Charlotte Danielson just might be the world’s top guru on teacher evaluation. The economist-turned-teacher, who once taught in Princeton and West Windsor, is founder and president of the Danielson Group, a Princeton-based consultancy. Her model for evaluating teachers has been adopted in many states, including Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Danielson advises many state education departments, including New Jersey’s, and consults all over the world. The source of her renown is a 1996 book, Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (ASCD), which demystified teaching by defining it through four domains of professional responsibility, with components such as “managing student behavior” and “engaging students in learning.” It is widely used as a guide for evaluating teachers in New Jersey.
Q. Is teaching an art or science? How hard is it?
A. I would say it’s a little both. Teaching is a complex performance. And it’s very hard, so hard it’s never perfect.
Q. Can teachers really be evaluated with a standard measure?
A. Yes. But you have to make sure that the people who do the judging are qualified. You have to agree on what quality is, and you have to train people. Evaluations are high stakes, and they must be defensible.
Q. Is that proof that teachers who score well, under your criteria, actually see tangible gains in student achievement?
A. Yes. Two very large studies have demonstrated that.
Q. What do you think about assessing individual teachers by looking at their students’ test scores?
A. It is very dicey. Nobody on the planet has figured out how to do this. The assessments themselves aren’t very good, and there are other problems. Let’s say I teach fourth grade. My kids score very well in reading. I’m happy, my principal’s happy. But you know there’s also a reading teacher in the building, so there’s no way to make sure I did it.
Q. Are teachers right in saying forces outside their control impede student learning?
A. It’s the truth. Some people choose to ignore it, but parental support and general cultural support matter hugely. There are whole populations of kids who don’t have that.
Q. Do you think the current movement to reform teacher evaluation will succeed?
A. I do think there’s a chance. But education is a very faddish profession. Things come and go. Let’s suppose, though, that we become really good at labeling teachers, and we do it accurately. I worry that, 10 years from now, we’ll find kids aren’t learning any better. The public could be forgiven for asking what we spent the money on. The aim has to be about helping teachers get better, not labeling them.
Q. In contemporary American society, there’s a lot of negative talk about teachers. Some seem to have lost respect for the profession. Why?
A. That I cannot answer. I do regret it. In countries that do better than we do in international assessments, it’s a very respected profession.