Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is one of many school districts turning to Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching to make teacher evaluations more meaningful. Instead of the often superficial checklists used by administrators in the past, a classroom observation tool based on the Framework is supposed to help open up the dialogue between principals and teachers about what is and is not working in a classroom.
How well does this approach work in promoting dialogue between principal and teacher during the teacher evaluation process?
A recent report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) on a pilot project in CPS says that while use of the Framework facilitated conversations between principals and teachers, both have much to learn about how to engage in a deep conversation that drives improvement in the classroom. The conversations are only as strong as the participants and their understanding of the Framework, write researchers who observed conferences between principals and teachers during a pilot project in 101 CPS elementary schools from 2008-2010.
“A rigorous instructional rubric plays a critical role in defining effective instruction and creating a shared language for teachers and principals to talk about instruction, but it is the conversations themselves that act as the true lever for instructional improvement and teacher development,” the researchers write.
The CCSR conducted interviews with 39 principals from 44 elementary schools that participated in the Excellence in Teaching Pilot in the first year, 2008-2009. Researchers interviewed 26 teachers from the first year and conducted 23 principal focus groups from principals who participated in the project from 2008-2010. CCSR also tested the validity of the classroom observation rubric by comparing teacher evaluations to student achievement.
The report identified some of the following issues in how principals and teachers talk in conferences both before and after the classroom observation:
Principals tend to dominate the conversations. Principal questions and comments took up roughly 75% of the conference. Very few (10%) of the questions principals asked teachers were at a high level. Researchers categorized 300 principal questions from pre- and post-observation conferences with 21 teachers into 3 categories (high-level, medium level and low-level) based on Danielson’s Framework. (Principals were required to conduct a conference with the teacher both before and after the observation.)
The level of dialogue sometimes varies based on the teacher. Some principals noted that their teachers had different abilities to engage in reflective conversation so they adjusted the depth of their critique and conversation accordingly.
Teachers often have a poor understanding of the Framework for Teaching. Principals said there is a need for more professional development on the Framework.
Some principals spend a great deal of time during conferences simply reading the rubric. Teachers complained that the conversation could feel scripted. Some principals thought that using the Framework in conferences took up too much time. “I have to talk through all these components. Does the district think I have nothing else to do but observe and talk to teachers?”
On the positive side, teachers and principals cited these benefits of the Framework:
Gives focus to discussions. Principals said the Framework changed the content and tone of the discussions by providing structure and a common language with which to talk about instruction.
Increases reflection on instructional practice.“Conversations were deepened because the Framework has explicit goals for improving instruction,” one principal said. Roughly half of the principals suggested that the use of a pre-conference led to better preparation by the teacher. Among the benefits of pre-conferences is that teachers spend more time on planning the lesson and on reflection before they teach the class. “We talked together about the lesson and she revised it on the spot, making the planning process deeper and more reflective,” another principal said.
Puts the emphasis on evidence and helps decrease the subjectivity of evaluations. One administrator said that evidence made it easier to talk about the good and the bad and helped to remove some of the emotion from the evaluation process. Evidence-based feedback during post-conferences gave teachers the opportunity to look at themselves and what their performance truly looked like, the researchers wrote.
Some 89% of principals agreed that the quality of conversations with teachers improved and 86% agreed that the Framework provides a common definition of high-quality teaching in their schools.
Principals said they needed help in the following areas:
- having honest, reflective conversations with teachers about their practice
- using the Framework data to guide professional development decisions
- conducting difficult conversations with teachers who are under-performing
- talking to teachers about the new system and the reasons for replacing the checklist
- scheduling observations, as well as pre- and post-conferences with the teaching staff
“Rethinking Teacher Evaluation in Chicago, Lessons Learned from Classrooms Observation, Principal-Teacher Conferences, and District Implementation,” by Lauren Sartain et al., Consortium on Chicago School Research, November 2011.