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Education Reformer: Robert J. Marzano

Marzano says it starts with students and teachers in classrooms.
Robert Marzano presents content from the book, Leaders of Learning, at Authorspeak.

Education reform means very different things to different people, President Barack Obama said on a visit last March to a school in Boston. “There is no better economic policy than the one that produces graduates. That’s why reforming education is the responsibility of every American,” he stated.

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., and Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, wrote in “How to Rescue Education Reform” in The New York Times on December 5 that the federal government can and should play a significant role in education reform, but without micromanaging schools.

Education researcher Robert Marzano sees it another way. He says effective education reform begins with students and teachers in their classrooms, with student achievement “the superordinate goal, supported by uniform yet flexible behaviors in the classroom.” Marzano, who began his career in 1967 as an English teacher in New York City public schools, is co-founder and CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Englewood, Colo. “He has been doing research for a long time on education topics—instruction, leadership, strategies—then attempting to translate that research into actionable information for teachers, principals and others,” explains Amber Winkler, research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, another Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“My focus has always started at the individual student level in the classroom, and moved out from there,” says Marzano. “That may be a big difference between me and other reformers.” He believes that district and school administrators must ensure that “specific interventions are enacted in every classroom in every school.” He has spelled out those interventions in a model built on three critical commitments that he says administrators must make to their students.

Three Critical Commitments

Marzano womenThe first of these commitments is to develop a system of “individual student feedback” at the district, school and classroom levels. Marzano suggests identifying specific learning goals for individual students, constructing a rubric or other type of common scale for each goal, and assessing each student’s progress toward each goal at least every two weeks. Goals should be developed, and students’ progress also should be tracked in nonacademic areas such as following rules and procedures, accepting individual responsibility, completing homework, and interacting with other people. Marzano advocates a grading system that includes both academic and nonacademic elements.

“We’ve done a better job in the last decade or more of focusing on increasing achievement at the school level,” Marzano says, “but there still is a huge variation in the achievement of individual students or groups of students who are traditionally underserved. They could be doing poorly while their school in general looks like it’s getting better. School-level goals are great, but in addition, you need student-level goals.”

Ensuring effective teaching in every classroom, with evaluations of teachers and principals based on “how they make changes in classroom practices directly related to student achievement” is the second commitment of Marzano’s reform model.

“Our evaluation systems aren’t focused historically on helping teachers get better at teaching,” Marzano explains. We expect all teachers to have high scores right away on every element on which they are evaluated. This forces us into a system where teachers aren’t going to admit they have pedagogical weaknesses, and principals don’t want to rate teachers in a given area because they don’t want to put them in a bad spot. So our evaluation system becomes a paper facade.”

In Marzano’s model, teachers would focus in a given year on two or three “strategy” or “skill” areas, such as questioning students, setting clear learning goals for students and monitoring their progress toward the goals, celebrating student success, establishing and maintaining classroom rules and procedures, organizing a classroom’s physical layout, and breaking academic content into bites small enough for students to understand. During classroom visits to observe teachers in action, principals and other administrators would pay particular attention to how the teachers were progressing in those areas and would provide feedback to them accordingly.

That’s different from the more common “checklist approach” to evaluation, Marzano says. “That’s a game, although I know administrators don’t intend it that way. They come into the classroom looking for X number of strategies or skills, just to see whether or not teachers are using them, not how well they are used. Teachers perceive it as ‘You’d better be doing all these things, or they gotcha.’ So the teachers hit all the strategies on the observational list, and as soon as the observer is gone, they go back to doing what they were doing before. Instead of ‘gotcha,’ they should perceive the new model as actually helping them become better teachers. That changes the entire dynamic of a formal observation.”

Marzano’s third reform commitment is to “build background knowledge for all students.” What students already know has “a strong relationship to their ease with learning new academic content,” Marzano says, but their knowledge of the world can differ widely depending on their family backgrounds, travel and other experiences that schools don’t have much control over.

Marzano’s model calls for schools to identify 30 mathematics, language arts, science and social studies words or terms for each grade level at least through eighth grade and to design a program to teach them. “We don’t have the money to make sure all students have exactly the same experiences, but in vocabulary, for example, we can even the playing field,” he says.

If all students are taught 30 terms every year from grades 1 through 8, Marzano explains, “by the time they get to ninth grade, they have the common experience of knowing all 240 of them.” He cites vocabulary lists that state education agencies in Tennessee and Oklahoma have developed. In “Tennessee Academic Vocabulary: A Guide for Tennessee Educators,” third-grade language arts terms to be taught include “abbreviation,” “opinion” and “synonyms.” In “Building Academic Vocabulary: Oklahoma Academic Vocabulary Suggested Words and Terms,” fourth-grade mathematics terms include “acute angle,” “hundredths” and “rotation.”

Adams CountyMarzano acknowledges that making the reform commitments that he suggests runs against educational tradition. “When you start changing practices that have gone on for decades, you are going to get resistance,” he says. “Solutions for America: Education Reform,” a report issued in August 2010 by The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, cites teachers unions’ “staunch opposition to meaningful education reform.” But some districts that have adopted reforms based on Marzano’s model have overcome resistance, even gaining support from their teachers’ unions.

A Learner-Centered System

The Adams County (Colo.) School District 50 teamed with Marzano and the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC), a Denver-based nonprofit foundation, to undertake major reform after the Colorado Department of Education placed the district on “Academic Watch” at the end of the 2006-2007 school year. The move followed several years of changing demographics, falling achievement scores and declining enrollment.

In response, the district created a standards-based system organized around engaging students in 21st-century skills, with no traditional letter grades or grade levels. It is a “learner-centered” system in which students are placed at their appropriate performance levels in 10 content areas. Students set goals for themselves one-on-one with their teachers and progress at their own pace with teacher guidance. Instead of earning letter grades to “pass,” as in a traditional classroom, they advance to the next performance level only when they have demonstrated proficiency or mastery of a subject, explains Oliver Grenham, the district’s chief education officer. He credits Marzano with helping the district create that “instructional model that really taps into the learner-centered attributes of a classroom,” consistent with Marzano’s focus on individual students.

Unlike a traditional school, in which all students in a grade advance together to the next grade every year, individual students in Adams County can move up at any time during the school year. For example, students who are more capable in math than in other subjects can advance to a higher math performance level even if the rest of the class isn’t ready.

Adams County 2If they don’t meet proficiency standards at certain performance levels, students still will move up through elementary, middle and high schools as is “socially and developmentally appropriate” for them, Grenham says. But they will remain at the same content performance levels where they were before. “We’re looking at ways that kids can move back and forth” on a platform that expands opportunities for gifted students to “move more quickly” and at-risk students to “see the potential for them as well,” he says. And Grenham acknowledges, “We have to work on the logistics of that to make it efficient.” One possibility being considered, he says, is that elementary school students gifted in a particular content area, like math, could move up to a middle school math class, then back to elementary school for the rest of the day for other subjects. Still, by teaching to the instructional level of individual students, he says, “they all are able to move more quickly through our system.”

Evaluating Effective Teaching Practices

St. Lucie County (Fla.) Public Schools has adopted Marzano’s model for teacher evaluation with a new system that requires principals and other school and district administrators to spend time in classrooms observing teachers, and then, in turn, giving them feedback.

“We have talked for decades about school administrative leaders, principals in particular, being instructional and educational leaders, and this is really causing that to happen,” declares Superintendent Michael J. Lannon. Most members of his executive council also are involved in classroom walk-throughs, during which they look at specific elements of instruction. Lannon himself sometimes participates in the observations and feedback. “Before, our evaluations were very subjective. Now, with the Marzano framework, we have specifics on what each teaching strategy should look like, so it is more clear to teachers and administrators what effective teaching practices are,” adds Susan Ranew, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources.

Following each walk-through, one member of the observation team serves as facilitator in a debriefing that leads to all the observers coming to a consensus on rating teachers on the instructional elements that were being observed.

The St. Lucie district kicked off its new teacher evaluation system last June with a webinar for teachers and administrators. It has followed up with additional webinars and extensive professional development, face-to-face with teachers and administrators, using outside trainers as well as specially trained leaders in each school. Lannon says the teachers’ union’s involvement in developing and implementing the system is significant. “It says we all are in this together. We all have responsibilities because we are professionals,” he declares.

Lannon now sees “a radically changed team of teachers and administrators” throughout the district. “This has really changed their responsibilities,” he says. “Redundancy and lack of common understanding will be greatly reduced and student progress far better aligned with what students need to know and be able to do for the grade or course they are engaged in.” Lannon declares that this is “not just tinkering around the edges. It is real systemic reform.”