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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

The Path to Comprehensive School Reform

The potential of comprehensive school reform efforts for improving teaching and learning is great once schools overcome the hurdles of choosing, implementing, and sustaining the right schoolwide program.

How can we help failing schools? How can we ensure the academic success of all students? These questions loom large in public debate, and educators and policymakers are turning to comprehensive school reform as an answer.
Sometimes referred to as "whole school" or "systemic" reform to set it apart from piecemeal improvements, comprehensive school reform embraces a diverse set of programs and strategies that require a thorough reexamination of all parts of school life, from attitudes and culture to leadership and curriculum. Moreover, these programs involve all stakeholders in the school, home, and community in the pursuit of academic success for all students. Comprehensive school reform promises change, and not just any change. Robert Slavin, founder of the schoolwide model Success for All, calls it a "a heart-lung transplant" (Olson, 1998a).
The U.S. Congress added its vote of confidence to this reform movement in 1998 when it launched the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) program. The program made available $120 million to support comprehensive reform in schools eligible for Title I funds and provided an additional $25 million for all public schools. Funding at these same levels continued during the program's second year, and even more money may be available to schools in the third year, beginning July 1, 2000. Through this funding, almost 3,000 schools nationwide are receiving awards of at least $50,000 each to implement whole-school models. Schools may renew their CSRD funding for up to three years.
Despite all the attention focused on schoolwide reform as the answer to improving students' academic success, comprehensive reform remains "promising but unproven" (Hendrie, 1999, p. 1). How do models of schoolwide reform improve academic achievement? Why don't more schools succeed in implementing designs? How can schools distinguish which model works most effectively? And, equally important, which model will work best for your school?

Comprehensive School Reform Models

Schools and districts can develop reform models of their own, but many model programs already exist. Schoolwide reform models differ in focus and method, but to qualify for federal CSRD funding, they must share certain characteristics: promote high standards for all children, not just a particular group; address all academic subject areas and grade levels; be research based and research tested; share a common focus on goals; include professional development; align all resources across grades and subject areas; and facilitate parent and community involvement (Education Commission of the States, 1998b).
These qualities alone do not automatically guarantee a model's effectiveness, however. Research shows that for a model to be successfully implemented, faculty, staff, and parents must support it. In fact, most developers refuse to work with a school unless at least 60 percent of the faculty vote to adopt the design. The Education Commission of the States (1998b) suggests that schools should also make sure that the design has a proven record of improving student achievement. Developers should provide schools with benchmarks to measure progress, and schools should implement an evaluation system that regularly determines whether the design is working as well as it should.
Federal lawmakers stirred a controversy when they identified in the CSRD program's legislation only 17 reform models (the Obey-Porter list) that schools could adopt to qualify for funding (see fig.1). Some researchers have questioned why some unproven programs appear on the list, whereas others with known successes do not (see fig. 2 for a list of additional programs). However, districts are not limited to selecting programs from this list, and lawmakers point out that discussion about this controversial list should encourage districts to carefully research and scrutinize programs, instead of just picking one at random (Viadero, 1999). At best, the list could create the demand for better research on models of reform: information that is crucial to helping schools find the right model.
Figure 1. The Obey-Porter List of Comprehensive Reform Programs

Figure 1. The Obey-Porter List of Comprehensive Reform Programs

  • Accelerated Schools Project (K–8). Operates on the premise that at-risk students must learn at an accelerated pace to catch up with more advantaged peers. Phone: (650) 725-1676; 

  • America's Choice (K–12). Holds students to high standards in such core subjects as language arts, mathematics, and science. Phone: (202) 783-3668; 

  • Association for Direct Instruction (K–6). Emphasizes carefully planned lessons that are designed around a highly specific knowledge base and a well-defined set of skills. Phone: (541) 485-1293; 

  • Atlas Communities (pre-K–12). Seeks to coordinate a Pre-K–12 "pathway" to provide a coherent education program for each student from the first day of school until high school graduation. Phone: (800) 225-4276; 

  • Audrey Cohen College: Purpose-Centered Education (K–12). Provides a thematic focus to education, with a secondary goal of increasing attendance and decreasing disciplinary problems. Phone: (212) 343-1234; 

  • The Coalition of Essential Schools (K–12). Features a set of "Common Principles" that are intended to be used by schools to shape their own reform efforts. Phone: (510) 433-1451; 

  • Community for Learning (K–12). Based on research on the influence of school, family, and community on learning, this program encourages the coordination of classroom instruction with community services. Phone: (800) 892-5550; 

  • Co-NECT Schools (K–12). Focuses on improving student achievement by integrating technology into instruction, reorganizing schools into multigrade clusters of students and teachers, and organizing lessons around interdisciplinary projects. Phone: (617) 873-5612; 

  • Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (K–12). Based on two central ideas: Students learn better by doing, not listening, and developing character, high expectations, and a sense of community is as important as academic skills. Phone: (617) 576-1260; 

  • High Schools That Work (9–12). Designed to raise the academic achievement of career-bound high school students by combining content of college prep studies with vocational studies. Phone: (404) 875-9211; 

  • Modern Red Schoolhouse (K–12). Helps schools set high academic standards that are consistent with district and state assessments. Works with schools to build on strengths and to identify weaknesses. Phone: (888) 275-6774; 

  • Paideia (K–12). Changes classroom practice through three "columns" of instruction: didactic teaching, coaching, and Socratic seminars. Phone: (336) 334-3729; 

  • Roots and Wings (pre-K–12). Used in conjunction with the Success for All reading program, Roots and Wings seeks to improve academic achievement in elementary schools, decrease the number of referrals for special education, decrease the number of students retained in a grade, and address family needs. Phone: (800) 548-4998; 

  • School Development Program (K–12). Based on the theory that children learn better when they form strong relationships with adults, this program aspires to develop personal, social, and moral strengths in students. Phone: (203) 737-1020; 

  • Success for All (pre-K–12). Strives to ensure students' success in reading through nine components, such as a reading curriculum and one-to-one tutoring. Phone: (800) 548-4998; 

  • Talent Development High School (9–12). Aims to reorganize students and teachers in a school and to focus instruction on students' academic needs and career interests by dividing large urban high schools into smaller units. Phone: (410) 516-8800; 

  • Urban Learning Centers (pre-K–12). Connects an academically rigorous curriculum across grade levels and ensures the support of parents and community through teaching and learning, governance and management, and learning supports. Phone: (213) 622-5237; 


Figure 2. Additional Comprehensive Reform Programs

Figure 2. Additional Comprehensive Reform Programs

  • Basic School Network. Builds a sense of community, develops a coherent curriculum, creates a climate that supports student learning, and develops student character. Phone: (540) 568-7098; 

  • Center for Effective Schools (K–12). Provides a structure for reform based on seven guiding principles, such as frequent monitoring of student progress and instructional leadership. Phone: (800) 766-1156; 

  • Child Development Project (K–6). Helps schools become caring communities of learning, featuring a reading–language arts curriculum based on literature, schoolwide community-building activities, and more. Phone: (510) 533-0213; 

  • Core Knowledge (K–8). Based on the premise that to function well in society, people need a common base of knowledge. Schools are responsible for providing this knowledge to students. Phone: (804) 977-7550; 

  • Community Learning Centers (pre-K–12). Does not provide a prescribed curriculum, but instead encourages schools to act as brokers, arranging learning experiences within and beyond its walls so that the achievement of all learners is dramatically increased. Phone: (651) 649-5400; 

  • Different Ways of Knowing (K–7). Advocates building on students' multiple intelligences to develop student skills in such areas as logic, mathematics, language, and the arts. Phone: (310) 479-8883; 

  • Edison Schools (K–12). Establishes partnership schools with the school district or charter schools and provides an educational program, technology plan, and management system. Phone: (212) 309-1600; 

  • The Foxfire Fund (K–12). "Core Practices" guide instructional methods, materials, and strategies and encourage active, learner-centered, community-focused education. Phone: (706) 746-5828; 

  • High/Scope K–3 Model (K–3). Works to improve children's problem-solving and independent-thinking skills; based on the belief that children should be active participants in their own learning. Phone: (734) 485-2000; 

  • Integrated Thematic Instruction (K–12). Uses current brain research to maximize student learning by creating a "bodybrain-compatible" learning environment. Phone: (253) 631-4400; 

  • League of Professional Schools (K–12). Intends to democratize education by encouraging school staff, parents, students, and community members to play an active role in decision making about teaching and learning. Phone: (706) 542-2516; 

  • MicroSociety (K–12). Students collaborate with parents, teachers, and community members to create a community of commerce and governance; children create and manage business ventures that produce goods and services. Phone: (215) 922-4006; 

  • Montessori (pre-K–8). Incorporates the understanding of children's natural tendencies as they unfold in specific multiage group environments; curriculum is interdisciplinary and active. Phone: (216) 421-1905; 

  • Onward to Excellence (K–12). Builds school capacity for continual improvement through a series of workshops that help schools learn to set schoolwide goals and evaluate progress. Phone: (503) 275-9615; 

  • QuEST (K–12). Enables administrators, teachers, and students to build and sustain quality learning environments by improving the processes of the school. Phone: (517) 381-0917; 

  • Ventures Initiative and Focus Systems (K–12). Synthesizes applied teaching and learning methods through a step-by-step approach geared toward effective classroom management and school functioning. Phone: (212) 696-5717; e-mail: 

—Complied from American Institutes of Research's An Educator's Guide to Schoolwide Reform, and Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's Catalog of School Reform Models: First Edition. Descriptions of more reform models are available at 

Comprehensive reform can help improve schools and increase achievement, but these positive results do not occur without a lot of work. "We want to have a 'buyer beware' sign out there. Don't think you can just buy this off-the-shelf technology, plug it into a school, and then things are going to improve," cautions a researcher for RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institute that helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis (Olson, 1998b).

Challenges to Schoolwide Reform

Indeed, sustaining schoolwide reform programs past the initial stage of enthusiasm is one of the biggest hurdles that schools face. In a study of schools that had implemented whole-school designs, RAND found that after two years of working with the design, only about half the schools were implementing the design's core elements across the school (Berends, 1998).
Another challenge to comprehensive school reform lies in the paradox of creating a common vision among people with different beliefs and assumptions about education. Hatch (1998) describes people involved in a school reform effort as "jugglers who have been learning their craft on their own [and who] suddenly had to figure out how to toss the balls to one another" (p. 522). When working with the ATLAS Communities Project, Hatch observed that no single person or group had access to all the technical, resource, or local knowledge available. Because this lack of coordination presents problems, effective leaders must work with all stakeholders and draw diverse groups together.
In fact, strong leadership is vital for the successful implementation of the reform process (Olson, 1998b; Schaffer, Nesselrodt, & Stringfield, 1997). Principals play a pivotal role in schoolwide programs by promoting vision and directing activities (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). However, some researchers caution that reform programs should not be dependent on the long-term presence of a particular leader.
The issue of choice is also central to comprehensive reform. RAND researchers found that when schools thoroughly research and freely choose designs, the level of implementation is higher than if a design is forced on the school staff, or if the staff has limited knowledge of the program (Berends, 1998). In 1998, this issue of choice was called into question when the New Jersey legislature created the first judicially enforced whole-school program in the country. The legislation requires 319 elementary schools to implement comprehensive reform programs (Hendrie, 1999). Critics argue that if some schools are not ready for reform, change will not happen. Others believe that although choice is essential in reform, schools still need strong guidelines for making wise decisions (Olson, 1999).
Another important criterion for schools to consider when selecting a comprehensive reform program is the issue of outside assistance. Most programs provide design teams who guide schools through the process of implementation. New American Schools (1998), a nonprofit organization that helped develop several comprehensive school reform programs and assists schools with their implementations, cites the benefits of design teams: They integrate all facets of reform into one comprehensive effort; they maintain a focus on results; they base actions on their knowledge of research and development that would be difficult for most school personnel to duplicate; and they provide a strong vision that sustains schools through the long implementation process.
School leaders should ask each program's staff to clarify the kind of support that its design team will offer. Some teams are highly prescriptive, specifying standards for curriculum and assessment, and others help the schools create their own standards and processes.
Some problems associated with comprehensive reform result from the nature of the models themselves. Teachers' time and energy are already stretched to the limit, and some teachers resent being asked to institute yet another reform (Hatch, 1998). Other teachers argue that designs are not well aligned with state assessments of student achievement. This mismatch sometimes results in teachers deviating from the designs to prepare students for state tests (Olson, 1999).

Stakeholder and Financial Support

Many reform efforts neglect to gain the support of families and the community. Parents and teachers should have an active role on any committees investigating reform programs. In schools where schoolwide reform is successfully implemented, parents serve on site councils, planning teams, and accreditation committees (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
In fact, Margaret Venditti, principal of Worcester Arts Magnet Elementary School in Massachusetts, credits parents as instrumental in helping her school's reform effort succeed. Seventeen families initiated the magnet concept, and more than 200 family members volunteer to substitute for teachers during staff development days, read to children, organize book fairs, and assist with arts activities. Schoolwide reform keeps parents well-informed about school activities and student progress through newsletters, daily calendars, and a parent coordinator.
An important consideration for many schools, parents, teachers, and community members is program cost. The availability of funds from the CSRD program can make whole-school reform more attractive to many schools, but schools should also consider how they will fund reform over time. Lack of funding commonly leads to failed implementation of a design (Schaffer, Nesselrodt, & Stringfield, 1997).
To qualify for CSRD funds, schools must select or develop a program that thoughtfully integrates such key elements as curriculum and instruction, student assessment, professional development, parent involvement, and school management (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). CSRD funds, however, cover only a portion of what is needed to successfully implement whole-school reform. The $50,000 grant may cover costs associated with products and services provided by an external developer, but schools must fund time for teachers to participate in training and planning and for professional development activities, technology upgrades, and travel. First-year costs differ greatly from program to program, but they can range anywhere from $98,000 for ATLAS Communities to $588,000 for Co-NECT (American Institutes for Research, 1999).
The Education Commission of the States (1998a) advises states and districts participating in comprehensive school reform to create an investment fund that draws on public and private sources. The creation of this fund could spur the acquisition of private-sector support, the Commission suggests.
For some schools, however, acquiring funding is not the only problem. Deciding how to allocate money can be a stumbling block. In New Jersey, for instance, school management teams of parents and educators with little or no experience struggled to create schoolwide budgets (Hendrie, 1999).

Looking Ahead

Many educators cite comprehensive school reform as a "21st century vision of education"—a way to embrace the changes that lie ahead by creating change in our educational systems (U.S. Department of Education, 1998, p. 2). Perhaps the greatest challenge to reform is sustaining it.
As the popularity of the reform movement grows, districts and educators demand more comprehensive and analytical information. Now that a diverse mix of schoolwide programs exists, the focus of researchers and educators is on implementation. As schools seek to implement and sustain comprehensive change, researchers work to determine why some models—and schools—are successful while others struggle to implement and sustain change. The resulting base may permit educators to acquire a better understanding of how to sustain comprehensive reform and, thus, to ensure the success of all students.

American Institutes for Research. (1999). An educator's guide to schoolwide reform. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Berends, M. (with Heilbrunn, J., McKelvey, C., & Sullivan, T.). (1998). Monitoring the progress of New American Schools: A description of implementing schools in a longitudinal sample. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Education Commission of the States. (1998a). Comprehensive school reform: Allocating federal funds. Denver, CO: Author.

Education Commission of the States. (1998b). Comprehensive school reform: Identifying effective models. Denver, CO: Author.

Hatch, T. (1998, March). How comprehensive can comprehensive reform be? Phi Delta Kappan, 79(7), 518–522.

Hendrie, C. (1999, April 21). N.J. schools put reform to the test. Education Week, pp. 13–14.

New American Schools. (1998). Blueprints for school success: A guide to New American Schools designs. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Olson, L. (1998a, February 4). Will success spoil Success for All? Education Week, pp. 42–45.

Olson, L. (1998b, April 1). Study: Schoolwide reform not easy. Education Week, pp. 22, 3.

Olson, L. (1999, April 14). Following the plan. Education Week, pp. 29–32.

Schaffer, E. C., Nesselrodt, P. S., & Stringfield, S. C. (1997). Impediments to reform: An analysis of destabilizing issues in ten promising programs. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

U.S. Department of Education. (1998). Profiles of successful schoolwide programs. Washington, DC: Author.

Viadero, D. (1999, January 20). Who's in, who's out. Education Week, pp. 1, 12.

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