The special panel set up to advise ministers was only able to submit a short-list of 22 and the target number was only reached when officials added schemes that had been initially rejected.
The research from academics at the Roehampton Institute in London and Nottingham University suggests Education Secretary David Blunkett may have problems in achieving his ambition of creating a network of further zones from the bids next month.
Despite the scheme's high profile, the Department for Education and Employment received only 60 applications and only 47 were deemed suitable to be passed onto the selection panel.
The study for The Education Network, a local authority-funded service, says the Government's failure to publish the criteria for success, has generated scepticism. The authors criticise ministers for failing to state whether the initiative is about innovation, raising achievement or tackling social disadvantage.
Ministers said local authorities' ability to deliver the programme was a significant factor, and yet, the study says, Calderdale council's application for a zone in Halifax was approved even though it had been identified as failing.
The study finds that the successful bids are ones that had private sector "sponsors" - the Halifax bank has pledged Pounds 500,000 to the Calderdale zone. However, the report identifies two forms of private sector involvement - companies that want to be supportive partners in the education venture and companies which are keen to market their services to schools.
In the main, the study found few schemes which sought to break the mould of the existing system or were likely to be the "test beds for education in the 21st century" as proposed by Stephen Byers when he was standards minister.
Only a small number wanted to explore new pay and conditions packages for teachers and few proposed to make major changes in the national curriculum. A number proposed to use the new advanced skills teacher grade.
The reservations expressed by applicants included the need to "win governors over" and a concern that there could be a stigma attached to being an education action zone. Governing bodies appear unwilling to cede their powers to the forums that will run the zones.
The features the researchers found in successful bids included homework centres and after-school schemes; a commitment to information technology and performance targets.
The authors conclude that education action zones are unlikely to have an impact on standards unless they focus directly on the quality of teaching and learning. They may also not be the most effective means of tackling social disadvantage.
They say: "There is a case for the development of a variety of models for future zones and consideration might be given to piloting zones in which participating schools are either located in or serve the most acute areas of social needs, and in which strong links are made with parallel initiatives such as housing or health."
Some lessons learned: The first wave of education action zone applications by Professor Kathryn Riley and David Rowles, centre for educational management, Roehampton, and Professor David Hopkins and Dr Rob Watling, of the centre for teacher and school development, NottinghamUniversity