Comprehensive School Reform
Comprehensive school reform, or CSR, is among the waves of improvement efforts that radiated from the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, a landmark indictment of U.S. public schools. CSR focuses on improvements schoolwide, encompassing everything from curriculum to school management. According to the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, as many as 5,453 schools are receiving federal funds this year to implemented reform models.
Comprehensive school reform emerged in the early 1990s after an examination of the policy options for improving the education of low-income students indicated that the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students (then referred to as Chapter 1) could "play a much more significant role in improving education in the country’s poorest communities by encouraging school wide improvement" (Rotberg, Harvey, & Warner, 1993).
The basic principle of CSR is that instead of a fragmented approach to addressing achievement issues, schools must overhaul their systems from top to bottom. Therefore, from a CSR perspective, a rigorous curriculum program is not the only element critical to raising student-achievement levels. Rather, efficient school management, ongoing staff development, frequent student assessment, and parent involvement are also vitally important. Because the strategies of this reform movement are wide-ranging and encompass all parts of a school’s operations, CSR is also referred to as "schoolwide" or "whole school" reform.
CSR was incorporated into the 1994 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. Schools in which at least 50 percent of the student population was disadvantaged were encouraged to implement schoolwide reforms. In 1997, Congress created the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration program. CSRD required schools to address nine components in their school improvement plans to be eligible for program grants. Reform efforts under CSRD included elements such as:
- Professional development for teachers and staff;
- Greater parental and community involvement in school improvement activities;
- Identification of resources to sustain the reform effort;
- Measurable goals for student achievement; and
- Annual evaluation of both implementation and student-achievement results.
In 2001, Congress approved the No Child Left Behind" Act, a new reauthorization of the ESEA, and incorporated CSRD components directly into Title I. Under Title I, schools identified as needing improvement must pursue strategies designed to improve achievement, including comprehensive school reform. In addition to incorporating the same nine components of the previous CSRD legislation, a new key element was that schools must choose reform models based on scientific research showing effectiveness.
Schools can implement comprehensive reforms through adoption of a specific model that addresses several of the CSR components. CSR models are replicable systems designed to organize classroom practice and school structure around a particular approach to teaching and learning. Training, technical assistance, and curriculum materials are provided, depending on the model or design (National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform).
Success for All and Direct Instruction are two of the more popular comprehensive school reform models. Direct Instruction is one of ten CSR designs used by New American Schools, which also funded the development of "Roots and Wings," an offshoot of Success for All.
New American Schools, a nonprofit organization financed by private-sector donations, was formed in 1991, with the goal of developing CSR designs or models that could be easily adopted by low-performing schools. Today, NAS sponsors a total of 10 design teams providing technical assistance on a fee-for-service basis to approximately 4,000 schools using its designs (New American Schools, 2002). An independent evaluation of achievement in NAS schools revealed gains in mathematics and reading. Of the 163 schools studied where comparative data were available at the district or state level, 50 percent made gains in math, and 47 percent made gains in reading (Berends et al., 2002).
Success for All, established in 1987, has been adopted by approximately 1,500 schools. The prescribed curriculum focuses on intensive reading instruction, in which children are grouped by reading level for a 90-minute reading period. SFA focuses on ensuring that all children read in the early grades, and identifying and correcting reading problems early. The SFA model also includes assessment every eight weeks, cooperative-learning activities among students, tutoring for those in need of extra help, and a family-support team that works to increase parental involvement. A recent study of the long-term effects and cost-effectiveness of SFA found: "Relative to controls, SFA students completed 8th grade at a younger age, with better achievement outcomes, fewer special education placements, fewer retentions, and at the same educational expense" (Borman & Hewes, 2002).
The main goal of Direct Instruction, developed in 1968, is early mastery of the basic skills. The program comprises field-tested reading, language arts, and math curricula, scripted instructional strategies, extensive training, and schoolwide analysis of student performance data. The DI curriculum is highly "scripted," using fast-paced teacher-directed instruction. For example, each day the teacher must ask at least 300 questions in six small-group sessions. Ability grouping is also a component of the reading and math portions of the curriculum, and schools conduct frequent assessment of student progress. Recent research on DI in an urban school district indicated that DI positively affected vocabulary test scores and oral reading ability, and achievement gains in reading comprehension were comparable to students receiving other forms of reading instruction (Mac Iver & Kemper, 2002).
Proponents of CSR contend that instead of "adding one program on top of another," the holistic approach of CSR transforms the way an entire school functions, leading to the ultimate goal of greater student achievement. Rather than creating individual programs targeted at specialized student populations without a common thread connecting them, CSR affects all students, teachers, curricula, and school management (ECS, 1999).
Some members of a panel brought together by the Brookings Institution in 2002 voiced concerns that CSR is a one-size-fits-all approach to a more complicated problem. Schools face different educational issues that can be dependent on their locations or the makeup of their enrollments, they said, and often schools within the same district have drastically different needs. School cultures are resistant to change, and that may be a hurdle that officials are underestimating (Sack, 2002).
Because CSR is relatively new, the findings on outcomes are limited (Desimone, 2000). A recent study of the 29 most widely used CSR models concluded that while there are current limitations in the quantity and quality of the research base, the results appear positive. Those schools that had implemented a model for five years or more showed considerable achievement gains. Further, CSR was found to be equally effective between high- and low-poverty schools (Borman, Hewes, Overman, & Brown, 2003). While some research has shown gains in math and reading in CSR schools, there is speculation that student test scores alone are not the best measure of the effectiveness of innovative school reforms (Berends, Bodilly, & Kirby, 2002).
To order the paper, click here.
Get more stories and free e-newsletters!
The EPE Research Center's monthly newsletter provides the latest in education policy and analysis.
- Diverse Learners Teacher
- AUSL, Chicago, IL
- Vice President, Teacher Preparation Strategies
- National Council on Teacher Quality, Washington, DC
- Superintendent, Cedar Rapids Community School District
- Cedar Rapids Community School District, Cedar Rapids, IA
- Roaring Fork School DIstrict, Carbondale, CO
- Faculty, pre-school, international school
- Scholastica, Dhaka, Dh, Bangladesh