NJ Schools Turn to Familiar Instrument to Measure Teacher Performance

Charlotte Danielson talks about the challenges as her “Frameworks for Teaching” is adopted by more than 300 public school districts

Charlotte Danielson, author of "Frameworks for Teaching."
A pioneer in teacher evaluation, Charlotte Danielson knows her name is soon to be part of the vocabulary in hundreds of New Jersey public schools. She’s hoping that will be in a good way.

Danielson, the creator and driving force behind the eponymous Charlotte Danielson’s “Frameworks for Teaching,” will see her methods for observing and evaluating teachers adopted in almost two-thirds — or more than 330 — of the state’s school districts this fall, the first year that New Jersey’s high-stakes grading of teachers and principals will be in play.

It’s an overwhelming endorsement for Danielson’s methodologies, one that reflects her nationwide influence on teacher evaluation. It’s also a testament to the instruments’ familiarity to districts after more than a decade, as well as to how easy teachers and educators find it to use.

The second choice of an instrument — one developed by James Stronge of the College of William and Mary — was picked by 65 districts, according to the state’s most recent survey.

The Danielson instrument uses her four distinct “domains” to evaluate classroom performance, as well as to plan and analyze that performance. It relies heavily on collaboration and dialogue between teacher and observer.

In an interview this week, Danielson said that moving her system into place in New Jersey will present many challenges, some of which hundreds of districts will face as they embrace new technology tools for recording and tracking evaluations domain by domain.

That struggle will be ameliorated in some part given that many districts are already familiar with her model. Danielson indicated that training in almost one-third of New Jersey’s districts has so far has gone well and that the feedback has been positive.

Nonetheless, she’s no stranger to challenges: Her model is being used in large states like New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Illinois. She’s especially sensitive to the needs of New Jersey, since she lives in Princeton, where the Danielson Group is based.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” she said this week. “The chance for doing this well isn’t guaranteed, it’s just not.

“There is a lot going on simultaneously [in New Jersey], no question about it,” Danielson continued. “I know a big concern is around the use of student test scores, not something we are part of. But most people I talk to say they get what we are doing around teacher practice, and to me, the most important part is they do that well.”

The hardware and software that Danielson’s instruments run on come from a separate company, Teachscape Inc., which is based in San Francisco. According to co-founder Mark Atkinson, his company has assembled what he calls a “SWAT team” of more than 50 people who work with districts as they learn the tools. Founded in 1999, Teachscape this year led nearly a dozen sessions for administrators to further master their program.

“We are mindful that this is a huge step up in terms of technology,” said Atkinson. “There is a certain amount of training that will be required, and we realize we will need to do a lot of hand-holding.”

Danielson said that the training offered by her staff and by Teachscape includes an online test that must be passed to certify observers — a requirement that helps ensure her that her intentions are being followed.

“When they do that training, they have an appreciation of the complexity of it and can’t just treat it as a checklist,” she said. “Now, I can’t say that will happen every day, but we are confident that they have at least been trained.”

Danielson said that she worries a little about so many schools starting up so quickly, and said to do this well will require a commitment of time. But she said she will keep a close eye on things.

“I want them to do this well,” she said. “To the extent districts do this poorly reflects poorly on me, too. There is some self-interest here.”

The state’s head of teacher evaluation, Tim Matheney, said he started working with the Danielson’s Frameworks more than a decade ago when he worked in Minnesota. While the New Jersey Department of Education can’t endorse one instrument over another, he recognizes Danielson’s powerful influence.

“Danielson has a long tradition in New Jersey, and it really is no surprise to me [her popularity],” he said. “Charlotte has an extensive reach.”

But he said the mix of models being used by districts, more than a dozen in all, will also provide a useful laboratory for best practices. Overall, Matheney said he felt confident about the state’s progress going into this pivotal school year.

“I’m very optimistic that we are in a strong position to begin implementing [the requirements],” he said yesterday. “Some districts are perfectly positioned, and we are also realistic that there are others that may not have done their homework as much, we are prepared to get them on the right track.”