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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Framework for Good Teaching: a Conversation with Charlotte Danielson

By Peter DeWitt — October 08, 2011 9 min read
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“I believe that one of the reasons my framework has become so widely accepted is that it gives voice to what all educators know, that teaching is very complex work, it’s a thinking person’s job and you cannot follow a cookbook.” Charlotte Danielson

What makes good teaching? Critics and reformers believe it is something that can be quantified, replicated and packaged. They also believe that given the right textbooks or high stakes exam, educators can be made to teach in the same way which will bring equality to the classroom, and therefore all students will succeed. After all, can’t we use the same formula and get the same results?

The reality is that teaching is both a science and an art, and it is difficult. It is difficult to teach because students enter our classrooms from diverse backgrounds, where they have had diverse experiences, and not every parent cares about their child in the same way, which means that some of our children enter our schools with a great deal of emotional baggage.

Charlotte Danielson understands our student populations, and even more so, she understands good teaching. She has taught every level from kindergarten through college, has been an administrator and a consultant, and she believes good teaching comes from using reflective practice in four main areas. Those four areas are; planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities.

Given the recent changes in teacher and administrator evaluation, I wanted to get Charlotte’s perspective on how her effective and thought-provoking tool is being implemented in states across the country.

A Conversation with Charlotte Danielson:

PD: We have many students entering our schools with diverse needs. How can the Danielson Framework help teachers better meet the needs of those students?

CD: The framework includes the four critical domains of planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities, each divided into smaller components. It is a description of good teaching, in any context. One of the common themes - and there are seven - focuses on differentiating instruction to appropriately teach all students, including those with special needs. The framework doesn’t give specific guidance on how to address diverse needs, - it’s generic and applies to all teaching situations, subjects, and grade levels - and I don’t think there is any frame work published that does offer that type of guidance. However, it does help teachers and administrators focus on how to achieve a high level of performance in the classroom.

The framework is grounded in active student engagement which we know from cognitive psychology is integral to student learning. It also encourages conversation between teachers or a teacher and administrator, which has been heavily researched, and has been found to be extremely important in promoting professional learning. That professional conversation where a teacher can reflect on which aspects of practice could be enhanced and an administrator offers resources to help that teacher is a key element in finding the solution to properly educating diverse populations.

However, we need to remember that just saying it in a book does not make it happen and doesn’t make it easy for the teacher. The real work is on implementation. I think it’s important not to define the problem away by saying it can easily be answered in a book. Teaching is enormously challenging work, and books cannot solve - or even predict - every problem that arises in a classroom.

PD: Why is reflective practice so important to teaching and how can educators improve it?

CD: There is a great deal of research about the effectiveness of reflective practice. Self-assessment, professional conversation and reflection on practice contribute to professional learning. If the reflective practice piece of the framework is not used well than it really doesn’t help anyone.
This does not just mean that teachers should reflect on their practice in the classroom. It means that the observers must identify what they saw in the classroom, withhold judgment about it, and take the time to discuss with the teacher the circumstances surrounding the observation. This is much easier to accomplish in an environment of trust to bring their teaching to another level.

PD: How can educators maximize their classroom environment to build student engagement?

CD: Student intellectual engagement is the heart of the framework for teaching and is reflected in the nature of what we ask the students to do. If we always just tell them things or give them procedures for X and Y, they will not be engaged. If we invite them to think and solve problems, and enable them to consolidate their understanding, they are likely to be engaged. This is not to say that there is never a place for a lecture, but it must be presented in a manner that engages students intellectually.

PD: How has high stakes testing impacted the classroom environment and teacher instruction?

CD: I don’t know any teachers, or indeed any union activists, who would try to argue that student learning is not an important indicator of the quality of teaching. The challenge is to decide what counts as evidence, and how that evidence can be attributed to individual teachers. And when the results of student testing is used for high-stakes decisions about teachers, I worry about the consequences for practice.

There’s a danger that the curriculum becomes narrowed to include only what’s on the test, with the result that some students no longer experience the benefits of the arts, or science (if it’s not tested) and that instruction becomes focused on “getting the right answer” rather than on understanding complex content. In extreme cases, some teachers and administrators are encouraged to cheat, to falsify students responses - many such cases have been reported recently in the press.

I do understand the policy people desperately wanting to assure their public that they are paying attention to, not only what teachers do, which is teacher practice but to also the effect that their teaching has on student learning. I think that is a reasonable request.
The real question is what counts as evidence and how can you attribute that evidence to individuals? That is the challenge and I do not believe anyone has figured that out yet. There is a great deal of psycho-metric evidence that indicates that any standardized tests are a poor measure of student learning for this purpose, but in many cases that’s all that’s available.

PD: How do you feel about states adding a point scale to the Danielson Framework Observation Model for the new mandates regarding teacher evaluation?

CD: In general, I don’t like numbers of any kind. Teaching is enormously complex work and it is very hard to just reduce it to a number of any kind. However, it’s important to capture, in a short-hand manner, the relative skills of different teachers, so I suppose numbers or ratings of some kind - are inevitable. I am not thrilled about saying that a teacher’s performance is a level 2 and not a level 3. However, we are in a world of high-stakes evaluation, and so it may be necessary to do so.

PD: How can the profession ensure that observations of teaching are reliable and consistent?

CD: I have been involved in the large Gates-funded MET research study. The MET study of effective teaching has captured something like 28,000 hours of classroom teaching and it involves five observation protocols, of which mine is one. It also involves Value Added Measures of student learning, and also data on student perceptions.
The study is researching to see which aspects of teachers’ practice is most higly correlated to student learning. In order to answer that question, hundreds of raters had to be trained and certified on each of the observation protocols, including mine. They had to watch videos and score them according to whatever protocols they were using.

Teachscape is the company that conducted all the video capture, and developed the software for both scoring the lessons and training and certifying the raters. For the framework instrument, raters passed the test at a very high rate and we are confident that we know how to do this work, as challenging as it is.

On November 1, Teachscape (working with me and with ETS as a psychometric partner, will be releasing a commercial version of this training and proficiency system; this is important because many states now recognize that it’s important that observers of classroom teaching do so reliably and accurately. However, when New York State says you that if you are going to be a lead evaluator you have to be certified, they do not specify what is meant by that; it’s left to the discretion of each school district.. I’m concerned about possible legal challenges. I fear that if teachers are dismissed, or denied tenure, based on a poor system, they’ll sue, and probably win! This proficiency system based on the framework for teaching - online training, practice, and proficiency test - that we are releasing is our best way to make sure that high stakes evaluation will be fair to teachers and at the same time be helpful.

PD: Why do you think the Danielson Framework was so embraced by educators and administrators?

CD: Honestly, I think with a big part of it was timing. People were hungry for something; at the time there was practically nothing out there. We had vague statements describing good teaching that couldn’t used for either professional development of evaluation purposes. When my framework was first published, I was nervous that teachers might find it insulting. I was worried that they would think I was trying to summarize the complex work of teaching in four little boxes, but that never happened. It seemed to be an ill-founded concern on my part.

I believe that one of the reasons my framework has become so widely accepted is that it gives voice to what all educators know, that teaching is very complex work, it’s a thinking person’s job and you cannot follow a cookbook. If we believe what the research says about learning for students which is that learning is done by the learner and it is a very active process, then the conversations we have to have about teaching need to focus on what the kids are doing and how the teacher is helping them get there.

In addition, if teaching is a thinking person’s work that it also means that the conversations between a teacher and administrator must be about that cognition. It can’t focus on what an administrator likes about a lesson and what he or she doesn’t like. The conversations must be about evidence of student intellectual engagement, and how to promote it. When teachers and administrators want to make that shift - and many do - then the Danielson Framework is a good tool to use for that work (End of interview).

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.