increased poverty and inequality. In the early 1990s political elites focused on the need to reduce poverty as a way to reduce and prevent social conflict and violence, and to enhance the ability to govern increasingly unstable societies. One of the strategies to reduce poverty was to target resources to improve educational opportunity for the children of the poor.

Three Types of Compensatory Policies in Latin America

Compensatory policies seek to close the gaps in learning opportunities between children of the poor and the affluent. According to the way compensation is interpreted, policies and programs that seek to foster equal educational opportunity are of three kinds. A first group of compensatory policies includes those that aim to equalize the distribution of educational inputs financed publicly. The objective is to close the input gap between the school environments attended by the poor and the affluent. These include the following: (1) more equitable funding of schools such as the financing reforms implemented in the 1990s in Brazil that sought to close the gap in per pupil spending across schools; (2) those that aim to increase access to a given education level by building more schools, hiring more teachers, or developing alternative modalities to more effectively reach particular groups such as the use of TV-based secondary education in rural areas in Mexico (telesecundaria), the use of community-based modalities of education to offer education to multiage groups in remote rural communities in Mexico (postprimaria rural), or the program to expand access to preschool and primary education in rural areas in El Salvador (EDUCO); and (3) those that try to provide schools attended by low-income children with minimum instructional resources commonly available to the affluent such as textbooks, school libraries, and training for teachers. Examples include the program to overcome educational backwardness in Mexico (Pare); the Escuela Nueva program in Colombia to enhance the quality of rural schools; and the program to enhance the quality of the schools with lowest levels of student achievement, the P900 program in Chile (which took its name from targeting the 900 poorest primary schools, representing 10% of the total).

The policies to equalize the distribution of inputs followed in Chile included a new teaching statute that gave salary incentives to teachers working in marginalized areas; instituting programs to improve the quality of the most vulnerable schools at the primary and secondary level, and programs for at-risk children (e.g., the school health program and summer camp programs); and teacher incentives for after-school programs.

In Mexico compensatory programs expanded from a small program that targeted 100 schools in the early 1990s, to coverage of 46 percent of all public schools in 1999. The objective of the programs was to improve the quality of primary education and expand access to preprimary and primary education through the provision of infrastructure, training, materials, and incentives to teachers and supervisors. Starting in 1998, coverage of the programs included lower secondary education.

A second group of compensatory policies includes those that aim to reorient the utilization of public resources to equalize the distribution of educational opportunities understood as outputs. Some call these policies positive discrimination. These policies recognize that the outcomes of schools reflect the contributions of school and family resources; therefore, the purpose of compensation is to offset the greater opportunities some children receive from home resources. For example, success in the first grade of primary school is a function both of what goes on during that year, but also of the conditions of health and nutrition of children prior to entering first grade, and of the cognitive, emotional, and social stimulation received in early childhood. Consequently equality of treatment in school during the first grade would most likely not lead to equality of learning outcomes for children from different social backgrounds. Equality of outcomes would require extra resources and attention to low-income children both during early childhood and in first grade. Similarly, the "opportunity cost" of staying in school varies for children of different social backgrounds; therefore, achieving equal opportunity to attain the same levels of schooling requires interventions that appropriately cover those opportunity costs (e.g., scholarships for low-income students that cover the direct and indirect costs of participation in school). An example of this policy is the scholarship program to support school attendance of low-income children in Mexico (Progresa) or a scholarship program for similar purposes in Brazil (Bolsa Escola). Programs of full-day school sessions for low-income children in Chile, Uruguay, and Venezuela (when the affluent attend half-day sessions) are examples of positive discrimination focused on enhancing the quality or intensity of inputs. Given the stark discrepancies between the conditions of the targeted schools and the nontargeted schools, and the relatively low level of funding of these policies, much of the so-called policies of positive discrimination in Latin America are in fact attempts to equalize the distribution of inputs. At best they are designed to close the resource gap–the levels of initial input inequality among schools–and not to endow schools of low-income children with greater resources to achieve equality of output. For example, the program of the 900 schools in Chile, and the Programa para Abatir el Rezago Educativo in Mexico, target resources and attention to schools attended by disadvantaged children to try to redress previous neglect and gaps in resources between these schools and the schools of the affluent. The same is true of the Escuela Nueva program in Colombia, which attempts to improve the quality of rural multigrade schools through teacher training and provision of instructional materials.

A third group of compensatory policies are those that support differentiated forms of treatment for low-income children in recognition of their unique needs and characteristics. The main objective of these policies is to support opportunities for relevant and meaningful learning for low-income children. The goal is not to achieve equality of learning outputs, but equality of life chances. The assumption is that the school curriculum contributes only a fraction of the cultural and social capital that the affluent acquire in life; the rest attained as a result of experiences facilitated by family, neighbors, and community. In order for the poor to have comparable opportunities to live a life that is consistent with their choices, schools need to provide more cultural and social capital and be capable of associating and accessing vertical and horizontal social networks such as personal effectiveness, and political and negotiation skills. Although equality of inputs and equality of outputs assume the equivalency of the relevance of curricular objectives for all children, this particular group of efforts does not make that assumption, and attempts instead to support curricular goals and pedagogical approaches that specifically allow low-income children to move out of poverty through individual or collective action. The purpose of these policies is to help children learn skills whose significance is contextually situated, "preparing all students to live in and contribute to a diverse society but also preparing them to recognize and work to alter the economic and social inequities of that society" (Cochran-Smith, p. 931). Examples of this approach include various forms of popular education as described by Paulo Freire and his colleagues and followers, the various modalities of education designed and supported by Fe y Alegria, the network of publicly funded schools managed by the Society of Jesus in thirteen Latin American countries, and the early-twenty-first century modality of community-based post-primary education developed in Mexico.

Effects of Compensatory Policies

Extant evaluations of compensatory policies tend to be descriptive, mostly emphasizing intended policy and short-term effects. When these reports are analytical, they focus on outcomes such as access or achievement on curriculum-based tests and adopt a "black box" approach to policy implementation, often assuming that policy output is implemented as intended. The designs employed rely on prepostcomparisons–often inappropriately disaggregating the effects of the policies being evaluated with those of other policies or changes–or on comparisons between target populations and some quasicontrol groups–often assuming learning from differences between groups, inappropriately accounting for the nonrandom selection of students to treatment schools.

Limited studies indicate that some desired outcomes (more typically access, but also achievement levels) improve with the implementation of a compensatory policy, but say nothing about whether the distance separating the beneficiaries of the policy from the rest of the children shortens or widens as a result of the policy. It is unknown whether these policies, embedded in process of general education improvement, represent marginal improvements in the educational opportunities of the poor or real reductions in the equity gaps existing in each country. Most studies concentrate on the effects of the policies, rather than on their costs. Little is known about the practical consequence of some of the effects (many of which are discussed as a percentage increase in student achievement in a test or a percentage change in access). In particular almost nothing is known about the long term effects of compensatory policies, whether they are sustained or interact with further interventions and what kinds of other long-term outcomes they have, such as access to higher levels of schooling, acquisition of skills or life chances.

Education reforms in Brazil, which through a constitutional amendment reduced the gaps in per pupil spending across schools and regions and provided scholarships to children in low-income families to attend school at least 85 percent of the school year, contributed to making access to primary school universal. By 2002, 97 percent of the children in the relevant age group were enrolled in primary school; the gains in access were significantly greater for the children from the lower income families. For the poorest income quintile primary school attendance increased from 75 percent in 1992 to 93 percent in 1999. Promotion and completion rates increased, as repetition rates declined. There is less conclusive evidence regarding the impact of these reforms on the learning outcomes of students.

Compensatory policies in Mexico expanded coverage significantly in disadvantaged areas, mostly as a result of concentrating the hiring of teachers in indigenous schools and in new modalities of primary and secondary schooling adaptable to small rural communities. Compensatory policies in Mexico have succeeded in distributing inputs (textbooks, pedagogical materials, improving infrastructure) and in providing opportunities for teacher professional development, hence improving the minimum resource base in marginalized schools.

With this improvement in basic conditions, completion rates have improved considerably more in areas targeted by compensatory policies than in other regions of the country. Teachers provide good reports of the training courses, but there is no evidence of impact of the training in teacher practice or on student achievement. Several studies consistently point out that implementation significantly transformed the programs, with negative consequences for learning opportunity.

To sum up, Mexico's experience with compensatory programs during the 1990s shows that it is possible to provide basic inputs to the most disadvantaged schools, therefore reducing inequality in inputs. Because initial inequalities are so significant, this alone is an important accomplishment of policy. Important gains can be achieved in expanding access and primary school completion by supporting the basic functioning of schools in this way. Achieving changes in learning, and therefore contributing to reduce inequality in learning outcomes, is more complicated. In part this reflects the challenges of changing teacher capacity from very low initial levels. Helping teachers become effective is much harder than providing them or their students with textbooks and notebooks. The simple program theory underlying compensatory policies is more appropriate to achieve the latter than the former. Program theory aside, the implementation challenges to developing new teaching practices are greater than to providing financial incentives for teachers to show up to school or for parents to fix up schools.

Research on the impact of compensatory policies in Chile confirms the results of the few studies available for Mexico. Most of the research follows a black box approach and fails to identify significant changes in learning outcomes, and there is limited information about program implementation. Only short-term effects are affected in a narrow set of cognitive domains, as measured by multiple option tests. Ernesto Schiefelbein and Paulina Schiefelbein question the predictive validity of these tests of the skills that matter to obtain high-paying jobs in the labor market. As in the case of Mexico the greatest challenge appears to be in documenting changes in teacher capabilities. Also as in Mexico, the existing studies document relatively short-term effects of these policies, spanning six to seven years.

A study of the impact of compensatory programs in Chile documented sustained improvement in levels of student achievement in mathematics and Spanish since 1990. The achievement gap between the highest-performing and lowest-performing schools has narrowed in fourth grade (but not in eighth grade), in line with the emphasis of the programs in the lower cycle of education. An external evaluation conducted by a Chilean center of educational research (CIDE) in 1991 confirmed the greater levels of learning for students in the program than in comparable schools (though the actual learning gains are small, only 3%). The evaluation also documented that for schools involved in the P900 program teachers became more active and provided more opportunities for student participation.

Chile's recent policies to improve equity in education, like Mexico's, suggest that it is possible to provide inputs to the most disadvantaged schools, hence reducing inequality. In spite of the emphasis of Chilean policy on positive discrimination, and its emphasis on assessing inequality in learning outcomes as a starting point for policy, there are conflicting accounts on whether the achievement gaps between the poor and the affluent had narrowed. The conflict stems in part from the kind of adjustment made to student achievement scores to make them comparable over time. It should be pointed out that these reforms were implemented in a context where total expenditures in education increased significantly, and other social policies and the results of significant economic growth resulted in reduction of the incidence of poverty, the existing studies do not discuss this context nor do they attempt to parcel out the contributions of compensatory policies from the effects of these other policy-induced changes. Judging from differences in raw student achievement scores, the gains over time for all schools are greater than the reduction in the gap between the targeted schools and the non-targeted schools: Some potentially promising avenues to enhance student learning are left unexplored in this study.

The studies of this case, as the studies of the Mexican case, highlight the importance of basic school supplies and infrastructural conditions to enable school learning. Children do better when they have textbooks, when their schools are not in disrepair, when there are school libraries, and their teachers have instructional resources. These effects should not be surprising given that these policies are targeting schools and children in great need, where a simple pencil and notebook is a great addition to facilitate learning. What these studies do not answer is how far can the expansion of such basic provision of school inputs go? It is reasonable to expect that the effects of these strategies will level off after a point. None of the existing studies in Mexico, Chile, or elsewhere focus on the question of which skills are more relevant to facilitate intergenerational social mobility and the reduction of inequality.

Although there are other studies of the effects of compensatory and equity policies in Latin America, their results are consistent with those reviewed. Studies of the impact of these policies suggest that it is easier to distribute inputs than to educate teachers, and that changes in student achievement levels are modest. In Colombia the equity policies emphasized reorienting education expenditures towards rural areas and supporting Escuela Nueva, a program to strengthen the quality of rural schools. The reorientation of expenditures has effects in expanding access to different levels. Escuela Nueva has been assessed by various studies that document children's improved performance in rural multigrade schools where teachers are appropriately trained and where learning materials are available than those students in less-endowed rural schools. The basic story of these studies is similar: it is possible to improve the learning conditions of poor children through policies that enhance learning inputs. There are great challenges in implementation, particularly when the policies involve altering instructional practices. Although effects in terms of student achievement and completion rates can be documented, the social significance of those and the long-term correlates of those effects has not been assessed. Studies are biased toward short-term effects, probably because sponsors of research are more interested in recent policies than in assessing effects over fairly long periods.

On the whole more is known about policies that attempt to reduce disparities in inputs than about policies that aim true positive discrimination or enhancement of the social and cultural capital of poor students. Regarding whether education fosters social reproduction or mobility in a context of rapid expansion and deliberate affirmative policy, the studies of compensatory policies in Mexico and Chile pose more questions than they answer. What is the practical significance of student achievement in the tests used to measure curriculum coverage? How does performance on these tests relate to life chances? How well does performance on those tests predict performance in higher levels of education? What is the influence of the compensatory programs on other social and attitudinal outcomes? What is the impact of these programs in building social capital in the communities? What are the perspectives of the intended beneficiaries of these programs? What do they think they get out of them? What do they think about how these programs should be run? Existing evaluations document relatively the short-term impact of these programs, which does not describe how effects change as the inputs they support in schools consolidate.

The high levels of social exclusion characteristic of Latin America are indicative of politics and history that have produced and maintained such inequities. Compensatory policies are formulated and implemented in a context and through mechanisms that reflect the very inequalities of origin at the root of the problem they try to correct. In what they changed and in what they failed to alter they express the tensions between the role of schools as levers of social change and as mechanisms to reproduce social stratification.


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