Cognia’s podcast, Leader Chat with Dr. Jeff Rose, engages experts and practitioners to discuss the challenges of school leadership, and emphasizes that you do not need to lead alone. The following is an excerpted conversation with the one and only Dr. Robert Marzano. The interview has been edited for clarity and format.

Rose: Good day leaders, educators. This is a special day because once again I get to talk to a rock star in education. I have this incredible job where we support leaders. One of the things we do for Leadership Circle Members is bring them content on a weekly basis via our Leader Chat live video feed and podcast.

Today I am engaging with Dr. Robert Marzano, co-founder and CEO of Marzano Research in Colorado.

Dr. Marzano is a renowned researcher, trainer, speaker, and author of more than 30 books and 150 articles on education topics such as instruction, assessment writing, and implementation of standards, cognition, effective leadership, and school intervention. His books include The Art and Science of Teaching and Effective Supervision. His research in education theory and contemporary classroom strategies is internationally known and widely practiced by both teachers and administrators.

I’m also told that really, really, good friends and his mother get to call him Bob. So, I welcome Bob Marzano to Leader Chat. Bob, I’m so thankful you’re here.

Marzano: My pleasure, Jeff. Thanks for having me.

Professional evolution

Rose: We’ve been engaged in some very challenging times in education. What have the last few years been like for you?

Marzano: Well, I’ve been working in K–12 education for 53 years. The older you get, the more you focus your energies.

Practices that have always been important to me are standards-based or competency-based education (CBE), assessment, and classroom assessment. On the learning side, I’m interested in the development of students’ cognitive and metacognitive skills, student agency, and student efficacy.

Teacher evaluation is also important to me. As you work on things, you develop programs and practices, but then you always look back and find out where they were weak, and then create the next version that hopefully has taken care of its weaknesses and built on its strengths.

Rose: Your name is a staple in education. If I mention Marzano, people know who I’m referring to, and they know about a lot of the things that you focused on over the years. Can you walk us through your earlier years in education, because obviously you didn’t start as this famous Marzano, like you are now. What led to some of your work? What was it that began to focus you in the areas where you’ve become known?

Marzano: I wanted to be a high school teacher and coach, and that’s what I was. I started in New York at a vocational school called Aviation High School. I moved to Seattle Washington, and taught at the high-school level, coached there, and enjoyed it very much.

Then I got my master’s degree and that’s when I was first introduced to the research world in education. I just got hooked on the fact that there was research that could be applied to the classroom. I then went for my Ph.D. at the University of Washington.

It wasn’t planned, believe me—where I am now. I just wanted to be a high school teacher and a coach. When I finished my Ph.D., the next logical step was to go to a university. I went to The University of Colorado, which I really enjoyed.

But then I was approached by a research laboratory called MACRA—a great place. They offered the opportunity to continue doing the research and to work with schools directly, and I stayed there for 20-plus years. When I left there, I started my own research and development firm. Like I say, none of this was planned. I have a lot of contemporaries who are in their mid-seventies, like I am, and they all say the same thing: it wasn’t planned. It was just like, oh my gosh, this opportunity come came up. Or it was kind of the next logical thing to do.

Every time CBE has come back, it’s come back with the knowledge of what didn’t work before. So, we’re at a time right now where we know enough about how to do it.

The lure and challenges of competency-based education

Rose: Let’s talk about the challenges of competency-based and standards-based instruction. When I was superintendent in the Beaverton school district, there was a very focused effort on creating a transition for students and teachers to more of a competency-based process. We did certain things well and found certain things we needed to learn as leaders—the missteps that we made, the assumptions that we sometimes made about people being ready for the transition.

We knew that we were chasing the right thing. But it definitely was not easy and not seamless and sometimes was misunderstood.

What have you noticed in terms the process of leading this change? Because the work is different now, of course, than it was 20 years ago.

Marzano: It certainly isn’t a new idea. I go back to John Carroll, a great psychologist. Around 1964, he was one of the first to popularize the question, why is it that in K–12 education time is constant, and learning is variable?

And by that he meant, everybody goes to 12 years of school, or 13 years of school, if you start at kindergarten. But in school, there’s a massive variation in terms of what individual students know and are able to do. That was the impetus of the idea. Why can’t we change that?

Why can’t students move as quickly as they possibly can? And so why does it have to be 12 years? Why can’t it be 10 years? Why can’t it be 14 years? And then there were all kinds of iterations of, well, how do you do that? And they had different names. For example, mastery learning, introduced by Benjamin Bloom and implemented by Tom Guskey, was a great idea. It was just ahead of its time. Then after that, there were different attempts, such as outcomes-based education—which got a very bad name—standards-based education, and standards-referenced.

Every time CBE has come back, it’s come back with the knowledge of what didn’t work before. So, we’re at a time right now where we know enough about how to do it. Things are in place that weren’t in place before, such as standards and ways of measurement technology, learning management systems and grading practices.

Moving to CBE is very doable right now. The good news is there’s no one way to do it. A school or district has a lot of flexibility. There are a lot of common misconceptions about competency-based or standards-based approaches.

For example, it’s not true that you can’t give a student an overall grade.  You can still have an overall grade and GPA, and valedictorians and salutatorians, and you can still have grade levels if you wish, but there’s a lot of leeway that schools and districts have to create their own system.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. I think we know it takes three to five years. We have learned what to do first, what to hold off on. Don’t change your report card right away; if you do it slowly and thoughtfully you can create something that’s really powerful.

Rose: I’m laughing, because I’m going back in my mind; like I said, some of the missteps that we took we would do differently now. Was it frustrating sometimes to watch efforts that you knew missed the core concept? To see it misunderstood over and over?

Marzano: I’m not sure if I’d use the word ‘frustration.’ Uneven progress is just the name of the game when you’re trying to make change in any large-scale institution, especially education, because education permeates our society. Everybody’s affected by it.

Even when you’re not directly involved, it affects your kids, your grandkids. Everybody has a stake in it and everybody wants it to be the best possible. Change is always very difficult, particularly in things that people are used to, such as GPAs and omnibus grades. So, when you have a version of competency-based education that omits those, that’s going to be a tough sell.

If you’re trying to make substantive change, even if you don’t realize it going in, you soon find out that there’s going to be resistance, there are going to be mistakes, there’s going to be a lot of misunderstanding. But you just have to keep at it.

If you’re trying to make substantive change, even if you don’t realize it going in, you soon find out that there’s going to be resistance, there are going to be mistakes, there’s going to be a lot of misunderstanding. But you just have to keep at it.

I forgot who said this—it certainly wasn’t me, because I think it’s brilliant. It goes something like, “Even the greatest idea takes about two decades to implement.” In a system of education, that’s about right. It’s going to take a long, long time. That just comes with the turf.

Leaders need to know that this is how the process will happen. It’s like: If you don’t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Developing a framework for CBE

Rose: You have these frameworks. I thought maybe you could describe for us what I think are always really interesting: the high-reliability schools framework and the AR science of teaching framework. Can you break those down for us a little bit?

Marzano: It was Tim Waters who introduced me to the concept of a high-reliability organization. That concept has been around for a long time.

High-reliability organizations are organizations in which the stakes are so high that they really can’t afford to fail—like air traffic control. If they fail, it’s big time: like the power grid, the military, and a lot of major organizations.

It’s not that they don’t fail, but they know exactly what to look for, which things represent success in their endeavor. They monitor; they forecast problems and pat themselves on the back when things are going well.

Well, the same approach can apply to education. So we came up with our framework, but anybody, any school or district could create its own high-reliability framework. They would have to identify what they consider are the essential fulcrum points that if you do this well and this well, and this, then you’re going to get the results you want.

They will have identified leading indicators, programs, and practices that are in place. More importantly, they have lagging indicators. They know the metrics that indicate whether those programs and practices are working, and constantly] monitor those.

A school or district could create its own. Now, what we added to that conversation is, we said, well, here’s our version of those indicators. Our framework has five levels of indicators that a school should look at.

Level 1 is a safe, supported, and supportive and collaborative environment—which isn’t new to anyone. We just identified programs and practices that exist at that level.

Level 2 is effective teaching, in every classroom.

Level 3 is a guaranteed and viable curriculum.

Level is standards-referenced schooling, and level 5 is competency-based education.

It takes about five years to develop something, at least for me, because you really have to get grounded in “what does the literature say? What does the research say?” You have to develop your own version and try that out—realizing that you’re going to make mistakes in the beginning.

It’s usually about 50 years out when you can say, okay this works well enough that we feel comfortable saying, this is something you might do. I’ve always written books. The reason that I’ve done that is to make the information available. Like with the HRS model, the book, Leading a High-Reliability School, a school could pick that up and create their own version.

That’s a framework for school effectiveness. In The Art and Science of Teaching, it was the same thing with instruction. It started with meta-analyses, looking at the research, organizing the ideas into discrete, small units, and then turning that into ways to get someone better at this if they wanted to do it. And then we turn that into a framework. And that’s always been the development process.

Dr. Jeff Rose continues his conversation with Marzano in Part II.

Robert J. Marzano, Ph.D.
Robert J. Marzano, PhD, is cofounder and CEO of Marzano Research in Colorado. A leading researcher in education, he is a speaker, trainer, and author of more than 30 books and 150 articles on topics such as instruction, assessment, writing and implementing standards, cognition, effective leadership, and school intervention. His books include The Art and Science of Teaching and Effective Supervision. His practical translations of the most current research and theory into classroom strategies are internationally known and widely practiced by both teachers and administrators. Dr. Marzano received a bachelor’s degree from Iona College in New York, a master’s degree from Seattle University, and a doctorate from the University of Washington.
Jeff Rose, Ed.D.
Dr. Jeff Rose is Vice President of Leadership Development at Cognia where he supports Leadership Circle members who are superintendents and their executive teams with pragmatic solutions to everyday problems. He hosts ‘Leader Chat with Jeff Rose’ a podcast where authors, content experts, and working leaders discuss challenges and solutions of school system leadership. Prior to joining Cognia, Dr. Rose was founder of Leading Ed Solutions, and was a three-time superintendent of schools in Fulton County Georgia, Beaverton School District, and Canby School District, both in Oregon. During his 22 years in education, he has also served as a classroom teacher, principal, director of school improvement. Dr. Rose earned his Doctorate and Master of Education degrees from Lewis & Clark College and has an undergraduate degree in education from Long Beach State. Most importantly, he and his wife have two children, one in college and one in high school, and they live in Alpharetta Georgia. Dr. Rose invites you to join the Leadership Circle today!