Improving low-performing schools through external assistance: Lessons from Chicago and California.


  • Kara S. Finnigan University of Rochester
  • Catherine Bitter American Institutes for Research
  • Jennifer O'Day American Institutes for Research



educational policy, educational improvement


This article describes the design and implementation of external support to low-performing schools using data from Chicago and California. Using the literature on external support, instructional capacity, and policy strength, the study gathered data from interviews, observations, document review, and surveys. The findings suggest that the model of assistance employed in both Chicago and California was inadequate to the task. While the policies examined demonstrate recognition that low-performing schools need additional capacity if they are to substantially improve student outcomes, external support providers used limited and haphazard approaches, and as a result, the support component had little influence on teaching and learning. In addition, because the external supports relied on a market-like support structure with few other mechanisms to ensure quality, and because there was limited quantity (intensity) of support, the benefit that external assistance might otherwise have provided was limited. This was particularly problematic for the lowest capacity schools, many of which experienced limited change despite increased educator effort and involvement of external providers. In essence, external assistance through these school accountability policies did little to improve educator and organizational performance.


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Author Biographies

Kara S. Finnigan, University of Rochester

Kara S. Finnigan is an Assistant Professor of Education Policy at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. Her research focuses on low-performing schools and high-stakes accountability, principal leadership, teacher motivation, inter-district choice, and charter schools. She was project manager for the Chicago School Probation Study.

Catherine Bitter, American Institutes for Research

Catherine Bitter is a Senior Research Analyst at the American Institutes for Research. Her work has focused on K-12 school reform, accountability, literacy instruction, and district reform. She managed the study of the Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program, conducted for the California Department of Education.

Jennifer O'Day, American Institutes for Research

Jennifer O’Day is a Managing Research Scientist and policy analyst in the Education Program of the American Institutes for Research. Her recent research has centered on accountability policies and school improvement efforts, particularly in high poverty, low- performing schools. She was Principal Investigator/Project Director for both the Chicago and California studies.




How to Cite

Finnigan, K. S. ., Bitter, C., & O’Day, J. (2009). Improving low-performing schools through external assistance: Lessons from Chicago and California. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 17, 7.