In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section School Reform

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Approaches to Reform
  • School-Level Reform
  • District-Level Reform
  • Barriers
  • Organizations

Education School Reform
Heather Zavadsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0035


School reform refers to the process of making changes in educational policy or practice, often in response to concern over student academic achievement. The term school reform is often interchanged with education reform or school improvement, but the most commonly used term is school reform. Most school reform falls into one of two categories: (a) teaching and learning or, in other words, what happens within classrooms, or (b) administrative reform, whereby either structures, governance, or decision-making strategies are addressed, either within or outside of the school. A third emergent approach combines both categories and typically refers to reform across entire districts and their schools, commonly known as comprehensive school reform, systemic reform, or district-wide reform. School reform has been a topic of urgent concern for decades and remains at the forefront of policy and practice, often prompted by particular historical events or major policies, including the launching of Sputnik, the civil rights movement, pivotal reports such as A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, as citied in Response to A Nation at Risk, 1980s, and policy movements such as the Comprehensive School Reform Program, Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and No Child Left Behind Act. The topic of school reform is quite broad, and thus this bibliography focuses primarily on major reform movements at the school and district levels rather than on specific instructional reform movements. While there have been countless studies of the various approaches to school reform, many of those studies have conflicting findings and often are politically charged. For example, while there are many studies arguing that class size significantly impacts student achievement, there are almost as many studies illustrating that it has little impact on student achievement. These conflicts are often a result of disagreements over the methodology used in the studies, in implementation of the reforms themselves, or both. Class size provides a salient example of the stakes involved in many reform efforts. Because human resources comprise at least 65 percent of any district budget, and some of those resources are often scarce, an issue like class size is extremely important to both practitioners and policymakers. This bibliography is organized by decade and events and then details different reform approaches, current movements, and noteworthy case studies. A list of prominent education reform organizations is also provided. To the extent possible, multiple views on the utility and success of each reform are included as well as a list of researchers and authors that are important to each area.

General Overviews

Improving schools has been one of the longest surviving pursuits of both policymakers and practitioners, beginning in the 1960s. The recent anniversaries of the Coleman report and A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, as citied in Response to A Nation at Risk, 1980s, brought heightened concern that little has changed in education despite numerous reform efforts. Several prominent education-thought leaders, historians, and researchers have detailed school reform in the decades since the 1960s, with the purpose of improving current practices through lessons from the past. Cross 2004 provides an insider’s view on federal influences on education reform on topics such as child poverty, children with disabilities, literacy instruction, education funding, and testing and accountability. The author also connects to his personal experience in education and policymaking in Finn 2008, which highlights the innovative programs that have increased school choice options since 1960. Written by well-known education historians, Tyack and Cuban 1995 and Ravich 2000 point out how expectations for schools have moved well beyond academic learning to address social problems, leading to frenzied and unfocused approaches to school improvement. In contrast, Payne 2008 shows how the history of social issues such as poverty and race are important to understand to improve schools.

  • Cross, Christopher T. 2004. Political education: National policy comes of age. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Presents a thorough review of US education policy from World War II to 2004, enriched by Cross’s own experiences in Washington, D.C., and interviews with key education decision makers.

  • Finn, Chester E. 2008. Troublemaker: A personal history of school reform since Sputnik. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Provides an informative history of school reform from 1950 to the mid-2000s by the renowned president of the Fordham Foundation. The book details education reform in the typical “tongue-in-cheek” style of Finn.

  • Payne, Charles M. 2008. So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

    Discusses thirty years of school reform in the Chicago Public School District. Payne discusses the realities of urban school reform through complex social obstacles such as race and poverty.

  • Ravich, Diane. 2000. Left back: A century of failed school reforms. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    An opinionated overview of the history of reform from the turn of the last century to 2000 by political analyst Diane Ravich. Her central thesis is that progressive education has thrown education reform into an unfocused frenzy and that the standards movement is an attempt to reclaim rigor and educational equality for all student groups.

  • Tyack, David, and Cuban, Larry. 1995. Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Gives a comprehensive overview of education reform history over the period of a century by well-known historians Tyack and Cuban. The authors connect education reform history to social and political realities and offer lessons learned from past successes and mistakes.

  • Webb, L. Dean. 2006. The history of American education: A great American experiment. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

    Typically used as a textbook in education foundation programs. Provides an overview of the history of education, incorporating up-to-date information to show the changes in US education over time.

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