Abstract Education reform has been a major undertaking in Latin America in the 1990s. Extending the coverage of educational opportunities is a principal aspect of reform. Improving the quality of education delivered in schools is of equal importance, in some cases more important, in Latin American countries where education has been of a low standard in public schools. It is not enough to study macro education policies as they are articulated by governments and operationalized by centralized ministries of education. What is promised or envisioned on paper is often quite different from what actually happens in school establishments. It is important to understand, at the micro level, how schools are functioning in practice as they implement educational policies for improving the quality of education. The focus of this study is on schools and what they can teach us about achieving quality in basic education. Educational policies and social reality come together in classrooms in schools. This study is not just concerned with how well schools are implementing policies. Nor is it concerned with evaluating education reform programmes. It is concerned with learning from schools toward a better understanding of the practical realities of teaching children from the perspective of the school establishment, within its community and its student population. The study concentrates on the school as the center of learning and decision-making and studies what happens in school at close hand. It is hoped that these lessons can be useful and be taken into account in assisting education programmes, policies and strategies toward improving educational quality. The special focus of this study is on poor children in poor schools. The Chilean education authorities provided an outstanding opportunity to study what schools can teach us in relation to their national programme aimed at improving the quality of education and educational outcomes in some of Chile's 900 poorest primary schools, known as the 'p900 Programme'. The approach applies a macro quantitative methodology to identify the poorest performing schools based on their comparative school results on standardized examinations and trends in these results during the decade of the 1990s. At the micro level, a representative group of schools was then visited and in-depth interviews were conducted to obtain qualitative insights needed to understand school and pupil performance and to identify factors that might be subject to change. An original research methodology was developed for this purpose. The study is organized as follows. The first section sets the stage, raises the policy issues with respect to achieving educational quality and describes the organization of the research approach. The second section presents the in-depth school reports that are in effect management audits. The third section synthesizes the lessons learned from the school interviews and makes proposals in a dozen or so key areas of school quality. It also presents in the words of the school officials, teachers, students, parents, and administrators, their views on the 'p900 Programme', on children in harsh environments, on teachers and student performance, and on the problem of lack of parental involvement. It is hoped that this macro-micro research approach will be implemented further in Chile and in other countries.