Sustainability: Examining the Survival of Schools’ Comprehensive School Reform Efforts


One of the greatest challenges, if not the greatest challenge, to comprehensive school reform (CSR) is sustaining reform over a time period long enough to produce substantial effects. By examining how comprehensive school reformers complete their life course, this paper highlights the importance of studying sustainability as well as the importance of being clear about what is being sustained. It is critical to distinguish between a sustained reform relationship and sustained implementation of a reform. We examine a sample of 395 urban, disadvantaged, low-achieving elementary and middle schools using CSR in 2001–2002 and find that nearly one third of these CSR schools ended their relationships with their model developers by the end of 2003–2004. However, the remaining two thirds of schools have successfully sustained a reform relationship for more than 3 years, and in some cases more than a decade. The results of Analysis I indicate that 11 risk factors for discontinuing a reform relationship operate in combination to dispose schools toward dropping their CSR affiliation. Resolving faculty retention problems and providing professional development supports for the CSR effort appear to be the most significant of this interrelated set of sustainability factors. Analysis II shows that although dropping a CSR model affiliation is significantly related to decreases in implementation fidelity, the magnitude of the decrease is relatively small. Without a precipitous decline in implementation due to dropping, it is clear that many schools that formally drop their affiliation with a reform developer must still be sustaining many of the practices prescribed by the CSR model developers. Therefore, in many urban, disadvantaged, low-achieving schools, the influence of CSR models can live beyond the formal discontinuation of the reform relationship.