Enacting the High Reliability Schools Framework: The Work of Highly Effective Australian Schools and School Leaders

by | Mar 10, 2020

Principal Bev Thompson of Thomas Chirnside Primary School — a High Reliability School — explains the PLC room to visiting educators.

There is a vast and ever-expanding body of research on effective school leadership and school improvement (see Transformative Collaboration by Flanagan et al., 2016). In recent times this research was synthesised by Robert Marzano, Phil Warrick and Julia Simms in the Handbook for High Reliability Schools (2014) to provide an evidence-based model of what highly effective schools do to increase achievement for every student.

The handbook was later reviewed for an Australian context to ensure that it was consistent with the Australian Education Act and aligned with state and federal government education policies. Of particular importance was how the High Reliability Schools (HRS) framework could be utilised for strategic planning alongside the National School Improvement Tool (NSIT), which was endorsed by the Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood (SCSEEC), and made available to all Australian schools for use in their school improvement planning. In short, it became clear that the NSIT provides the ‘what’ of strategic planning, while the HRS framework provides the specificity and the ‘how’ for improving learning outcomes for all students.

The HRS framework is organised into five hierarchical levels that enable schools to focus on sets of interlinked factors known to have a positive and statistically significant impact on student achievement. Rather than working on isolated activities or initiatives, the five levels, which move from factors that cultivate professional collaboration through to factors that address higher levels of learning for teachers and students, provide the basis for integrated, targeted acts of improvement.

The table below details the five levels and the critical commitments necessary for each level for a school to achieve high reliability status – schools that have high, clear, shared goals; real-time, understandable, comprehensive data systems; collaborative environments; flexibility; formalised operating procedures; a focus on best practices; rigorous teacher development systems; and clean, well-functioning campuses (Marzano et al., 2014).




Level 5 Competency-Based Education

Get rid of time requirements so that students move to the next level of content as they demonstrate competence at the previous level.

Adjust reporting systems accordingly.

Level 4 Standards-Referenced Reporting

Develop proficiency scales (learning progressions) for the essential content.

Report status and growth on the student report using proficiency scales.

Level 3 Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum

Continually monitor the viability of the curriculum.

Create a comprehensive vocabulary program.

Use direct instruction for knowledge application and metacognitive skills.

Level 2 Effective Teaching in Every Classroom

Create an evaluation system whose primary purpose is teacher development:

  • The system is comprehensive and specific.
  • The system includes a developmental scale.
  • The system acknowledges and supports growth.
Level 1 Safe and Collaborative Culture Implement the professional learning community (PLC) process.

Since both the HRS framework and the NSIT are based on an extensive evidence base of research and practice, it is not surprising that they are quite closely aligned. An outline of the links between each NSIT domain and HRS is provided below.

Domain 1 – An explicit improvement agenda

Using the leading and lagging indicators provided in the Handbook for High Reliability Schools, the school leadership team can establish and drive a strong improvement agenda for the school, grounded in evidence from research and practice. Leading indicators provide the direction a school should work on while the lagging indicators are the evidence that a school has achieved a specific high level of performance.

Domain 2 – Analysis and discussion of data

Schools working with the HRS framework give high priority to the school-wide analysis and discussion of systematically collected data on student outcomes, including academic, attendance and behavioural outcomes, and student wellbeing. Although data analysis is important at all levels of the HRS framework, it is foundational within the PLC process of Level 1 as collaborative teams come together to monitor through data the impact of the school’s actions on student learning.

Domain 3 – A culture that promotes learning

A key premise of the PLC process of Level 1 is a deep belief that every student is capable of successful learning. As teachers come together in collaborative teams a high priority is given to building and maintaining positive and caring relationships between staff, students and parents. The PLC processes foster a strong collegial culture of mutual trust and support among teachers and school leaders. Additionally, as schools work on the leading indicators and critical commitments of Levels 1, 2 and 3 they proactively work together to maintain a learning environment that is safe, respectful, tolerant and inclusive while also promoting intellectual rigour.

Domain 4 – Targeted use of school resources

The systems within the HRS framework enable schools to target resources in a manner that will best meet the learning and wellbeing needs of all students. An important aspect of schools working within the HRS framework is the continual monitoring of structures and processes so that they can respond appropriately to the needs of individual learners.

Domains 5 & 8 – An expert teaching team and effective pedagogical practices

Inherent within Level 2 of the HRS framework is developing and maintaining effective instruction in every classroom. This is achieved through six leading indicators:

  1. The school leader communicates a clear vision of how instruction should be addressed in the school. Within the HRS framework, The New Art and Science of Teaching (2017) is used to provide school leaders and teachers with a common language to build both individual and collective expertise.
  2. Support is provided to teachers to continually enhance their pedagogical skills through reflection and professional growth plans.
  3. Predominant instructional practices throughout the school are known and monitored.
  4. Teachers are provided with clear, ongoing feedback on their pedagogical strengths and areas of growth based on multiple sources of data and consistent with student achievement data.
  5. Teachers are provided with job-embedded professional learning that is directly related to their instructional growth plans.
  6. Teachers have opportunities to observe and discuss effective teaching.

Domain 6 – Systematic curriculum delivery

This domain is addressed mainly through Level 3 of the HRS framework although it is also linked with work of the collaborative teams (Level 1) and the effective teaching factors of Level 2. Schools working with the HRS framework ensure the following:

  1. The curriculum and accompanying assessments adhere to state and nationally agreed standards.
  2. The school curriculum is focused enough that it can be adequately addressed in the time available to teachers.
  3. All students have the opportunity to learn the critical content of the curriculum.
  4. Clear and measurable goals are established and focused on critical needs regarding improving overall student achievement at the school level.
  5. Data are analysed, interpreted and used to regularly monitor progress towards school achievement goals.
  6. Appropriate school- and classroom-level programs and practices are in place to help students meet individual achievement goals when data indicate interventions are needed.

Domain 7 – Differentiated teaching and learning

High Reliability Schools place a high priority on ensuring that classroom teachers identify and address the learning needs of individual students, including high-achieving students. This is important at all levels of the framework but is prominent in Levels 4 and 5. Schools operating at these levels can pinpoint specifically each student’s learning needs and growth towards priority content standards. Further, students are able to move to the next level of the curriculum for any subject area once they have demonstrated competence, and the school timetable is designed to accommodate students moving at a pace appropriate to their situation and needs.

Domain 9 – School community partnerships

Surveys for each level of the HRS framework are available so that schools can receive feedback from parents and students on each leading indicator of performance.  As school leaders analyse and act on the data collected, parents and families are recognised as integral members of the school community and partners in their children’s education.



The HRS framework provides school leadership teams with not only a clear direction but also the mechanisms to continually monitor the impact of their efforts as they strive to transform their schools — schools that proactively work to minimise failure within the system and maximise student learning and success.


Upcoming Professional Learning Events with Janelle Wills

Marzano High Reliability Schools Summit

Incorporating The New Art and Science of Teaching

Brisbane, March 26–27 2020

The Marzano High Reliability Schools Summit, incorporating The New Art and Science of Teaching, is a leading school transformation event for F–12 educators. The summit’s keynotes, breakout sessions and resources translate Dr Robert J Marzano’s 50 years of research into practical strategies attendees can use to significantly advance student achievement

Book now at Hawker Brownlow Education/Solution Tree Australia

Essential Resources

A Handbook for High Reliability Schools

Robert J. Marzano, Phil Warrick and Julia A. Simms with David Livingston, Pam Livingston, Fred Pleis, Tammy Heflebower, Jan Hoegh, Sonny Magaña and Gavin Grift

n this invaluable manual for whole-school improvement, Dr Robert J. Marzano and his co-authors help you to transform your school into an organisation that takes proactive steps to prevent failure and ensure student success.

Buy now at Hawker Brownlow Education

Transformative Collaboration

Five Commitments for Leading a Professional Learning Community

 Tonia Flanagan, Gavin Grift, Kylie Lipscombe, Colin Sloper, Janelle Wills

Transformative Collaboration: Five Commitments for Leading a Professional Learning Community provides insights, tips and techniques to help you transform your school through collaboration with the goal of becoming a high-performing PLC.

Buy now at Hawker Brownlow Education

The New Art and Science of Teaching

Robert J. Marzano

The New Art and Science of Teaching by Robert J. Marzano is more than a revision of The Art and Science of Teaching. It is a greatly expanded volume, offering a framework for substantive change based on Marzano’s fifty years of education research and observation.

Buy now at Hawker Brownlow Education


Flanagan, T., Grift, G., Lipscombe, K., Sloper, C & Wills, J. (2016). Transformative collaboration: Five commitments for leading a PLC. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Marzano, R. J., Warrick, P. & Simms, J. A. (2014). A Handbook for High Reliability Schools: The next step in school reform. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Janelle Wills Dr Janelle Wills is the Associate Director of Marzano Research Australia and works extensively with educators, school networks and regions to implement research-based strategies known to impact student achievement. Read more articles by Janelle Wills

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