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Charlotte Danielson on the Best Way to Improve Teaching

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
“Creating Communities of Practice” by Charlotte Danielson in Educational Leadership, May 2016 (Vol. 73, #8, p. 18-23), available for purchase at; Danielson can be reached at
In this Educational Leadership article, evaluation expert Charlotte Danielson says the time-consuming, top-down, bureaucratic nature of teacher evaluation in many schools is “undermining the very professionalism that’s essential to creating positive learning environments for students.” Of course evaluating teachers is essential to quality assurance, she says, but if only about six percent of teachers aren’t meeting basic standards, what about the other 94 percent? To answer this question, we need to acknowledge three basic realities in schools:
- Teaching is complex work. “The impossibility of reaching perfection is in the very nature of creative, professional work,” she says.
- Current evaluation systems are underperforming. “In many schools and districts,” says Danielson, “teacher evaluation has become simply a matter of numbers, ratings, and rankings… I receive frequent e-mails from teachers expressing their dismay over what they perceive as a serious distortion of their mission to engage students in meaningful learning.”
- Even if they’re conducted well, evaluations “are not the best approach to stimulate teachers’ learning about their complex and important work,” she says. In other words, evaluations might be able to describe a teacher’s work, but they seldom improve it.
The bottom line: “Schools should not rely on evaluation as their main engine of teaching improvement,” says Danielson. “[I]t’s time to shift from an emphasis on high-stakes accountability for individual teachers to an emphasis on schoolwide communities of professional inquiry in which educators learn from one another.”
One of principals’ key jobs is orchestrating this process. And indeed, a symphony orchestra is a good metaphor, says Danielson: conductors lead individual players toward the goal of making beautiful music, and principals lead teachers toward the effective education of all children. Some essentials for good orchestrating in schools:
• Create an environment that’s safe and challenging. Teachers must be able to express themselves and take risks, constantly seeking new and better approaches. Danielson suggests encouraging teacher teams to identify and share “high-quality mistakes” – approaches that didn’t work out but from which valuable lessons emerged. Principals might do the same.
• Establish the expectation of collegial learning. “We know that teachers learn more from their colleagues than from their supervisors,” says Danielson. This may be an issue of principals’ limited subject-area expertise, but teachers also worry that admitting uncertainty or lack of mastery might end up as a negative evaluation. Principals need to affirm the key role of learning from colleagues and model openness about their own imperfections and struggles.
• Flip the classroom observation process. Principals should encourage teachers to visit a specific number of colleagues’ classrooms, not to give feedback, but to learn. The principal might offer to cover teachers’ classes during these visits.
• Schedule and guide team meetings. Common planning time for key groups, clear expectations for what teams should accomplish, and skilled facilitation can produce remarkable results, says Danielson.
• Support teacher leadership. Many colleagues are ready to take on the role of mentor, instructional coach, department chair, or team leader. It’s the principal’s job to spot talent, delegate responsibility, and provide training and support. Some key skills: active listening, summarizing a discussion, acknowledging and building on others’ ideas, problem-solving, and problem identification. Principals also need to know when outside expertise is required.

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