Developing Effective Teacher Evaluation Systems: A Conversation with Charlotte Danielson

Charlotte Danielson is an educational consultant based in Princeton, N.J., who has worked on teacher evaluation systems for the past 10 years. She has taught at all levels, from kindergarten through college, and has worked as an administrator, a curriculum director, and a staff developer.  In her consulting work, Danielson has specialized in aspects of teacher quality and evaluation, curriculum planning, performance assessment, and professional development. She was a featured speaker on teacher evaluation systems at the Regional Capacity Building Conferences this Spring.

Note: This article does not constitute an endorsement by the Department of Education (ED). The interview is the first of several resources that ED plans to share in the future on teacher evaluation systems. More resources will be made available at www.schoolturnaroundsupport.org.

ED: What makes a teacher evaluation system effective, and why is it so difficult for schools and districts to put effective systems into place?

Charlotte Danielson (CD): The bottom line, I’ve discovered, is that when you do this work [of teacher evaluations] well, it produces growth for teachers. I’ve worked across the country and around the world trying to help people do this work well by developing training and helping them design systems. Specifically, the procedures that you use [to evaluate teachers] must be ones that do what we know can produce teacher learning. Now, this is not easy to do. Just because we know how to do it doesn’t mean it’s easy. 

One problem people point to is that there’s no time to do it well. To some degree, that’s true. In your typical teacher evaluation system, it’s mostly the principals and some assistant principals who do evaluations. But these leaders have to do other things – they have to manage day-to-day operations and handle other issues which have the advantage of being of more immediate concern. Some schools choose to get around this by delegating work out – either the management piece or the evaluations piece.

But what I’ve found is that it doesn’t take any longer to implement a teacher evaluation system well than to do it poorly. Most schools, however, just don’t know how to do it well.

ED: What are the first steps that SIG schools and districts should take when re-thinking their teacher evaluation systems?

CD: First, there needs to be an intense dialogue with faculty members about what constitutes good teaching.  They need to develop a shared understanding of what is good practice. They can do a book study that defines good teaching in a coherent way, what it looks like, and what counts as evidence of good teaching.

I've worked on a framework for effective teaching. The big idea that underlines this framework is that students learn from high levels of student intellectual engagement. There’s a ton of research on that, but it’s hard to do because in general, students aren’t taught that way. The challenge is to get people to understand how to engage students in learning.

Second, there needs to be an effort to create a culture in the school around continued learning and professional inquiry. You’re not done learning when you start teaching. Teaching is enormously complex work that people work to master over their entire careers. No one should act like it’s easy because it’s not.

Then, teachers can move to on the ground work with students. They can analyze student work for levels of student engagement. If they have money to spend, they can get equipment to videotape themselves teaching to use for self-reflection. It’s a powerful technology because teachers can watch their own lesson, observe other teachers, share their practice, and engage in dialogue. 

ED: Are there specific challenges in implementing a thoughtful evaluation system in low-performing schools? 

CD: Not really. It’s the same challenge, just harder. One of the problems in low-performing schools is that teacher turnaround is higher, which means they could have more novice teachers. Beginning teachers, because they are inexperienced, need more intensive supervision and coaching than do their more experienced colleagues. It's essential that both the teacher and the district ascertain whether they are a good match.

On the flip side, of course, new teachers frequently come with a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the work, and that can make a real contribution to a school. But the higher level of supervision by a principal takes time, and that's one of the issues with any evaluation system - finding the time to do it well. I don't think it's helpful or harmful. It's just the nature of it.

There’s also the school culture element. Let’s say you’re my principal and a typical observation is one where you come in, observe my lesson, write it down, and tell me what I did wrong or right. I, as a teacher, have done nothing. If the school culture is one of inspection, then all I would want to do is to “get through” the evaluation. I’m not going to try anything interesting in my class while you’re there. That typical process of where my role  as a teacher is passive. There’s no learning for me as a teacher.

Creating a different type of culture is a leadership challenge. For the new teachers not to be performing at the same level as experienced teachers – that’s natural. The culture should be one where professional growth and learning are understood to be part of everyone’s job forever, and learning is not a sign of deficiency.

To have an effective teacher evaluation system, you need good, trained evaluators and more time from teachers and administrators to discuss performance and improve teaching and learning.

ED: What about the problem of resources, especially in times of budget cuts?  How do schools and districts keep their commitment to this type of a teacher evaluation system?

CD: I don’t think it’s a resource problem. It’s a prioritization problem and also a training issue for evaluators. When a teacher or union activist says that principals don’t know what they are doing when they’re evaluating teachers, they are usually right!  One of the things I’m working on is an actual evaluator certification program. The need for credentialing evaluators has been written into state law in a few places including Illinois and New York. 

   Posted in