Becoming a High Reliability School  

November 20, 2013
With increasingly challenging measures of accountability being thrust upon schools, we see our building administrators and teachers struggling to identify, implement, and sustain research-based practices that ultimately support the improvement of student achievement. Often times, educators mistakenly believe that, “…if we all try a little harder and work together, our students will do better.” But we know through systems research, simply trying harder will not solve such a complex problem. We also know that educators with more negative beliefs such as “…our students come to us from negative home environments and there’s nothing we can do to overcome those challenges…” create a significant barrier to not only teacher effectives, but overall school effectiveness. According to Robert Marzano, in his white paper titled Becoming a High Reliability School: The Next Step in School Reform, there are many factors affecting student achievement that can be controlled or at least strongly influenced by a school.

Referring to the meta-analyses of school research by John Hattie (Visible Learning, 2009), Marzano cites that of the top 50 factors affecting student achievement, only four are out of a school’s control. This means 92% of the factors are within the power of the school. Knowing this, Dr. Marzano suggests schools must adopt what he calls a high reliability perspective to move to the next level of effectiveness. This perspective comes from the concept of high reliability organizations (HRO) that has been in literature from industry as a strategy for monitoring errors for critical factors and acting immediately to manage and contain the negative effects of such errors. As proposed by Marzano, this would require schools to create structures, or change the traditional ones to support: (1) a hierarchal structure to school factors that provide a framework for decision making, and (2) the identification of leading and lagging indicators for school effectiveness that define concrete examples for determining a school’s status and future action steps.

Levels 1, 2, and 3 of this hierarchal model are foundational. Dr. Marzano explains that the highest levels of effectiveness can be attained by achieving Level 5, however, schools that successfully accomplish Levels 1-3 would be significantly ahead of the game. The leading indicators described in the white paper prioritize key areas that are helpful as schools assess and monitor their success toward goals. The lagging indicators detail the evidence of high reliability status.

This research-based hierarchal approach and the identification of effectiveness indicators indeed provide a more concrete framework for systems thinking, change, and school reform. Even with the best intentions, schools often piecemeal their improvement initiatives and are not successful overall due to their inability to plan and coordinate their efforts systematically. There has not been a framework or “blue print” per se for this type of school reform. Dr. Marzano’s work described in the white paper has become the basis for his newest book to be released in the next few months. I am looking forward to reading the new book and utilize it in our work with administrators to strategically plan and support this high reliability perspective through professional development.

Hierarchal Levels of Operation for a

High Reliability School

Level 5: A Competency-Based System

That Ensures Students’ Mastery of Content

Level 4: Standards-References Reporting

Of Student Progress

Level 3: A Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum
Focused on Enhancing Student Learning

Level 2: An Instructional Framework

That Develops and Maintains Effective Instruction in Every Classroom

Level 1: A Safe and Orderly Environment
That Supports Cooperation and Collaboration

Kelly Clapp, Professional Development Coordinator

Marzano, R. (2013).   Becoming a High Reliability School: The Next Step in School Reform.
Centennial, CO: Marzano Research Laboratory.