Say the name Charlotte Danielson to a teacher and you will most likely be met with a cringe. She is one of the most dreaded names in education. And, it’s not her fault. She was simply trying to challenge teachers, and better the education of the students in their care, when she created her evaluation method for teachers. But, her evaluation tool, in the hands of some administrators, has instead created an environment of stress, frustration, and hopelessness.
Charlotte Danielson, via her evaluation system for public school teachers, has created a system that challenges educators to show distinction in planning, classroom environment, instruction, and professionalism. If you know a teacher, you know that this evaluation system can be daunting. There is a total of 22 categories that, on any given day, a teacher must implement with fidelity. Some of these categories come naturally to veteran teachers, some demand tedious paperwork and some take creativity and imagination to incorporate into daily planning. Teachers are tenacious, however, and most will work with the system to prove their merit. But, in the midst of proving merit, what happens to the teacher of the at-risk student? More importantly, how is the at-risk student being ignored and maligned in an evaluation system that does not acknowledge their uniquely valuable presence in our classrooms? It is in Domain 2 of the Danielson model, The Classroom Environment, that the at-risk child is ignored. The teacher is given an almost impossible job: erase a decade of poor (or non-existent) parenting and/or damaging environmental factors and elevate all students to a common level of care, experience,and privilege.
In the subcategory, Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport, if a teacher wants to obtain a mark of distinction, “students [in the classroom will] exhibit respect for the teacher and contribute to high levels of civility among all members of the class.” (Danielson 2a) This is a worthy goal. What teacher would not want a classroom where civility is of key importance? The danger is not in the goal, but in the definition of the goal. What is seen as civility in one person, is not necessarily seen as civility in another. We run the risk of defining civility based upon our own cultural definitions. For example, many immigrant students address their teachers as simply “miss’ or “mister” without including their surname. Also, when being corrected or challenged, many cultures teach their youth not to look their teachers in the eyes, but to rather bow their heads and look at the ground. In other cultures, comedy is used to diffuse tension. Some kids will start cracking jokes while being reprimanded in order to bring comic relief to a tense moment. But, in American culture (and per the Danielson model) these behaviors are seen as disrespectful and as not showing civility. The evaluator assumes that students do not have enough respect for their teacher and the teacher, in turn, is granted a minimally effective score.
Another subcategory, Establishing a Culture of Learning, demands that “students understand their role as learners and consistently expend effort to learn.” Likewise, “the classroom culture [must be] a cognitively busy place, characterized by a shared belief in the importance of learning.” (Danielson 2b) Again, there is not a teacher in the world who would not welcome a group of students who exhibit these skills. It is a teacher’s dream, but is it realistic? We come back to the concept of privilege. Being raised in a culture, in an environment, and in a home where education is a priority gives students every advantage. But what if this advantage was not afforded to a student? Furthermore, as a teacher, what if you are given a lot of students who are not as advantaged as their peers? As a lifelong educator, I use every ounce of energy that I have to encourage a love for learning and inquiry in my students. But, to ignore the fact that that process is already done for me with some students, who come from a privileged environment, and is lacking in students who are not afforded the same luxury, is dismissive.
In the category of Managing Student Behavior, if a teacher wants a highly effective score, the “student behavior is entirely appropriate. Students take an active role in monitoring their own behavior and/or that of other students against standards of conduct.” (Danielson 2d) Again, a worthy goal. One that the teacher should absolutely strive to achieve. But, when we fail to acknowledge each student’s (and teacher’s) background in relation to this goal, we set ourselves up to fail. The at-risk student is defined as a student who has a higher probability of failing, of suspension and/or of expulsion. Many circumstances can promote this risk: family welfare status, a history of incarceration in the family, a history of sexual abuse in the family, and a history of English not spoken in the home.
It defies logic to think that a child, raised in a home where sexual abuse is prevalent for example, will be as able to regulate and monitor their conduct as their peers. Any educator who has experience with traumatized children can tell you that they often act out, have difficulty controlling their impulses and certainly are not capable of monitoring their peer’s conduct on top of their own. This is not to shame these students or to say that we should not take an active role in teaching them these skills. However, to evaluate teachers based on their students’ behavior (without taking environmental and developmental factors into account) is not only unfair to the teachers, it is unfair to the students as well.
The more pressure placed on teachers to force their students to conform to the highly-effective model of privilege (because it is privilege that we are discussing here, make no mistake) is raising tensions in the classroom. Teachers who have, in the past, volunteered to work with the neediest and most broken students in the district are now being penalized for the very student body they are trying to help and to save. In turn, these teachers are growing short of patience with kids that, in the past, they would have been willing to do anything to help.
When a teacher is given mediocre scores (based on standard acting-out behaviors often found in at-risk populations) with no chance to appeal to reason or logic, that same teacher becomes frustrated with the very kids they are supposed to be helping. This creates a culture of cyclical anger, failure, and overwhelming stress. It is also the reason that our nation’s public schools are facing a teacher shortage that has reached critical proportions.
Charlotte Danielson, and her evaluation system for teachers, might work in more advantaged districts. It might work for teachers of advanced students. It might be a worthy tool to assess growth or proficiency. (Yes, there is a difference Ms. DeVos.) But, when it is used as a blanket measurement, applied in the same way in every classroom, it has a devastating effect on the rapport and relationship between a teacher and her students.
And, in the end, it is the relationships (not the minutiae of testing and endless data) that will bring our students from frustrated to thriving.