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Empowering Instructional Leaders for School Improvement: The DODEA Framework School Success Story

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The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy is a non-partisan research and education organization devoted to improving the lives of the people in Virginia. The Institute was organized in 1996, and was the only state and local focused public policy foundation in Virginia, based on a philosophy of limited government, free enterprise and individual responsibility. It is a solutions tank seeking better ways to accomplish the policies and programs currently being undertaken by state and local government —always based on the Institute s underlying philosophy. The first study was published in February 1997.

The work of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy is geared toward educating our political, business and community leadership about the issues facing our society here in Virginia. The Institute offers suggested solutions to these problems in a non-partisan manner.

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This study, Empowering Instructional Leaders for School Improvement: The DoDEA Framework School Success Story, is published by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. This study does not necessarily reflect the views of the Thomas Jefferson Institute or its Board of Directors. Nothing in this study should be construed as an attempt to hinder or aid any legislation.

Table of Contents

Introduction    i-ii

Foreword    iii-iv

Executive Summary    1 -2

The Next Step for the SOL and SOA:

School Improvement    3-4

The US Department of Defense: On the

Cutting Edge of School Improvement    5-9

Instructional Leadership 101    10-12

Management Tools for Continuous School Improvement    13-15

School Improvement Efforts in Virginia    16-17

Applying the Framework-School Lessons in Virginia    18-19

Conclusion    20


Helping underachieving students is critically important. This is so not only for the good of public education, but also for the good of the children who need to gain the best possible education so that they can truly compete in a fast changing and more competitive world.

School districts all over Virginia are working hard to pass the hurdles of the Standards of Learning tests for our students and, at the same time, to gain accreditation by having at least 70% of their students pass the SOLs by 2007.

Under-performing schools are a significant concern in many locations in our state. Some school districts are spending large sums of money in order to confront this issue. Some school districts don’t have the resources to pour additional resources into these failing schools.

This new study by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy is exciting and could be a road map for all school districts that have under-performing schools in their areas. And, frankly, the ideas in this study are likely to help many other schools who want to improve their academic performance, even if they are not actually classified as “at risk” or “under-performing.”

Vanderbilt University recently released a study on the Defense Department schools and it said that one of the key factors in the success of that entire school system was that the teachers had high expectations for their students. This Vanderbilt study also said that those high expectations are, in too many cases, not present in schools located in the poorer areas of our society. All schools can learn from what is happening in the Defense Department schools, and most particularly, our school leadership can learn a great deal from what the DoD did with its worst performing schools.

What is exciting about this study is that with basic management techniques under-performing schools can be dramatically improved without pouring a great deal of money into the process. Indeed, the EXCEL schools in Fairfax County are costing about $800,000 in additional funds each year. The results have been most impressive. But what this new study by the Jefferson Institute shows is that great improvements might well be found without spending these huge sums of money. It seems that what the Defense Department has learned in the program outlined herein should be brought to the table in our public school system and tested to see what the results can be.

If our students in under-performing schools can dramatically improve their education and can do so with much fewer resources than are being spent today in some localities, then everyone is a winner: the students, the parents, the taxpayers, and the school system.

We thank Verizon-Virginia for “sponsoring” this important new study. Verizon is a leading corporate citizen in our state and its interest in improving public education is deeply appreciated by the Thomas Jefferson Institute and those who believe that our public schools must continue to improve if they are to meet the challenges of the future.

Nothing in this report should be construed as promoting a specific piece of legislation. This study does not necessarily reflect the views of the Board of Directors of the Thomas Jefferson Institute. But this study is presented in an effort to bring a creative alternative to the table for our public schools and our elected leaders to consider as they confront the issue of under-performing schools throughout our state.

Michael W. Thompson Chairman and President Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy February 2002


Virginia schools are now working to meet two deadlines: First, to ensure that children attending their school pass enough Standards of Learning exams by 2004 to receive the verified credits necessary for graduation; and second, to ensure the school itself meets the standards necessary for accreditation by 2007.

Across the Commonwealth, school systems are instituting programs – some more expensive than others – to meet those deadlines. But, as is often the case in life, the program that might be most effective is not the most expensive – and is stamped “Not Invented Here.”

While curriculum (including a curriculum that ensures students receive research-based reading and math instruction) has a vital impact, the greatest expense in schools is people: principals, teachers, guidance counselors, instructional aides. Not surprisingly, then, the way the “people resource” is deployed is a crucial issue. Focus those resources on school improvement, provide professional development and empower them to act with the singular goal of student achievement in mind and Virginia’s schools will accomplish a great deal.

Virginia can learn much from the success of a U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) program known as the Framework for School Improvement Support, which dramatically increased student achievement in the system’s lowest performing schools. In order to establish a baseline and make more meaningful test comparisons for different content areas and grade levels, DoDEA created a Normal Curve Equivalent Index (NCE-Index) for all grades in all subjects in all schools, using the nationally recognized standardized TerraNova test.

The 14 Framework schools’ performance was raised to virtual parity with the rest of the DoDEA system in just three years, with an average NCE-index increase nearly 12 points greater than the other schools in the system. Framework schools’ academic improvements were at least two-and-one-half times other DoDEA schools in every subject area, and six times in reading.

This report by former Thomas Jefferson Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Atwood looks at the components of the DoDEA program, from its Leadership Principles, to the Framework within which those principles work, to the lessons Virginia can learn and implement.

Granted, there are components of the Defense Department’s program that are difficult to duplicate in civilian life, particularly in the ability to demand parental involvement and the commitment of a parent’s employer. But these alone are not reasons to deter Virginia’s school leaders from examining the program and improving the academic achievement of all students.

Indeed, many Virginia schools, faced with the requirement of improving SOL test scores, have already done so. Roanoke’s Fishbum Park Elementary demonstrated high expectations for each student with no excuses for failure. Teams of teachers spend the summer reviewing test results and determining where improvement can be found.

Fairfax County’s Pine Spring Elementary School analyzed student test scores, encouraged greater teacher collaboration and made lessons more engaging. And Virginia Beach’s Bayside High School brought together the math, science and history departments to swap strategies and coordinate curricula. Each of these schools contains extremely high poverty rates and numbers of students who do not speak English. And each is remarkable for their skyrocketing SOL test scores after instituting changes.

But such changes are inconsistent. The lessons learned from the Department of Defense, and called for in this report include creating a system-wide policy coherence and structural alignment. It includes staff development that is embedded in the job and consistent with each school’s goals. And it includes centrally establishing clear directions, goals, and targets while empowering local school leaders with the choice of executing the methods: Principals and teachers are given the goals and the resources; how they get there is up to them. But the bottom line remains that they are held accountable for getting there.

Gary Galluzzo, executive vice president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has noted, “This notion of having a school organized around a philosophy which then guides teachers is often undervalued by educators.” But the DoDEA results are clear: The system has successfully narrowed the achievement gap between white and non-white students. And if the DOD schools were considered as a single state, they would rank near the top-performing states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

The state’s Standards of Learning and their concomitant tests have pushed many local schools to engage in best practices that achieve results. Now, it is time to foster the management practices that will expand the use of those best practices.

Empowering instructional leaders through the right kind of training and coaching and offering a strategic focus on school improvement are crucial to improving student learning and teaching practice. While Virginia has made a good start in addressing this strategy, the state’s education leaders must devote much more to it to ensure the success of our students in the years ahead.

Christian N. Braunlich Member, Fairfax County School Board Vice President, Program Development & Director, Center for Excellence in Education Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy

Executive Summary

Virginia can learn much from the success of a US Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) program known as the Framework for School Improvement Support, which dramatically increased student achievement in the system’s lowest performing schools. The 14 Framework schools’ performance was raised to virtual parity with the rest of the DoDEA system in just three years, with an average NCE-index increase 11.8 percentage points greater than the other schools in the system. Framework schools’ academic improvements were at least two-and-one-half times other DoDEA schools in every subject area, and six times in reading.

Virginia’s 2001-2002 School Accreditation Status report reflects significant progress in meeting the demands the Standards of Accreditation require schools to achieve by 2007. But with 550 schools still below the annual progress benchmarks, much more improvement must occur between now and the 2007 deadline. As illustrated by the Framework program, the crucial issues are management issues: a strategic focus on school improvement as measured by student achievement, and professional training and coaching to empower principals and school leaders for instructional leadership.

Leadership Principles

The most basic principle of the Framework strategy was that reliable school improvement requires principals and school leaders to become competent instructional leaders. No issue received as much attention as leadership training, emphasizing five school-leadership principles.

Leadership Principle #1: Equip principals with the leadership and management training needed to be the instructional leaders of their schools. Principals are the key to improvement: Empower excellent principals and you create excellent schools.

Leadership Principle #2: Focus laser-like on student achievement. Anything that does not contribute to student achievement distracts resources from the “main thing.”

Leadership Principle #3: Facilitate team decision-making about how to achieve school improvement. Do not try to personally control every aspect of school improvement, but guide it through distributed leadership.

Leadership Principle #4: Encourage positive, can-do attitudes about school, teacher, and principal potentials. Faultfinding and dwelling on failures distracts and demoralizes the very people who must lead improvements.

Leadership Principle #5: Face the facts of problem personnel and act. Deal with problem personnel by requiring from all educators a commitment to improvement and a willingness and ability to learn. Remove those without that commitment.

The Framework for Success

A Strategic Framework for Whole School Improvement: The Framework training program provided seven practical management tools and strategies for continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

1. Identify and use a school-wide instructional focus.

2.    Develop teacher collaboration teams to look at student work

3.    Identify, learn, and use effective research-based teaching practices.

4.    Create a targeted professional development plan.

5.    Re-align resources (people, time, talent, energy, and money) to support the instructional focus.

6.    Involve parents and the community in academic standards, assessments, and in supporting students ’ academic success.

7.    Create an internal accountability system (growing out of student learning goals that are S.M.A.R.T.).

Lessons for Virginia

Virginia’s systematic efforts to improve schools as measured by student learning are just beginning. The success of DoDEA’s model can be replicated in Virginia, but bold, creative leadership is necessary to make it happen, including the following –

Adopt the philosophy, strategy, and rhetoric of empowering instructional leaders for school improvement: Empowering school leaders, especially principals, is the key to improving Virginia’s schools and making the SOL and SOA work.

Align resources to student learning throughout the system: Resource allocation based on student learning impacts must be applied at all levels of education.

Focus primary responsibility and accountability for instructional leadership on principals: It is vital for Virginia to make a major commitment to recruiting, training, and keeping excellent principals.

Invest in (the right kind of) training: Virginia should establish in VDOE a substantial office of professional development to manage an increased investment in training programs for principals, superintendents, and teachers.

Insist on standards and school improvement, but delegate decision-making regarding how they are achieved: Principals should build teacher collaboration teams to improve teaching practice, and be held accountable for results.

Expect continuous improvement from all schools, divisions, and the system:

Always striving to improve is one of the characteristics of a good school, division, and public education system.

Standards in the Balance: The long-term viability of Virginia’s Standards of Learning and Standards of Accreditation is in the balance. For the SOL and SOA to navigate this transition, Virginia’s school-improvement efforts must raise the performance of 1,108 not yet Fully Accredited schools to satisfactory levels, without undermining the standards. Virginia should adopt many of the techniques and strategies of the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity’s Framework for School Improvement Support, to ensure the success of the SOL and SOA in the years ahead.

The Next Step for the SOL and SOA: School Improvement

Virginia has made substantial progress in the design and implementation of its Standards of Learning (SOL) and Standards of Accreditation (SOA), and in the modification of these standards. No one should have expected education policymakers and bureaucrats to get the system right on the first try. No doubt, further adjustments will be required. But it is crucial during this transition for all interested parties to remain committed to the program’s basic components: rigorous but reasonable standards for student and school achievement, accurate measurements of student and school achievement of these standards, and appropriate consequences for students and schools for their success or failure in meeting the standards.

The Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) 2001-2002 Virginia School Accreditation Status report reflects both significant progress, and a long way to go, in meeting the demands the SOA require schools to achieve by 2007. (See Figure 1 below.) Out of 1,839 K-12 public schools in Virginia, 731 (40 percent) have achieved the status of Fully Accredited, and 558 (30 percent) are Provisionally Accredited/Meets State Standards. The latter status means a school has met the annual progress benchmarks and is on track for full and timely accreditation. However, there are still 420 schools (23 percent) Provisionally Accredited/Needs Improvement, which means they are within fewer than 20 percentage points of annual progress benchmarks. And there are 130 schools (7 percent) Accredited with Warning, meaning they are 20 or more points below the benchmarks.1 While there were substantial gains in accreditation status results during the past two years, there is clearly much more school improvement that must occur in Virginia between now and 2007.

There is strong and widespread commitment in Virginia to the principles of education standards and accountability – and rightly so. As common sense tells us and the record has amply demonstrated, holding students and schools accountable to higher standards improves their performance. But the data from the School Accreditation Status report suggest that many schools in Virginia will simply not make the grade without additional assistance. The next major focus in implementing the SOL and SOA, therefore, should be school improvement, as measured by student achievement. It is not enough for the education system to set standards, measure performance, and define consequences. The system should also empower individual schools with the leadership and expertise they need to succeed in meeting the standards for student achievement.

The SOL vision for all of Virginia’s public schools should be a high-expectations culture that strives always to improve, inspired by academic achievement and the love of learning. This vision requires a commitment to school improvement in every school, especially the failing schools, so that no school is left behind. Funding is not the primary issue, though some additional or redirected funding may be necessary. The crucial issues are management issues: a strategic focus on school improvement as measured by student achievement, and the leadership and expertise to make school improvement happen, through professional training and coaching. As illustrated by the successful school-improvement program described here, Virginia’s situation calls for a major effort to train results-focused, team-building instructional leaders, especially principals, within schools and divisions.

Figure 1: 2001-2002 Virginia Public Schools Accreditation Status

130 (7%)
558 (30%)

Fully Accredited

Provisionally Accredited/Meets State Standards □ Provisionally Accredited/Needs Improvement □Accredited with Warning

Empowerment is the key to making standards and accountability work. If the education system is going to require more from students and schools, it should equip them with the tools they need to get the job done. As partners with, not masters of, schools and divisions, education policymakers and bureaucrats should ensure that the public education system does everything it can to empower students, schools, and school leaders to reach for and achieve their potential. The words of school improvement expert Richard Elmore apply to those in authority throughout the public education system: “Leaders are responsible for helping to make possible what they are requiring others to do. A boss can command whatever she likes. A leader gets her authority from making sure that people have a chance to learn to do what she asks.”2

The US Department of Defense:

On the Cutting Edge of School Improvement

As reported recently, “the average academic performance of all students in schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) is high, and the performance of African-American and Hispanic students is among the highest in the


nation as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” (DoDEA oversees 227 public schools serving approximately 112,000 children of military personnel residing at U.S. military installations, both in the U.S. and abroad.)4 Yet there is another success story to tell about the DoDEA system. Unbeknownst to most of the rest of the world of public education, from 1997 to 2000 DoDEA developed and implemented a school-improvement model that dramatically increased student achievement in the system’s lowest performing schools. This successful program, which is largely replicable in Virginia’s schools, was named the “Framework for School Improvement Support” and served 14 schools for three years in the U.S. and overseas. Schools were selected on the basis of their (1) low student achievement levels in reading, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies; (2) large achievement gaps between their minority students and the total DoDEA student population; and (3) small achievement gains from 1994 to 1997. The primary goals of the program were to:

•    Accelerate “Framework” schools’ progress toward DoDEA’s Strategic Plan benchmarks for student achievement.

•    Devise and implement a school-improvement process that increases student achievement and inspires buy-in and cooperation from teachers and throughout the school community.

•    Train principals, superintendents, and teacher leaders for instructional leadership, providing them practical skills and resources for ongoing school improvement.

DoDEA personnel themselves implemented the first year of the program, 1997-1998. Under DoDEA supervision, Focus on Results (FoR) – a consulting firm based in Huntington Beach, California – assisted with the program in its second and third years, 1998-1999 and 1999-2000, at a cost of $70,000 for FoR’s first year and $100,000 for the second.5 FoR associates specialize in training and coaching principals, superintendents, and school leaders in developing and implementing school improvement plans (SIPs) that significantly increase student achievement and equip them with instructional strategies and tools for continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

The Framework program delivered professional development and leadership training to the schools’ improvement leaders, through major training events, on-site coaching, on-site briefings, and peer support and networking meetings. The training was targeted most especially to principals, but also to district superintendents, school improvement team leaders on site, and other teacher leaders. There were four major offsite training events, each one about three to five days long, and each one followed within one month by two to three days of on-site coaching at each school. In the first year, there were also several weeks of training and planning sessions for site team leaders, and one session for other school improvement team leaders, including parents.

As evidenced in participant surveys, school leaders felt they learned a great deal from the Framework training events. But it was during the follow-up, on-site coaching when the lessons for principals were personalized and made practical. During an on-site session, the principal and coach did everything together as a team, walking the building, attending meetings, inspecting SIP implementation, and promoting school morale and cohesion. Coaching of the principal and the school improvement team was constant throughout these visits. Coaches asked tough questions, modeled instructional leadership, and helped put into practice specific management tools taught during the training events. Ongoing communications between principal and coach further strengthened the principal’s instructional leadership skills.

The Framework schools were the lowest performing in the DoDEA system at the outset of the program, but their academic scores were still not terribly low, in the 45-50-percentile range nationally. When asked if the Framework experience had lessons for the lowest-performing schools in Virginia, which score in the lowest quintile, Focus on Results Senior Managing Partner Joseph Palumbo explained: “We’ve seen these training principles and systems work in low-, medium-, and high-performing schools. In fact, the schools that are most difficult to improve are the ones that think they are already performing satisfactorily. Low-performing schools often show the greatest improvement because they have more room to improve and tend to have a greater sense of urgency, especially in the context of standards and high-stakes accountability.”6 The fact that the Framework schools were in the mid-range of national percentiles makes the improvements all the more impressive and the model all the more promising.

Framework School Improvement Results

During the three years of the Framework for School Improvement Support, the schools in the program improved much more than the rest of the schools in the DoDEA system. In order to establish a baseline, DoDEA created a Normal Curve Equivalent Index for all grades in all subjects in all schools, using the nationally recognized TerraNova test. By creating an NCE Index, the reported test results can be averaged to make more meaningful comparisons across test results for different content areas and grade levels.

The Framework schools showed growth in index scores across all grade levels and subject areas. As shown in Figure 2 (next page), the mean Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) index for the Framework schools rose on average from 49.7 in 1997 to 57.7 in 2000, an increase of 8.0 NCEs, or 16.1 percent. By contrast the rest of the DoDEA system rose only 2.4 NCEs, or 4.3 percent, from 56.2 in 1997 to 58.6 in 2000. Thus, in this three-year period, the Framework schools rose to virtual parity with the rest of the system, their mean NCE index being within one point of the average for all other DoDEA schools.7

Figure 2: Comparison between Framework Schools and other DoDEA Schools:

Change in Average Mean Normal Curve Equivalent, 1997-2000

NCE Index Score Growth 1997-2000
DoDEA System

Framework Schools

On average, Framework schools also improved more in each subject than the rest of the DoDEA system. Using the TerraNova Index, as shown in Figure 3 below, in the two years from Spring of 1998 to Spring 2000, Framework schools’ growth in average median national percentile was at least two-and-one-half times that of the rest of the DoDEA system, in every subject area, and six times in reading.8

Instructional Leadership 101

How did the Framework program work? What accounts for its success? The most basic principle of the Framework strategy was that reliable, continuous school improvement requires principals and school leaders who are trained and competent in the essentials of instructional leadership. No other issue in DoDEA’s Framework program received as much attention as leadership training.13 Following are some of the crucial school leadership principles that were emphasized in the training events, coaching sessions, and printed materials provided to participants.

Leadership Principle #1: Equip principals with the leadership and management training they need to be the instructional leaders of their schools.

Principals are the key to school improvement. Wherever there is a school that has succeeded against the odds in increasing student learning, there is a principal who through his or her leadership has promoted a culture of achievement in that school. A good principal creates a positive, orderly, high-hopes and high-expectations environment, finds good teachers and brings out the best in them. Good principals lead by example, manifesting the qualities and behaviors they hope others will adopt, including opening themselves up to the same scrutiny they apply to others. If principals are held accountable for school performance, they should receive the training, professional development, and clear authority they need to produce the expected results. Superintendents and district leaders should also be trained to help principals grow into their leadership roles. DoDEA’s Framework school-improvement training programs focused mostly on principals and superintendents.

Leadership Principle #2: Focus laser-like on student achievement.

The purpose of education is student learning. The focus of public education should therefore be on providing high-quality instruction. Yet there is a tendency throughout the public education system for numerous peripheral programs to consume precious resources and thus undermine success with this fundamental purpose. Principals and school leaders should focus their schools’ efforts on producing positive results in student learning. Anything that does not contribute to student achievement should not be allowed to distract resources from this “main thing.” Framework training taught leaders how to “keep the main thing the main thing” and how to say “no” to seemingly good ideas that have little to do with this top priority.

Leadership Principle #3: Facilitate team decision-making about how to achieve school improvement.

School improvement cannot be successfully planned and implemented with an exclusively top-down approach. The principal’s or school leader’s task is not to attempt to control personally every aspect of school improvement, but to guide it through distributed leadership. Principals should establish and guide self-managing teams of teachers, who are committed to improving student achievement and teaching practice, make decisions and monitor progress together, and counsel and hold each other accountable as peers. This guideline does not mean that school-improvement teams should be allowed to question whether to improve student achievement. But resolving how to achieve it can and should be a matter for teamwork. Team-building strengthens morale and commitment, and brings practical “front-line” insights into the decisionmaking process:

“In a knowledge-intensive enterprise like teaching and learning there is no way to perform the complex tasks involved without distributing the responsibility for leadership and creating a common culture that makes this distributed leadership coherent. It is the ‘glue’ of a common task or goal – improvement of instruction — and a common set of values for how to approach that task that keep distributed leadership from becoming another version of [the status quo]. Across the board agreement on basic aims and values is a precondition for leading an organization toward instructional improvement.”14

Leadership Principle #4: Encourage positive, can-do attitudes about school, teacher, and principal potentials.

Even though the Framework schools were the poorest performing schools in the system, DoDEA gave the program the theme of “Making Good Schools Better.” The mere labeling of a school as a Framework school was quite effective in letting school leaders know that they have a problem and must produce better results in student achievement. Faultfinding and dwelling on failures can distract and demoralize the very people who have to lead improvements. Focusing on and achieving results means looking constructively toward the future in a practical problem-solving spirit. In the Framework model, principals and school-improvement leaders are cheerleaders of school successes and encouragers during difficulties.

Leadership Principle #5: Face the facts of problem personnel, and act.

Framework training did not address in a detailed way the issue of how to deal with uncooperative or incompetent personnel – because instructional coaches could lose the trust of their trainees if they were perceived as possibly being involved in job-security issues. Despite the training’s relative silence on the issue, though, at the beginning of the program more than half of the Framework schools’ principals were “rotated” to other schools in the DoDEA system. Moreover, some of the program’s printed materials did indicate that principals and superintendents must exercise a strong hand in the area of personnel and “counsel out” unhelpful and ineffective personnel. For example, among those materials was a case study of the successful school-improvement program in New York City’s District 2, which reported that Superintendent Anthony Alvarado replaced 20 of the district’s 30 or so principals in his first four years, and about 50 percent of the district’s teachers during his eight-year tenure.15

According to Focus on Results’ Joseph Palumbo, the key to success in dealing with problem personnel is to insist that all educators have a commitment to improvement and a willingness and ability to learn.16 When challenged, most school leaders are ready, willing, and able to learn how to serve the mission of school improvement, in the interest of helping children. But when some resist redirection toward this crucial mission and refuse to learn, they should be required to find more appropriate positions. In the interest of student learning, competence must be considered as well, even if a failing school leader is willing to change. Similarly with teachers, if principals have established trust and respect, built a team, and created support for the mission of school improvement, there should not be any major backlash to removing teachers who are not team players or simply cannot pull their weight after being given a fair chance.

Management Tools for Continuous School Improvement

In addition to teaching leadership principles to principals and school leaders, DoDEA’s Framework for School Improvement Support provided practical management strategies and techniques for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. It did so by teaching seven areas of focus:

The Seven Areas of Focus: A Strategic Framework for Whole School Improvement

1.    Identify and use a schoolwide instructional focus.

The first management tool emphasized by the Framework program was the practice of identifying and using a school wide instructional focus. Training materials defined an instructional focus as “the one thing [a school does] excellently, expertly, better than anyone else, in every classroom for every student” and what school leaders were “willing to hold [themselves] accountable for and expect their students to know and be able to do.”17 With FoR coaching, each Framework school’s Instructional Leadership Team would involve the entire staff in examining student achievement data in order to assess student needs and then draft the school’s instructional focus based on the identified need.

An instructional focus creates a unity of purpose in the school and promotes collaboration among principals, teachers, and other administrators. It helps to weed out unnecessary programs that do not contribute to achieving the school’s priorities. Most Framework schools chose literacy as their instructional focus. Typically, once a school has worked with one instructional focus for several years, it moves on to another. A common sequence is literacy first, followed by mathematics. An important part of making the instructional focus operational schoolwide is for the administration and faculty to be consistent and unified in the messages and vocabulary they use to describe it.


According to FoR’s Palumbo, the requirement to meet subject standards, such as the Standards of Learning, is not in conflict with the idea of an instructional focus: “A well chosen instructional focus will improve a school’s performance in all subject areas, not just in the area of the instructional focus.”18 That was certainly the case with the Framework schools, whose 1998-2000 growth in national median percentiles in every subject area was more than two-and-one-half times that observed in the other schools in the DoDEA system.19

2.    Develop teacher collaboration teams to look at student work.

In order to ensure increased student learning, it is necessary to monitor regularly the progress of student work in relation to the instructional focus and academic standards, and to adapt instruction and curriculum accordingly. Framework training and coaching taught principals to build teacher teams for looking at student work and assessing teaching practice. Teachers’ collaborative efforts to focus on student work gave them information they needed to modify instruction and create support systems to help students meet the standards. This focus also guided teachers’ professional development planning more strategically and strengthened their working relationships and unity of purpose. School leaders’ isolation from each other discourages their learning together and undermines the potential for school improvement. The Framework professional-development model connects principals, superintendents, teachers, and instructional-leadership trainers in observing and advising each other in all sorts of collaborative activities, both inside and outside the classroom, to address problems and find better ways of instructing.

3.    Identify, learn, and use effective research-based teaching practices.

The Framework model’s focus on training counters the status quo,

“we’ ve-always-done-it-this-way” reflex. If the goal is school improvement, especially if the school is failing, no usual way of doing things should be considered immune from having its effectiveness evaluated. Framework schools were taught to guide their selection of teaching practices by the knowledge of what students need (as learned in #2) and by the research-based knowledge of what techniques work to address those needs. Framework training helped schools test different teaching practices, monitor their impact on student performance, and adapt their instruction and administration accordingly. As one superintendent put it, the goal is to “put our energy into the very best practices even if it means placing less emphasis on other good practices.”20

4.    Create a targeted professional development plan.

As with every strategy in the Framework program, professional development was not the end in itself. DoDEA’s Framework training taught school leaders to create an integrated plan for professional development that is aligned with the school’s instructional focus and with well-specified school and district goals and student needs. Professional-development planning should include ongoing assessment of the plan’s impact on student learning, and adjustments to the plan as indicated by those assessments.

Framework training exposed principals and teachers to actual practice, not just descriptions of practice. The commonplace one-shot, uncoordinated seminar in some hotel is often forgotten when the principal or teacher gets back to school. Retreats should be part of a plan that includes school-based, personalized, ongoing training, with frequent opportunities for observation, coaching, and practice (of current instructional skills, as well as new untried techniques). Training should be available both individually and in groups, such as the whole school faculty, teacher networks in particular subjects, and meetings with school leaders from other educational institutions.

5.    Re-align resources (people, time, talent, energy, and money) to support the instructional focus.

Framework training provided school leaders management tools for reviewing their current uses of resources – people, time, talent, energy, and money – and for re-aligning them to better support the instructional focus. Participants learned to look afresh at everything they did, considering such questions as: Does this activity serve our instructional focus? Is it working, is it improving our instruction and increasing student learning? Do we really need this activity? Is it really serving our students’ needs, or are we using it mainly because we adults are comfortable with it? Which instructional activities, new and existing, should receive additional resources? As one principal put it, the Framework training activities “give you the courage to let what is not essential go by…. They help you to stop, redirect, and go forward with clear goals in mind.”21

6.    Involve parents and the community in academic standards, assessments, and in supporting students’ academic success.

Parents’ involvement in their children’s education improves student performance. Framework training taught school leaders to bring parents and families into the school improvement process by treating them as valued clients.

A simple, but important, first step was inviting parents to participate: Framework schools held “Parent Academies” on instructional focus and “Lessons at Lunch” for parents to learn about various subjects’ instructional strategies. They involved parents in SIP decision-making meetings, and communicated with them through interactive newsletters and parent focus groups. For students requiring extra help, Framework schools launched summer “Jump Start” programs and before-, during-and after-school tutorials, with help from parents and community members who served as tutors and mentors. Framework coaches encouraged schools to promote and celebrate gains in student learning “shamelessly,” an activity many parents and communities were pleased to join.

7.    Create an internal accountability system (growing out of at least two measurable student learning goals that are S.M.A.R.T.).

Framework participants learned how to set goals that were SMART -Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound. Schools were required: to specify SMART goals in their SIPs, including goals pertaining to academic standards and instructional focus; to monitor teacher and student progress towards these goals every 6 to 8 weeks, using reliable data collection systems; and to adjust instruction as indicated by these regular assessments. In addition to the accountability in the principal-teacher relationship, peers and colleagues in the Framework model impose accountability upon each other, through mutual observation and coaching and through the many team collaborations in goal setting, looking at student work, and improving teaching practice. Unlike some schools’ dysfunctional peer pressure toward mediocrity and conformity, peer accountability in the Framework model is inspired by and directed toward student achievement.

School-Improvement Efforts in Virginia

Virginia’s education policymakers and Department of Education seem to recognize the importance of the school-improvement challenge, and, though they have a long way to go, have begun to assemble and execute a plan for school improvement, for schools Accredited with Warning. Jo Lynne DeMary, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction in the Gilmore administration, wrote to Division Superintendents in October 2000, “The Board [of Education] has not only established a system for accrediting schools, it is also committed to establishing systems and processes for helping schools that are most in need of assistance.” She went on to describe the academic review process that VDOE would provide to assist Accredited with Warning schools with their school improvement planning process, as required by law: “At each school we envision a process that would involve one or two educators reviewing preliminary documentation, conducting a two- to three-day site visit, and preparing a final report. The site visitors will be working with the school principal and teachers to look at critical success factors such as instructional and intervention strategies, staff development efforts, use time and scheduling, data analysis strategies, and curriculum alignment and pacing in the areas of warning.”23

VDOE reported in February 2001, “Academic review teams from the Virginia

• *

Department of Education recently concluded visits to 205 schools where student achievement hasn’t risen to the levels required for either full or provisional accreditation…. Team members spent up to three days working with the principal and faculty of each school to identify issues affecting student performance…. [They] observed classroom instruction and held follow-up discussions with teachers and administrators…. Academic review teams included personnel from Virginia’s eight regional Governor’s Best Practice Centers, staff from the Department of Education’s central office, and other educators who met criteria established by the department.”24

Guided by the General Assembly’s Regulations Establishing Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia, VDOE suggested schools use the following format to organize the required components in their school improvement plans:

Actions to be taken by the school to meet the accreditation benchmarks (or the requirements to be Fully Accredited) during the 3-year plan period.

Assessment measures that will be used to document student academic improvement over time.

Instructional practices designed to remediate students who have not been successful on Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

Intervention practices designed to prevent further declines in student performance.

Comprehensive and sustained professional development activities.

Parental involvement practices designed to assist parents in raising their child’s academic performance.

Management of budget initiatives that demonstrate the use of local, state, and federal funds to meet identified needs.25

Other assorted resources Virginia has provided to assist school improvement in schools Accredited with Warning include Governor Gilmore’s Academic Challenge for Success, a S1 million dollar grant program intended to offer innovative remedial and intervention programs to low-performing schools. VDOE’s Division of Instruction produced and made available the document, “Models/Programs that Include Instructional Methods that Have Proven to Be Successful with Low Achieving Students.” And VDOE offices have offered a variety of workshops such as “Principals Take Charge: Connecting Data Analysis to Instructional Improvement” and the “2001 Comprehensive School Improvement Institute on Teaching and Learning: Practices That Work!” The University of Virginia offered in April 1999 a “Discussion of Strategies for Schools That Achieve, or Fail to Achieve, Expectations for Student Achievement.” Longwood College, another of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, provided two valuable forums in July 2001, the Principals’ Institute and the Center for School Improvement.

To summarize, Virginia’s school-improvement policies apparently incorporate several of the principles and strategies that formed the basis of DoDEA’s success with the Framework for School Improvement Support – including emphasis on student achievement, performance assessments aligned with standards, research-based instructional practices, parental involvement, and staff development. It is still early, though. While these plans indicate serious commitment to school improvement, it remains to be seen whether Virginia’s education-policy leadership will actually produce the kind of comprehensive and sustained professional development activities necessary to empower instructional leaders for success in improving their schools.

Moreover, some of the Framework program’s most crucial principles and strategies are missing or not similarly emphasized in VDOE’s plans. For example, there is not enough emphasis on the Framework model’s most essential point, the vital importance of training principals for instructional leadership. There is also little reference to the ideas of schoolwide instructional focus, teacher collaboration teams to look at student work and assess teaching practices, alignment of resource use to school priorities, and creating a high-expectations school culture. As Virginia’s education leaders work through the present transition, these ideas should be given greater emphasis in VDOE’s evolving school improvement and professional development plans and programs.

Applying the Framework-School Lessons in Virginia

Virginia’s systematic efforts to improve schools as measured by student learning are just beginning. The success of DoDEA’s Framework model can be replicated in Virginia’s schools, but bold, creative leadership is necessary to make it happen. Based on DoDEA’s Framework model and considering the current status of Virginia’s efforts to raise the performance of schools Accredited with Warning, education leaders and practitioners should consider the following recommendations in the design and implementation of the state’s school-improvement strategies.

Adopt the philosophy, strategy, and rhetoric of empowering instructional leaders for school improvement: Empowering school leaders, especially principals, is the key to improving Virginia’s schools Accredited with Warning and making the SOL and SO A work. Simply imposing standards on students and schools, assessing performance of the standards, and announcing consequences for failure, does not mean that principals, superintendents, and teachers will be able, spontaneously, to succeed. To expect that standards and accountability would enable Virginia’s most dysfunctional public schools suddenly to become functional would be unrealistic. To require them to meet those standards without effective and empowering support from state education policies and programs would be unfair. Education policymakers, bureaucrats, and professionals at all levels should advocate and provide for the empowerment of instructional leaders for school improvement, as measured by student achievement. This principle should be treated as equally important to the principles of standards and accountability.

Align resources to student learning throughout the system: Another guiding principle that should permeate every aspect of the public education system is the idea that the paramount purpose of education is student learning. Any other potentially legitimate purpose of education is, at best, distantly secondary to this fundamental purpose. Thus, the key resource-planning question is, how does this expenditure (of time, money, talent, etc.) serve student learning? If it is irrelevant to student learning, or less relevant than some other potential expenditure, then perhaps it is not worth the resources that might be spent on it. This zero-sum resource allocation based on impact on student learning should be applied not only at the school level, but also at the district- and state-levels. As evidenced in DoDEA’s Framework program, resources invested in the right kind of training and coaching for principals and teachers significantly improve student learning.

Focus primary responsibility and accountability for instructional leadership on principals: There should be a system-wide acknowledgement of and commitment to the crucial role that principals play in school success. It is strategically important for Virginia to make a major commitment to recruiting, training, and keeping excellent principals. The principal is responsible for hiring good teachers and helping them succeed. It takes a principal to inspire unity of purpose and promote a culture of achievement in a school. Focusing on principals is also relatively manageable: there are more than 85,000 public school teachers and 1,100,000 public school students in Virginia, but less than 2,000 public school principals (assuming one principal per school), and less than 4,500 public school administrators and principals in all. Superintendents and district-level personnel should be trained in how to work effectively with principals, including how to deal with consistently low-performing principals.

Invest in (the right kind of) training: DoDEA’s Framework-school experience proved that the right kind of training produces significant improvement in student learning. Virginia should establish in VDOE a substantial office of professional development, whose responsibilities will be to manage an increased investment in training programs for principals, superintendents, and teachers – especially principals – and to ensure these programs’ effectiveness in improving student learning. The structure of the training should be a mixture of school-based coaching by experienced professionals, observation visits to other schools, and off-site training seminars – the most important of these being school-based coaching that helps principals deal with real-life problems in practical, hands-on ways. Opportunities to discuss problems and compare notes with peers are also important. Much teacher training can take place within schools, through peer observations in the classroom and collaborative efforts to look at student work and assess instructional methods. Education leaders should also examine whether Virginia’s education schools have curricula suitable to producing instructional leaders.

Insist on standards and school improvement, hut delegate decision-making regarding how they are achieved: The Framework-school experience shows that the principle of delegation works both between principal and teachers and between a department of education and its schools and divisions. Given clear agreements and accountability between principal and teachers regarding instructional focus, goals, and standards, Virginia’s principals should be encouraged to build and guide teacher collaboration teams with significant authority in looking at student work and improving teaching practice. Likewise, Richmond policymakers and VDOE managers should balance state mandates regarding standards and school improvement with significant school and division discretion regarding how the goals are achieved. With training and research resources facilitated by Richmond, local education leaders will generally be better judges of how best to meet the required standards and improve student learning in their respective schools and divisions.

Expect continuous improvement from all schools, divisions, and the system: Like any organization, the moment a school feels satisfied with itself, its performance begins to decline. Accredited with Warning schools are the most urgent school-improvement priority in Virginia. But other schools may meet the required academic standards, and still not live up to their student-achievement potential. Always striving to improve is one of the characteristics of a good school, division, and public education system.


The long-term success of Virginia’s Standards of Learning and Standards of Accreditation is still in the balance. For the SOL and SOA to navigate this transition successfully – in terms of both effectiveness as a program and acceptability to the public – Virginia’s school-improvement strategies will have to raise the performance of almost all 1,108 not yet Fully Accredited schools to the satisfactory levels, without undermining the integrity of the standards. The U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity’s Framework for School Improvement Support has demonstrated that empowering instructional leaders through the right kind of training and coaching is crucial to improving student learning and teaching practice. Virginia has made a good start in addressing this strategy, but must devote substantially more to it, in order to ensure the success of the SOL and SOA in the years ahead.

1    Virginia Department of Education website, www.pen.kl

2    “Building a New Structure for School Leadership,” by Richard F. Elmore, American Educator, Winter 1999-2000, page X-10.

5 “March Toward Excellence: School Success and Minority Student Achievement in Department of Defense Schools,” a report to the National Education Goals Panel, by Claire Smrekar, James W. Guthrie, Debra E. Owens, Pearl G. Sims, Peabody Center for Education Policy, Vanderbilt University, September, 2001, Page ii.,

4    Ibid, Page 6.

5    Focus on Results Senior Managing Partner Joseph Palumbo reports that FoR is presently doing similar work for a large urban district of 177 schools, at a cost of around $4,000 per school.

6    Author interview of Focus on Results Senior Managing Partner Joseph Palumbo, June 15, 2001.

7    Mean NCE index numbers are based on DoDEA data from the department’s internal evaluation of school progress resulting from the Framework initiative.

8    “Focus on Results: An Evaluation of the Framework School Initiative,” by Tom Buffett, an evaluation conducted by Carpe Datum!, Cambridge, MA, March 2001, pages 11-12.

9    Ibid, page 12.

10    Ibid, page 10.

11    “Fact Sheet – Making Good Schools Better,” internal DoDEA memorandum, page 4.

12    Ibid, page 11.

13    The obvious question is: Are school leaders receiving adequate instructional leadership and management training while attending education school? But that is a topic for another report.

14    Elmore, page X-9.

15    “Investing in Teacher Learning: Staff Development and Instructional Improvement,” by Richard F. Elmore and Deanna Burney, page 265, Teaching as the Learning Profession: Handbook of Policy and Practice, edited by Linda Darling-Hammond and Gary Sykes.

16    Author interview of Focus on Results Senior Managing Partner Joseph Palumbo, June 8,2001.

17    Buffett, page 23.

18    Author interview of Focus on Results Senior Managing Partner Joseph Palumbo, June 15, 2001.

19    Buffet, page 12.

20    Ibid, page 9.

21    Ibid, page 9.

22    “Action Requirements for Schools Accredited with Warning,” Superintendents Memorandum No. 196, Jo Lynne DeMary, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commonwealth of Virginia, October 20,2000.

23    Ibid.

24    “Principals, Superintendents Praise Academic Review Process,” Virginia Department of Education News Release, February 12, 2001.

25    “Directions for Completing Three-Year School Improvement Plans,” Attachment B to Superintendents Memorandum No. 038, Jo Lynne DeMary, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commonwealth of Virginia, March 16,2001, page 4.

Thomas C. Atwood is a policy consultant and former Senior Fellow with the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. He presently serves the National Council For

Adoption as vice president for public policy and research.

Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy


Michael Thompson, Chairman and President: For over twenty years Mr. Thompson owned his own marketing company. He has been very active in national, state and local politics as well as a number of state and community organizations, commissions, and committees.

Frank Donatelli, Vice Chairman: Senior Vice President and Director of the Federal Public Affairs Group for McGuire, Woods Consulting, Mr. Donatelli is the former White House Political Director for President Reagan.

Randal C. Teague, Secretary/Treasurer/Counsel: A partner in the law firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, Mr. Teague is a noted international attorney.

John Alderson: President of the John Alderson Insurance Agency, he chaired the Reagan for President campaigns in Virginia.

Warren Barry: He is a State Senator, chairs the Education and Health Committee and is a senior member of the Finance, Transportation and Rules Committee.

William W. Beach: Director of the Center for Data Analysis and John M. Olin Senior Fellow in Economics at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Sandra D. Bowen: Secretary of Administration and past Senior V.P. of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. She served in major leadership positions for Governor Baliles and Robb.

Lawrence H. Framme, III: Founder of the Framme Law Firm, former Secretary of Economic Development and State Co-Chair of the Virginia Democratic Party.


Robert L. Hartwell: Vice President, Government Affairs, Berman and Company Alan I. Kirshner: Chairman and CEO of Markel Corporation.

Joseph Ragan: Founder and President of Joe Ragan’s Coffee.

John Ryan: Senior Counsel and Director of Government Affairs for Bristol Myers Squibb. Robert W. Shinn: Vice President of CSX Corporation.

Todd A. Stottlemyer: President, McGuire Woods Consulting.

Dr. Robert F. Turner: Law professor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

Robert W. Woltz, Jr: President and CEO of Verizon-Virginia

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