Comprehensive school reform (CSR) is a systemic approach to school improvement that addresses every aspect of a school, from curriculum to scheduling to management to family and community involvement. Rather than use individual, piecemeal programs, effective CSR integrates research-based practices into one unified program to raise student achievement.
Some schools adopting a CSR approach choose an external CSR model to provide a research-based, replicable set of practices. These external models are meant to be "blueprints" to help a school make improvements in a number of areas. The CSR models are designed based on research and vary in focus, philosophy, and method, but all are intended to help the school raise student achievement. To help schools implement the program, CSR models staff typically provide schools with professional development and hands-on assistance.
Other schools adopting a CSR approach choose to develop their own CSR model. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a school implementing a CSR approach must address the following 11 components:
The U.S. Department of Education Web site includes an informative slide show outlining the basics of CSR. It is important to note that to satisfy the 11 components of CSR listed in No Child Left Behind, many schools choose to adopt a comprehensive school reform strategy that combines one or more locally or nationally developed approaches that are deemed research-proven.
Since the mid-1990s, one increasingly employed approach for raising student achievement—school-level adoption and effective implementation of externally developed, research-based comprehensive school reform models—has been tried in more than 8,000 schools nationwide, most of which are high poverty and low performing. The CSR approach gained momentum with the passage of the federal Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) program. The importance of CSR as an improvement strategy was recognized in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which increased funding and permanently authorized the CSR program. The results so far are promising, with some models helping schools achieve significant student achievement gains. Dr. Geoffrey Borman's recent meta-analysis of student achievement outcomes in 29 leading CSR models found that "the overall effects of CSR are significant, meaningful, and appear to be greater than the effects of other interventions that have been designed to serve similar purposes and student and school populations."
Dr. Borman's findings are consistent with the findings of An Educators' Guide to Schoolwide Reform, a groundbreaking study published by the American Insitutes for Research. The Educators' Guide found that of the 24 widely adopted CSR programs it examined, 8 had strong or promising evidence of positive effects on student achievement.
The promise of CSR models —such as Accelerated School Project, Core Knowledge, Direct Instruction, High Schools That Work, School Development Program, Success for All—and the comprehensive reform that they support is that they are research-based and provide the training and other supports needed to encourage a coordinated approach to improvement that addresses curriculum and instruction, professional development, leadership, parental and community involvement, and other components needed for student success. The research evidence to date indicates that some programs are more effective than others and that results vary greatly—even with the effective models —depending on the quality of implementation. Considerable research literature links outcomes to the effectiveness of implementation, for example, Laura Desimone's Making Comprehensive Reform Work.
In the early 1990s, after decades of concentrating on programs designed to target individual students at risk of academic failure, a new idea based on a comprehensive approach to school reform was conceived. The RAND Corporation published Federal Policy Options for Improving the Education of Low-Income Students, Volume I, Findings and Recommendations in 1993, suggesting to the federal government that Title I, previously called Chapter I, dollars would best be spent on schoolwide reform to reap the biggest impact.
Recognizing the importance of using CSR to revitalize our schools, Congress provided funding for the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program (CSRD) in 1998. The CSRD program encouraged schools to use nine components to develop school plans. These components included measurable goals, staff support, research-based methodology, external assistance, parent and community involvement in the reform process, staff development, staff and resources coordination, evaluation, and an overall emphasis on a comprehensive support.
The 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), gave further momentum to the CSR approach by changing it from a demonstration project to a full-fledged federal program called the Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) Program. The new CSR program is regulated by the new CSR authority in ESEA's Title I, Part F and the Fund for the Improvement of Education.
According to the NCLB Act, CSR models must be scientifically based, meaning that the model must demonstrate strong research evidence that it can improve students' academic achievement. In this spirit, new components were added to the original nine components of CSR. These new components emphasize (1.) impact, (2.) effectiveness, and (3.) evaluation.
According to the SEDL database, schools nationwide have adopted more than 700 different reforms since federal funding became available in 1998. This number reflects the large marketplace of models and approaches available for adoption. Whether a school adopts a model that offers a comprehensive package of practices or decides to build its own from individual research-proven components, education consumers need reliable information to help them answer critical questions:
Unfortunately, those most directly responsible for improving education—state officials, school board members, administrators, and teachers—and those concerned about its success—educators, parents, policymakers, and the public—have few resources at their disposal to answer these questions. Recent polls indicate that significant public demand exists for this kind of information. For example, a 2002 Public Education Network/ Education Week poll found that "nearly 3 out of 4 Americans . . . want information on the availability and quality of books and other learning tools."
By helping education decision makers identify and apply what works in the area of comprehensive school reform, the CSRQ Center can help raise student achievement and improve other important student outcomes for millions of America's children. We are committed to producing the highest quality reports on CSR models; widely disseminating these reports; and providing technical assistance to help states, districts, and schools translate the reports' findings into informed choices about school improvement.