Research: Urban School Reform and the “Implementation Gap”

Experts agree that high-achieving schools that serve low-income children share a common set of practices. But the impact of these practices depends on school readiness for change and the quality of implementation. In many urban schools, readiness and implementation are inseparable from issues of organizational culture and staff perceptions of students and families across racial, class, and cultural difference. There is an implementation gap (as well as opportunity gap) underlying the “achievement gap.” The following research supports this view.


Charles Payne. So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Harvard Education Press, 2008.

“This frank and courageous book explores the persistence of failure in today’s urban schools. At its heart is the argument that most education policy discussions are disconnected from the daily realities of urban schools, especially those in poor and beleaguered neighborhoods. Payne argues that we have failed to account fully for the weakness of the social infrastructure and the often dysfunctional organizational environments of urban schools and school systems. The result is that liberals and conservatives alike have spent a great deal of time pursuing questions of limited practical value in the effort to improve city schools.”


Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2002.

The authors examine the role of social relationships in schools and their impact on student achievement. They conclude that “a broad base of trust across a school community lubricates much of a school’s day-to-day functioning and is a critical resource as local leaders embark on ambitious improvement plans.” Bryk and Schneider contend that schools with a high degree of “relational trust” are far more likely to make the kinds of changes that help raise student achievement than those where relations are poor. Improvements in such areas as classroom instruction, curriculum, teacher preparation, and professional development have little chance of succeeding without improvements in a school’s social climate. National Equity Project partners attest that relational trust can be enhanced significantly by coaching.


Ronald Ferguson, “Teachers’ perceptions and expectations and the black-white test score gap.” In Toward Excellence with Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap. Harvard Education Press, 2007.

A leading scholar finds that teachers have different perceptions and expectations for black students than white students. He argues that these differing expectations lead to different teacher behaviors that, in turn, reinforce lower black student performance. “Stereotypes of black intellectual inferiority are reinforced by past and present disparities in performance, and this probably causes teachers to underestimate the potential of black children more than that of whites. My bottom line conclusion is that teachers’ perceptions, expectations, and behaviors probably do help to sustain, and perhaps even expand, the black-white test score gap.”


Michael Sadowski, “Closing the gap one school at a time.” Harvard Education Letter. November/December, 2002.

According to Sadowski, surveys have shown that on most measures of effort and academic motivation, black students score as high as or higher than white students. But researchers have found that different social expectations often hinder black students’ achievement. (1) Evidence suggests that black students feel less connected to school than their white counterparts. (2) Black students battle negative perceptions. One is their sense that they are not treated with the same standards as white students, for instance in terms of disciplinary actions. Black students may also suffer from “stereotype anxiety” that lowers test performance and discourages them from completing homework. (3) Research has found that teachers’ expectations for black students are lower than for white students. Such expectations can affect student perceptions of their own abilities throughout their careers.


“Comprehensive School Reform: The Implementation Gap.” RAND Research Brief, 2006.

Studies of Comprehensive School Reform found that most schools did not fully implement their reform model, in part due to low levels of training, support, and teacher commitment.


Lynn Olson, “Following the Plan.” Education Week. April 14, 1999

“If whole-school reforms practiced truth-in-advertising, even the best would carry a warning like this: ‘Works if implemented. Implementation variable.’ As states and districts embrace the concept of school-wide change, the degree to which a school carries out the ideas and practices of a particular reform model in the way its designers envisioned has emerged as the weak link. Research suggests that if they’re well-implemented, some of these designs can produce substantial gains in student achievement. The better the implementation, the bigger the payoff.  But study after study has found that implementation is often problematic and inconsistent, even at school sites that have been identified as exemplars…”