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Crafting an Accurate System for Evaluating Teachers

Guru of teacher evaluation talks about the pros and cons of judging educators.

Charlotte Danielson, creator of the teacher evaluation scripts used by more than half of New Jersey's school districts.
Charlotte Danielson, creator of the teacher evaluation scripts used by more than half of New Jersey's school districts.

Charlotte Danielson may not be a recognizable name to the general public, but the Princeton-based consultant is the architect of a framework for observing and evaluating teachers that has been the gold standard in schools across the country.

By one count, a third of New Jersey school districts use the Danielson method in their own evaluation systems, focusing on its criteria for effective teaching. Danielson divides those criteria into 22 components across four domains: preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibility.

As the Christie administration now moves to create a statewide teacher evaluation system, the Danielson framework is one of the programs being offered to 10 pilot districts. Of course, Gov. Chris Christie is also putting a heavy emphasis on student achievement measures such as state test scores for the rest of the rating, a component not in Danielson's system.

Last week, Danielson spoke with NJ Spotlight about the latest push for better evaluation nationwide -- both strengths and pitfalls, including some worries about how New Jersey is pursuing its reforms.

Starts With the Evaluators

Danielson is helping develop an online course for training and testing evaluators, a system that she hopes would be part of any statewide system. Illinois, New York and Idaho have either proposed or passed laws that make such training and proficiency a requirement. New Jersey's pilot has no such defined standards.

Most teachers would say that principals don't know what they're doing, and they're mostly right. Whatever the instrument, you have to have evaluators who know what they are doing and can demonstrate that. I think it is an essential component of a valid system.

There are predictable challenges to do with this. I have talked to a number of superintendents and their problem is that their people won't pass and then what do they do.

One thing to say we need to strengthen the evaluation and do it now. But my advice is against making consequential decisions until that [evaluator] piece is in place. Of course, they haven't asked me.

A 'Gotcha' Checklist?

The frequent criticism of any system is that it becomes a checklist solely for evaluation and as a punitive “gotcha” to catch poor teaching, as opposed to a learning experience for the teacher. Danielson stressed that her framework is meant first and foremost for teachers and administrators to reflect on the practice in the classroom and ways to improve it.

The evaluation should be the last step in the process. I do the best I can to discourage it becoming just a checklist.

Why I don't get too worried is that when it is used correctly and used for professional conversations, it really does become eye-opening. The net result is positive.

The gotcha is always a fear, but I think I'd hear more if it were happening a lot.

Test Scores

The most controversial part of the Christie administration's plan is that it would use student test scores or other achievement measures for up to half of a teacher's evaluation. Danielson has some problems with that.

I don't think there is a single teacher who says that student achievement is irrelevant in their performance. Any teacher should be able to demonstrate that the children are learning.

The question is the evidence and how to attribute that to any one teacher. And I can say with confidence that nobody yet has figured out how to do that.

It's a serious issue, and there are enormous stakes in us getting it right.

Not on the List She has worked with a task force in Illinois that is developing some standardized measures, including national and local assessments. State tests like those New Jersey would use are not on the list.

They're just too unstable, one family moves into town and changes it all. And you can't even approach reliability without three years of data.

Overall, the higher the stakes, the worse the consequences. There is a lot of use to be made of the [state] data, just not for teacher accountability.

Good Teachers Equal Good Test Scores?

Still, Danielson was asked if teachers who perform well under her criteria also see tangible gains in student achievement.

We do have evidence that the answer is yes, and it does validate my work. High levels of teacher performance do correlate with student learning gains. But this is all very new work, and we have to bear that in mind. And policy-makers need to bear it in mind.

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