State Support for School Improvement: School-level Perceptions of Quality

Andrea Boyle, Kerstin Carlson Le Floch, Susan Bowles Therriault, and Brian Holzman


States’ provision of support to schools identified for improvement is grounded in the premise that chronically under-performing schools require more than performance targets and public pressure to improve: they need external assistance to diagnose needs, identify appropriate improvement strategies, and build school capacity. Federal accountability laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act and its predecessor the Improving America’s Schools Act championed this premise by requiring states to establish statewide systems of support that offered technical assistance to Title I schools identified for improvement. By 2004–05, every state had designed and implemented systemic supports for such schools, though the nature of these systems varied considerably. For instance, many state systems featured school support teams, improvement specialists, and/or distinguished educators that work directly with individual schools while other states focused more on conducting statewide workshops or disseminating school improvement tools and information.

In addition to establishing these federally-mandated systems of support, several states have provided another level of assistance to low-performing high schools through state high school reform initiatives developed in response to growing economic, political, and social concerns over high school students’ readiness for college and the workforce. The support offered through states’ systems of support and high school reform initiatives comes in a variety of forms—including funding to finance reform activities, tools to guide the improvement process, and/or support providers to confer external perspective and expertise—and the support is often differentiated or targeted to schools based on their accountability status or other characteristics (See our companion brief State Systems of Support Under NCLB: Design Components and Quality Considerations for a more detailed discussion of how states incorporate these elements into their support systems and reform initiatives).

Many states are now looking to augment or refine their strategies for supporting low-performing schools but are faced with a limited research base on how to evaluate their support strategies and enhance their ability to effect school-level change. Although several studies have documented the variation in states’ approaches to providing support to low-performing schools, less is known about how state support has filtered down to the school level and how teachers and administrators—those ultimately responsible for implementing strategies to drive improvement—perceive the quality of these supports. Building on existing external school support literature, this brief offers a set of indicators for assessing the quality of support provided to low-performing schools. The brief then applies these indicators to examine school-level stakeholders’ perceptions of state assistance they received through NCLB-mandated systems of support and through state-developed high school improvement initiatives.