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Problem Framing

A first step in problem solving involves the “framing” of the problem.


Framing simply means that the school must come to an agreement on the nature of the problem.  For example, if a school uncovers evidence that achievement growth stalls for minority students as they proceed through the grades, how shall such a problem be interpreted?   What is the “theory” of the problem?  Does the school invoke inadequate parent support?  Is the “safety net” of second and third chance learning opportunities insufficient?  Is there a cultural fit between the curriculum and certain students?  Are there deficiencies in the instruction teachers are providing?  Are resources to support student learning adequate?  Critical to the problem solving process is the conduct of inquiry and deliberation in response to problems, in which various “theories” may be considered and tested, even including the gathering of additional information that might inform decisions.

Problem framing is important to ensuring that a range of options are considered. It does not, in itself, lead directly to proposals for action.  Once the options are narrowed, and interrelationships between the frames are identified, the frames provide context for developing specific improvement strategies.
There are many ways to frame problems.  An approach that directly engages alternative policies and practices assumes that school improvement occurs against a backdrop of a number of broad beliefs about the reasons why many schools are not more effective. Taken together, these possible explanations illustrate the kinds of starting points that school communities may consider as they confront discrepancies between their goals for students and evidence of student learning. Two of these frames have already been introduced when preconditions for problems solving were identified—the extent to which schools are capable of collaborative problem solving and whether they are places characterized by caring and civility. Without these conditions, existing programs and practices are likely to less effective than they could be. Others include:

  • Alignment of Instructional Guidance
  • Coherence and Focus
  • Instructional Effectiveness
  • Cognitive Demand
  • Resource Adequacy and Mobilization
  • Social Capital

Alignment of Instructional Guidance

One account of  the fundamental problems confronting schools reckons that many schools lack a system of instructional guidance that aligns standards for learning, curriculum content, assessment, instructional practice, second chance learning (e.g., summer and after school programs), teacher learning opportunities, and performance sanctions and incentives. Technical aspects of improvement seek to establish better coordination among these factors. To learn more, CLICK HERE [Link 5c]

Coherence and Focus  

A second, related account emphasizes not only technical alignment but programmatic coherence and a tight focus on just those programs and initiatives that advance core mission and priority goals.  This account reckons that many schools have adopted too many disparate initiatives that fail to “hang together” in support of the basic academic mission, necessitating choices not only about what will be emphasized but also about what will be de-emphasized.  In this account, reform occurs not only by addition but also by subtraction or reduction, as the school focuses, relentlessly in some cases, on its primary priorities in ways that are consistent across grades and subjects. To learn more, CLICK HERE [ Link 5d]

Instructional Effectiveness

Teaching is the core technology of schools.  Teacher expertise affects the impact of virtually every other improvement strategy. Step 6 of the KEYS-CSI process deals extensively with professional development strategies. Here the question is whether improving teacher expertise, in itself, absent any other changes in programs or practices, would significantly improve student achievement. As we note in Step 6, almost any new initiative would need to involve professional development.
Instructional effectiveness can be thought of as having two basic aspects. The first is the ability to teach the curriculum, i.e., content pedagogy.  The second, which may not get as much attention, is the ability to relate to students in ways that engage them in learning. See resources related to developing a caring and civil school community earlier in this step to learn more about the second aspect of teaching.
These two aspects of teaching are related and reinforcing.  Hence, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future talks about “competent and caring” teachers as the foundation of school effectiveness.
To learn more about instructional effectiveness, CLICK HERE [LINK 5e]

Cognitive Demand  

A fourth general explanation for student learning has to do with the delivered curriculum. What students are taught obviously influences the opportunities they have to learn and these opportunities may differ substantially in their content and rigor. The curriculum itself may ask too little of students. Or, even when the curriculum is rigorous, teacher expectations for student performance may be too low. For example, the low performance of students in lower achieving groups within schools or inside classrooms is often associated with low “cognitive demand.” In particular, tracking and inflexible “ability” grouping of students typically creates unequal access to opportunities to learn. To learn more, CLICK HERE. [Link 5f]

Resource Adequacy and Mobilization

A fifth account draws attention to the adequacy and allocation of resources of various kinds. According to this perspective, resource inadequacies and inequities often plague low-performing schools. Among school resources that enjoy a reliable relationship with outcomes are small class sizes in early grades and, especially, as noted above, caring and highly competent teachers. Time for learning is another such resource, harking back to an earlier generation of research that emphasized the importance of “engaged time” and “time on task.”  Issues of resource availability, allocation, and use draw attention to how school leadership effectively mobilizes as well as acquires resources of various kinds. To learn more, CLICK HERE. [Link 5g]

Social Capital

Finally, many have argued that the influences on students’ learning in families and communities are so powerful that improvements within schools are inevitably limited in their effects. This account asserts that what is needed are more effective social policies—including those affecting housing, health, income maintenance and social disorganization.  For their part, schools need to build partnerships with families and community organizations that reflect a holistic approach to the facilitation of student learning. To learn more, CLICK HERE [Link 5h]

Considering Alternative Explanations

Such a multi-faceted consideration of the challenges facing improvement is daunting, but these accounts help to “frame” the range of possibilities that schools may examine. Any given school often finds that it needs to address more than one of these possible explanations for student under-performance.  Notice also that some such problems can pose serious threats to the social relationships in the school, because the discipline of evidence-based continuous improvement opens teaching to public scrutiny, and this surely represents a threat should teachers and valued programs not be producing expected results.  

In consequence, the process of problem framing must be direct, fearless, and deliberate.  Schools might naturally gravitate to external explanations that avoid the hard questions.  Typical examples include lack of parental support, inadequate resources, and stifling regulations; but these are at best partial explanations.  Schools must look directly to curriculum and instruction for both problems and solutions. The task of inquiry is to determine what factors in this practice might be impeding learning, then to consider what might be done in response.  Such possibilities might trace to the instruction that is provided by some or all of the teachers; cultural aspects of the school, including how well adults work with each other and with students; structural aspects of the school, including how various special programs are integrated with the regular program; personnel issues including the stability of students and staff; or aspects of parental and community relationships.  

Focusing on the Needs of Underperforming Students

The “gap analysis” undertaken in Step 4 will likely draw attention to underperformance by students who are placed at risk by reason of their socioeconomic condition, family and community disorganization, language facility, or disability. Many of these students will be students of color whose learning is challenged by discrimination and stereotyping they experience in and out of school. Most of the ways schools can address the needs of underperforming students are, of course, encompassed by the frames above.  However, it seems useful to organize resources for improvement in a separate cross-cutting category of improvement initiatives. Much of the literature on school improvement, especially, that literature that emphasizes classroom-level strategies, cover more than one of the frames for problem identification discussed above.

To learn more, CLICK HERE. [Link 5i]

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