Comprehensive school reform

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Comprehensive school reform (CSR), also called school-wide or whole school reform, is a coordinated effort to overhaul all parts and systems of a school’s operation. It integrates curriculum, instruction, professional development, parental involvement, classroom management, and school management efforts1. CSR promotes shared leadership and relies on support from teachers, administrators, staff, and outside agents experienced in CSR. It also requires measurable student achievement goals, and regular evaluation to assess a school’s academic results and CSR implementation progress2.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased academic achievement

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that comprehensive school reform (CSR) improves academic outcomes2, 3, 4, 5. Additional evidence is needed to determine which programs and implementation methods are most effective.

CSR programs can modestly improve student achievement in most circumstances2, 6, 7. Effects appear strongest after CSR has been implemented for several years2.

Some programs have demonstrated stronger effects than others, particularly in elementary schools2, 6. Success for All (SFA), a CSR program to detect and prevent reading problems, improves children’s reading skills2, 6, 8, 9. Positive reading effects may depend on early exposure to SFA; students initially exposed to SFA later, in grades 3 to 5, do not improve reading achievement10. The Direct Instruction program may also improve academic outcomes2, 6. Oregon’s CSR program, Reading First, is associated with improved student reading in general; however, students in special education and those at risk for reading failure who need more intensive instruction and assessment demonstrate less improvement11.

Research suggests that schools can best implement CSR by fitting it to their circumstances2, selectively pursuing cohesive reforms, and building time and resources for CSR into regular operation12. The professional development component of CSR appears most effective when teachers and administrators share leadership and focus on evidence-based practices12. Teacher beliefs, self-efficacy, professional development, and buy-in can support positive attitudes toward school reform13. Principals’ use of data-informed practices to support CSR can increase teacher buy-in14, and over time increased teacher buy-in is associated with improved student achievement15.

High costs and maintaining political will and buy-in from school districts, principals, and teachers are challenges to implementing and sustaining CSR programs over the long time horizon needed for change16. Research indicates that most schools pursuing CSR do not fully implement it. Teachers in CSR schools are not usually offered the full amount of professional development recommended, and may not be given adequate implementation time or leadership roles in the change process17.

CSR costs vary by program. Success for All typically costs elementary schools $100,000 in the first year, $37,000 in the second, and $26,000 in the third year8. Direct Instruction costs $284,000 for a school of 500 students in the first year18.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated likely to decrease disparities.
Implementation Examples

Several CSR programs have been widely implemented. For example, Success for All has been implemented in schools in 48 states and 4 other countries19 and Direct Instruction has been implemented in schools in 22 states, Guam, and Australia20.

The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model uses a CSR or whole school approach with support from the community to build on the relationship between education and health and improve each child’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development; the WSCC model is being implemented at the national, state, and school district level21.

Implementation Resources

NIFDI - National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI). The gold standard in direct instruction.

CSRI - Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement (CSRI).

SFAF - Success for All Foundation (SFAF).

AIR-SSL SCI Resources - American Institutes for Research (AIR). Safe supportive learning (SSL): School climate improvement (SCI) resource package.

AIR-School improvement - American Institutes for Research (AIR). School climate improvement.


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1 Ed Week-CSR 2004 - Education Week. Comprehensive school reform. 2004.

2 Borman 2003 - Borman GD, Hewes GM, Overman LT, Brown S. Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research. 2003;73(2):125-230.

3 Walpole 2017 - Walpole S, McKenna MC, Amendum S, Pasquarella A, Strong JZ. The promise of a literacy reform effort in the upper elementary grades. The Elementary School Journal. 2017;118(2):257-280.

4 NBER-Bonilla 2017 - Bonilla S, Dee T. The effects of school reform under NCLB waivers: Evidence from focus schools in Kentucky. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2017: Working Paper 23462.

5 Blueprints-SFA - Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV). Blueprints for healthy youth development: Success for All (SFA).

6 AIR-CSRQ elementary - American Institutes for Research (AIR), Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center (CSRQ). CSRQ center report on elementary school comprehensive school reform models: Educator’s summary. Washington, D.C.: Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center (CSRQ), American Institutes for Research; 2006.

7 AIR-CSRQ middle and high - Comprehensive School Reform Quality (CSRQ) center report on middle and high school comprehensive school reform models: Educator’s summary 2006.

8 SPTW - Social Programs That Work (SPTW). Full list of programs.

9 IES WWC - What Works in Education Clearinghouse (WWC). Find what works. Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

10 Hanselman 2013 - Hanselman P, Borman GD. The impacts of Success for All on reading achievement in grades 3-5: Does intervening during the later elementary grades produce the same benefits as intervening early? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 2013;35(2):237-251.

11 Sanford 2011 - Sanford AK, Park Y, Baker SK. Reading growth of students with disabilities in the context of a large-scale statewide reading reform effort. The Journal of Special Education. 2011;47(2):83-95.

12 Waldron 2010 - Waldron NL, McLeskey J. Establishing a collaborative school culture through comprehensive school reform. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation. 2010;20(1):58-74.

13 Donnell 2015 - Donnell LA, Gettinger M. Elementary school teachers’ acceptability of school reform: Contribution of belief congruence, self-efficacy, and professional development. Teaching and Teacher Education. 2015;51:47-57.

14 Yoon 2016 - Yoon SY. Principals’ data-driven practice and its influences on teacher buy-in and student achievement in comprehensive school reform models. Leadership and Policy in Schools. 2016;15(4):500-523.

15 Lee 2017b - Lee SW, Min S. Riding the implementation curve: Teacher buy-in and student academic growth under comprehensive school reform programs. The Elementary School Journal. 2017;117(3):371-395.

16 Brookings-Levesque 2016 - Levesque EM. School turnaround under ESSA: Progress, but not a silver bullet. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution; 2016.

17 RAND-Vernez 2006 - Vernez G, Karam R, Mariano LT, DeMartini C. Evaluating comprehensive school reform models at scale: Focus on implementation. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2006: Monograph Report 546.

18 PPN - Promising Practices Network (PPN). On children, families and communities.

19 SFAF - Success for All Foundation (SFAF).

20 NIFDI - National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI). The gold standard in direct instruction.

21 ASCD-WSCC implementation 2016 - Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). The whole school, whole community, whole child model: Ideas for implementation. 2016.