Elementary School Teacher Reading to Her Class Being Observed According to the Danielson Rubric

Does the Danielson Rubric Make Us Better Teachers?

Does the Danielson Rubric improve teaching? Maybe it’s an unfair question. After all, it’s a rubric, not a training program.

But here’s what the Danielson Group, designers of the rubric, have to say on the subject:

The Framework for Teaching provides a common language for instructional practice, as well as a philosophical approach to understanding and promoting great teaching and learning.”

So Danielson’s creators see (and market) The Framework as a way to promote great teaching. Which makes sense: there’s little point in using an evaluation tool, if it doesn’t help to improve education.

I do admire the Danielson ambitiousness of the Danielson rubric. To design a rubric that measures great teaching, you’d have to know just which teaching strategies are best for students.

For all students. Students in different schools, different grade levels, and from different backgrounds. And it would have to apply equally to all subject areas.

Then, you’d need to break down that knowledge into an easily observable set of actions or traits. And communicate them in a clear and objective way.

At this point, it’s been almost twenty-five years since Charlotte Danielson created the rubric as a tool to measure and support effective teaching. I think it’s time to ask whether it’s working.

What Does Good Teaching Look Like?

One challenge with a teaching rubric is that there’s no widespread agreement about what great teaching looks like.

In fact, educators can’t even agree on whether there is a best way to teach. Some believe there is a set of practices and behaviors that will be best for most students. Others believe every teacher has their own style, none better or worse than the next.

Most of us recognize that there’s a bit of truth to both ways of thinking. There are certain habits that are just objectively useful. And others we should certainly avoid.

But there’s also a lot of gray area. I’ve worked with, and coached, some teachers who seem great “on paper.” They write great lesson plans, know all the right terminology, and they can tell you about all the amazing things they are doing with their students. They may even do a great demo lesson. But when you walk into their room, their students just aren’t ‘getting it.’

Other teachers seem to break all the rules. No lesson plans. Piles of paper on their desks. And somehow, their students are engaged and actually learning the material.

Here are two common “teacher types” I’ve encountered over the years. I ask you to consider whether there is an objective way to measure what they bring to the classroom. Can we compare them to each other? Should we?

The Train Conductor

I once coached a 7th grade math teacher I’ll call “Mr. Ross.” Mr. Ross knew his content well. He used a traditional approach, with desks in rows, lots of lectures, and page after page of exercises from the textbook. He was firm with students, but fair. And you could tell he cared about them. 

Mr. Ross wasn’t an ‘innovator,’ but he was the most organized teacher I’d ever met. He’s the type of person you’d put in charge to make sure the trains run on time.

He got assignments back quickly, and always had his lesson plans prepared in advance. His students knew what was expected, and most of them did well in his class and on the state tests.

Is he an effective teacher?

The Artiste

Now consider Ms. Lanigan. She was a high school history teacher who could make the most boring events from history sound exciting. She loved engaging her students with projects, debates, and presentations. 

Ms. Lanigan was a real history buff. But the nuts and bolts of teaching bored her. Her grades were always late. And she wasn’t a fan of “pushing” her students when their work was sub-par.

Ms. Lanigan was the type of teacher who usually rushed into the room just as class was starting. And that was on a good day. She often seemed surprised when the bell rang, and would close every lesson with “we’ll pick up from here tomorrow,” or “finish the rest for homework.”

Is she an effective teacher? 

I’m not sure the Danielson Rubric would give us clear answers. Who would do better in Domain 1,  Planning and Preparation? The teacher who submits plans on time, or the one who plans engaging lessons?

And who is stronger in domain 2, The Classroom Environment? The traditional, orderly teacher? Or the teacher who is fun, but disorganized?

The Debate Over the Danielson Rubric

According to its designers, the Danielson Rubric wasn’t intended for evaluations. It was meant to help teachers reflect on their practice. In fact, the rubric’s author, Charlotte Danielson, has publicly criticized the use of the rubric as a “checklist” for observations.

But in a 2016 Study by the US Department of Education, the Danielson rubric was used as for teacher evaluations in half the districts studied. 

One reason Danielson has become so popular is because it offers an alternative to evaluating teachers based on test scores. 

Test scores are often used to rate teachers, although they’ve been proven to tell us more about students’ socioeconomic status than about the quality of schools. And when schools do contribute to student achievement, it’s usually a team effort. Just because you taught a student math doesn’t mean you get all the credit — or take all the blame — for how they do on a state test.

Another issue with test scores is they are a lagging indicator. If a teacher is using ineffective teaching strategies in September, they need to know in September. Not the following summer, once their test scores come back.

A good rubric should help us predict how a teacher will impact their students. And not just with respect to their test scores, but their well-being, their persistence, and their interest in school.

In some ways, the Danielson Rubric does this quite well. Most items in the rubric do contribute to effective teaching. It is critically important that teachers “Demonstrate knowledge of students,” (item 1b) and “Manage classroom procedures.” (item 2c)

Shouldn’t every teacher be skilled in these areas?

Where the Danielson Rubric Falls Short

Though the rubric describes many elements of effective teaching, I’m not sure that it contributes to “great teaching and learning.”

I’ve supported at least twenty schools that use the Danielson Rubric for evaluations. And I’ve never seen teachers use it as a reflective tool. Instead, it’s often just used as a checklist. In some cases, it’s used as a stick.

Administrators need a way to measure “Setting Instructional Outcomes,” so they look at who writes lesson objectives on the board. 

And teachers know how they’re being evaluated. So many will simply find the lesson objective in the textbook and write it on the board. But is this really what the rubric’s designers intended?

Some would say the problem is that schools misuse the rubric. And while that may be true, it’s still a cause for concern. When school after school has the same “implementation problems,” isn’t it time to question the underlying approach? 

Here are three design flaws that limit the Danielson rubric’s ability to help teachers improve their practice.

Too Many Components

The Danielson rubric is organized into four domains: Planning and Preparation; The Classroom Environment; Instruction; and Professional Responsibilities.

Each domain has 4-6 components, for a total of 22 items. Each component has four levels: Unsatisfactory, Basic, Proficient, and Distinguished. (In New York, they are known as Ineffective, Developing, Effective, and Highly Effective).

description of unsatisfactory environment of respect and rapport according to Danielson rubric 2a description of distinguished environment of respect and rapport according to Danielson rubric 2a

The rubric offers a description of each level for each component. That’s a total of 88 descriptions of teaching quality, which is just too much for anyone to process. (The example above shows the highest and lowest descriptions of 2a, environment of respect and rapport).

For the rubric to be effective, those doing the teaching, and those observing them, need to internalize the components. If an observer needs the rubric in front of them during an observation, they’ll inevitably use it as a “checklist.” The exact thing Charlotte Danielson warns against.

And for teachers, it’s even more of a problem. They can’t refer to a twenty page rubric while teaching a lesson. Even after the lesson, a teacher wondering about a decision they made during class would be hard-pressed to find the most relevant component.

New York City actually uses a stripped-down version of the rubric, with two or three components in each domain. If the rest of the components are expendable, why are they there in the first place?

Unrealistic Standards

As an instructional coach, I’ve had the opportunity to observe thousands of lessons. 

And I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen a lesson the rubric would define as ‘distinguished.’ And that includes a dozen years of my own lessons.

There have been other times where the ‘unsatisfactory’ description was too generous.

Take 3b, Questioning, for example. An ‘unsatisfactory’ lesson includes questions “of low cognitive challenge,” where students answer “recitation style.” 

What about the lessons where teachers don’t even ask a single question. Either because they didn’t take a break from lecturing, or because students were too unruly for the teacher to even pretend to teach.

To be ‘distinguished,’ in this component, it’s not enough for a teacher to initiate a deep and lively discussion. The students must “formulate many questions” (emphasis mine) and independently “ensure all voices are heard.”

I appreciate the goal of deep, student-centered discussions. But when average lessons are considered unsatisfactory, basic, or worse, it’s only natural for teachers to be frustrated.

As a result, many evaluators ignore the rubric’s descriptions and “grade on a curve.” In my experience, most rely on their own opinions of what basic and distinguished look like.

When the purpose of a rubric is to provide consistent evaluation, such unrealistic standards constitute a fatal flaw.

It’s Not Intuitive

A teaching rubric is bound to be complicated. But too often, the Danielson Rubric makes even the simple seem complicated.

One example involves teacher-student relationships. You would think this would fall under Domain 2, The Classroom Environment. This domain contains items like “Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport,” and “Managing Student Behavior.”

But you’ll also find elements of teacher-student relationships sprinkled across the other domains. “Demonstrating Knowledge of Students” is found in Domain 1, Planning and Preparation. 

Domain 3, Instruction addresses “Communication with students,” and “Responsiveness.” And Domain 4, Professional Responsibilities includes “Communicating with Families,” and “Professionalism.”

You might think professionalism is separate from student relationships. Except the rubric defines professionalism as “putting students first” and “supporting students’ best interest,” among other things.

Most school leaders have little trouble telling you which teachers have positive relationships with students and families. But few could reasonably tell you where those teachers fall in each of the seven relationship competencies.

A Simpler Measure of Effective Teaching

So while the Danielson Rubric contains valuable insights, it’s poorly designed for turning insights into actions. Hence the pervasive “implementation problems.”

One issue is that it’s overwhelming. Another is objectivity. The purpose of a rubric is to take the subjective and make it objective. Two people visiting the same classroom should generate the same score. But too often, this is not the case.

One of my early-career teachers recently shared his frustrations about an observation he had received. Two of his administrators and an outside observer all watched him teach the same lesson. In domain after domain, one observer marked him as Exemplary, and another marked him Unsatisfactory. Same lesson, same component, opposite ratings. 

Education needs a simpler measure of teaching effectiveness. One that feels intuitive. One that aligns with how most educators think about effective teaching.

I believe such a measure requires just three domains: Heart, Hands, and Head. 

The Heart Domain: Passion

Passionate educators lead with their heart. They love teaching, have a positive outlook, and they tend to have excellent relationships with their students.

It’s easy to tell who the passionate educators are. They consider teaching their calling. And most couldn’t imagine a career outside of education. “Ms. Lanigan” is an example of a teacher who is strong in the Heart domain.

Because they are fulfilled by teaching, these teachers are often in a good mood. They will work hard without complaining, but they stop short of getting burned-out. They aren’t perfect, but they have a growth mindset and respond well to feedback.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle of the passion spectrum. We love to teach, but get frustrated sometimes. We love our students, but a few test our patience.

If this is an area you’d like to grow, reflect on why you went into education. Practice self-care, like getting enough sleep and enough down time. These can all help you in developing your passion.

The Hands Domain: Action

Action-Oriented educators lead with their hands. They get things done. These teachers submit their grades ahead of schedule. Their rooms are spotless. And they have a routine for everything.

“Mr. Ross” is an Action-oriented teacher. He excels in organization and time management. And while he doesn’t excel in the other areas, he is competent enough to create a positive learning environment for his students.

As with Passion, most of us aren’t like Mr. Ross. The paperwork piles up from time to time, but we get through it. We don’t always plan our lessons two weeks out, but we do them, eventually. 

The best planners go beyond just making lesson plans. The most efficient educators consider their yearly objectives and craft meaningful unit plans. They break down their big picture objectives and identify all the little details that contribute to their success.

To make the most of their time, they follow the motto, “Eliminate, Automate, Delegate.”  Eliminate whatever isn’t contributing to your goals. Automate anything that can be done just as well by a computer. And delegate (to our students) anything they could be doing for themselves.

The Head Domain: Strategy

Action-oriented educators focus on efficiency and hard-work. They manage to get more done in less time.

Strategic educators focus on the ‘why.’ Instead of asking how to build a better mousetrap, they wonder “do I need a mousetrap.”

Head-first teachers are strong in the content they teach. But they also value pedagogy, the art and science of how students learn. They have a deep understanding of learning theory concepts, like the Zone of Proximal Development, Maslow’s Hierarchy, and Bloom’s Taxonomy.

The most strategic educators also possess pedagogical content knowledge. This is an understanding of the learning practices specific to your subject area. These educators recognize when a difficulty with Algebra can be traced back to a misconception with fractions. Or whether a students’ reading difficulty traces back to an issue with decoding or vocabulary.

What’s Your Teaching Superpower?

Before I wrote the Reflective Teaching Guide I had spent years trying to find something like it. I figured there had to be a simple, intuitive tool to help teachers understand their strengths and take ownership of their professional growth.

When I realized such a resource didn’t exist, I finally decided to make it myself. The Reflective Teaching Guide contains stories of reflective educators, in-depth descriptions of the three areas of teaching excellence, as well as a self-reflection activity.  

Keep in mind, the self-reflection is not an observational tool. It’s meant for teachers to complete independently, or with your instructional coach.

You’ll probably find that few, if any of us, are highly effective in all three areas. But we don’t have to be. We can be exceptional in just one area, and still be excellent teachers. 

My hope is you will be inspired by discovering your teaching superpowers. And if your skills in one area aren’t where you want them to be, that should help you to set your professional learning goals.

GET YOUR FREE GUIDE TO REFLECTIVE TEACHING

About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff

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