The Danielson Framework: what is engagement?

I look forward to the next twelve days of guest-blogging with Michael Lopez. I will begin with some thoughts about the Danielson Framework for Teaching and its assumptions about student responsibility. A question for readers: is an “engaged” student one who starts projects, initiates groups, and selects materials? Or do you have other definitions of engagement?

The Danielson Framework (created by Charlotte Danielson, an education policy adviser and consultant) is now the standard teacher evaluation rubric in New York City and hundreds of other districts around the country. It will be used with  a point scale, Danielson’s discomfort notwithstanding. (She told Peter DeWitt in an interview, “In general, I don’t like numbers of any kind. Teaching is enormously complex work and it is very hard to just reduce it to a number of any kind. However, it’s important to capture, in a short-hand manner, the relative skills of different teachers, so I suppose numbers or ratings of some kind – are inevitable.”)

As reading material, the Framework generally preens my feathers instead of ruffling them (though the two are not necessarily at odds). It consists of 22 components, which are distributed across four domains: Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. The explanatory text fills in some of the subtleties and caveats.  As a rubric, though, it affects not my feathers but my gut; some of its key premises seem shaky at best. For instance, it assumes that student “engagement” is essential to learning and that students manifest such engagement overtly through initiative and leadership. The first part makes sense; how can you learn unless you put some effort into it? It is the second part that leaves me uneasy.

Let us consider the Framework’s third domain, “Instruction,” and the domain’s third component, “Engaging Students in Learning.” In order for a teacher to attain the highest rank, “Distinguished,” for this component, most of the following must hold true (emphases added):

All students are actively engaged in the activities and assignments in their exploration of content. Students initiate or adapt activities and projects to enhance their understanding.

Instructional groups are productive and fully appropriate to the students or to the instructional purposes of the lesson. Students take the initiative to influence the formation or adjustment of instructional groups.

Instructional materials and resources are suitable to the instructional purposes and engage students mentally. Students initiate the choice, adaptation, or creation of materials to enhance their learning.

The lesson’s structure is highly coherent, allowing for reflection and closure. Pacing of the lesson is appropriate for all students.

Why does Danielson equate the engaged student with one who takes overt initiative? This equation does not necessarily hold. You can have a geometry class where the students do their homework, think about their homework, come in with questions, pay attention to the lesson, and participate in class discussion. Is there any reason why, on top of this, a student should initiate and adapt classroom activities? Sure, a student might say, “Hey! Let’s have a school event on geometry in our daily lives!” But such an initiative is in no way superior to pondering a proof that has been assigned.

What about grouping? I am wary of having students regulate their own grouping, except in extraordinary circumstances. For one thing, it’s a setup for ostracism and social chatter; for another, students rarely have adequate perspective on the lesson or unit. Of course, if a student is unhappy with a given grouping, he or she should be at liberty to discuss this with the teacher. But should a teacher receive fewer points because his first-graders are not selecting their own groups, or because her orchestra members do not choose where to sit? I don’t think so.

Let’s consider, finally, the issue of choosing materials. There is certainly a place for this: for instance, when students choose essay topics and conduct research on their own. But is there any reason why students should choose daily materials in, say, an introductory U.S. history course? They are just starting to get their bearings in the subject. The teacher (or school) should select a good textbook and supplement it with primary and secondary sources. She might also direct them to online resources: photographs, recordings, manuscripts, and so on. Some assignments should involve a degree of choice. But overall, there is no shame in guiding the students through the subject and selecting materials for them. It allows them to focus on what they are learning.

What’s especially troubling is the Framework’s implicit preference for the overt “Hey! Let’s start a club! Let’s make a bulletin board display!” form of engagement. Does engagement always take the form of initiating projects, adjusting one’s groupings, or selecting material? Can’t it also take the form of learning what’s given to you, turning it this way and that in your mind, and coming up with observations and questions? Given the point scale system, it appears likely that fine teachers with dedicated students will receive point deductions because there’s no evidence that the students are taking charge. A shame.

*Update: in paragraph 2, I changed “New York and other states and districts” to “New York City and hundreds of other districts around the country.”


  1. The perspective on engagement definitely chooses a certain type of student behavior as desirable, to the detriment of others. Some students, myself included, are not actively engaged as mentioned but that does not mean that they are not thinking through the material. Often, these “disengaged” students are doing deeper thinking on the subject than the ‘engaged’ students, and are actually grappling with the underlying assumptions instead of simply finding some application of the idea.

    Engagement often gets lumped in with relevancy, and I do not think these are very useful concepts in learning. Obviously a student who is intrinsically interested in a subject will probably be more engaged, but that does not mean a student who is not interested cannot learn the subject. And I can only assume that most people are not interested in all things therefore sometimes we have to learn something without that extra push of interest.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Teachers often love it when students demonstrate their engagement with overt actions. This is more about the egos of teachers than about the actual engagement of students.

  2. is an “engaged” student one who starts projects, initiates groups, and selects materials?

    So only extroverts can be engaged?

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “So only extroverts can be engaged?”

      Yeah, pretty much.

      Merely thinking about something (and maybe figuring out how it works) isn’t as engaged as doing a project or lobbying to be in Susie’s group.

      Diana’s geometry example is spot on.

      I can easily imagine a student doing very well in geometry (or any other math class) … understand the math, applying it to new situations, etc … and scoring as very unengaged.

      Extraverts think that introverts are broken extraverts.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    ” A question for readers: is an “engaged” student one who starts projects, initiates groups, and selects materials?”

    This is horrible. Good students try to meet their teachers’ expectations, whatever those expecations maybe. They try to provide a positive feedback loop to the teacher. Whether they’re actually engaged with the material is a whole ‘nother question. This type of “performance” is just that, a performance. When did teachers become so needy?

    One doesn’t need to do any of those things (start projects, initiate groups, or select materials) to be mentally engaged with a topic.

    • “When did teachers become so needy?”

      This is the for the evaluation of a teacher. As a teacher, I do not want this used to define if students are engaged. This isn’t about teachers being needy, its about how the evaluators are expecting students to behave in class. Therefore, the teacher must be creating situations that elicit this behavior from students.

    • CaliforniaTeacher says:

      Stacy, how else would you measure student engagement?

      • If the student is learning the material and developing the skills to grapple with new ideas in the content domain, they are engaged. It is very hard to learn without being engaged. But we have to accept the fact that we can’t always see the engagement as it is happening.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        I wouldn’t even attempt to measure it. I’d measure objective results: test scores, written work, oral presentations, and demonstrable mastery of content.

        There’s something creepy and paternalistic about the educational establishment’s never ending desire to “capture”, in some form or another, children.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Imagine that there was a blacksmith who had a shop, and that you wanted to know if the blacksmith was any good at his craft.

    I can understand that you might say something like, “The objects that the blacksmith makes have certain wondrous qualities.”

    But what you wouldn’t say is just, “The objects in the blacksmith’s shop have certain wondrous qualities”.

    So it’s always with a little bit of trepidation that I listen to people purport to evaluate teachers on the basis of criteria that begin with the phrase “Students will….” The focus obviously can’t be solely on the teacher, cut off from the product of their work — but at the same time, you can’t really judge the teacher’s ability merely by the quality of the students, cut off from their interactions with the teacher.

    Grabbing that thread of causation, of course, is incredibly difficult. We want to have isolated proxies that we can easily measure, and from which we can presume to judge the interaction.

    But as my former professor, Eugene Volokh, was fond of saying, “A survey doesn’t measure what it wants to measure; it measures what it measures.”

  5. In working with the Framework this year, I’ve experienced initiation as a much broader act than what you’re giving it credit for. Diana’s example is actually filled with initiation:

    “You can have a geometry class where the students do their homework, think about their homework, come in with questions, pay attention to the lesson, and participate in class discussion.”

    If students come in with questions themselves, that’s initiation. If students are participating fully in the class discussion, that means they are pushing it forward. A strong discussion has students initiating by pushing the topic toward things they have questions about or are interested in. Initiative does not just mean deciding on a new course of action for the class.

    The flip-side of this is that part of the point of the way these are written is to encourage teachers to create genuine experiences. If a class is structured in a way that allows or even requires students make choices about their learning, it pushes them to be meta-cognitive critical thinkers. Creating an environment where even introverted students feel comfortable speaking up about what is or is not working for them is part of the challenge. If we want to prepare students for the real world, we need them to have the skills to speak up when things could work better for them and to adjust their environment as necessary.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      If a class is structured in a way that allows or even requires students make choices about their learning

      Like whether or not to do homework? Whether this unit is really important to them?

      This is going to sound nasty but isn’t the essence of K-12 that someone else decides for 5-17 year olds what they are supposed to do when?

    • Choosing materials makes a child a “meta-cognitive critical thinker?” Not in my book.

      In addition, the actions associated with observable “student engagement” could and probably should occur much more profitably in other environments than the classroom; say, the home, the neighborhood, and other less-structured activities.
      I’m with Diana; engagement can be entirely invisible to the chance observer, and the Danielson rubric doesn’t seem to think much of student-initiated questions unless the teacher is going a dog and pony show to elicit the questions.

    • Creating an environment where even introverted students feel comfortable speaking up about what is or is not working for them is part of the challenge.

      What a condescending statement. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe introverts are perfectly comfortable speaking up, we just see no reason to? I’m an introvert who knows a lot of fellow introverts and, believe me, if there is a reason to speak up most of us will.

  6. Jeez but I wish being an iconoclast paid better…

    Uh, any reason to believe the Danielson Framework for Teaching results in more kids getting a better education?

    At this point in time it’s hardly a vote of confidence that it is the “standard teacher evaluation rubric in New York and many other states and districts”. Rather more likely then it being a rigorous tool to ascertain professional skills is that it’s a flexible enough ruler that it produces politically expedient results.

  7. Ponderosa says:

    Thank you Diana for carefully critiquing this half-baked rubric. I hope your voice gets heard by policy-makers.

    To be honest, I often find that the best learning among my seventh graders occurs when I SUPPRESS all student imput and just get them to listen and look. Too often their imput and initiative turns into social posturing for classmates, or leads to an avalanche of side conversations that halts the lesson in its tracks. To gratify Danielson’s penchant for VISIBLE engagement (who cares about the invisible, right?) I would end up causing a net loss of learning in my students. Chaos is an omnipresent threat in many public schools, a fact that many of our education leaders unable to acknowledge.

    I would love to live in Danielson’s utopian world where all public school seventh graders were eager little Poindexters chomping at the bit to gain edification, but that’s not the messy world I live in. Sadly many good teachers will beat themselves up (and get dinged by their principals) for failing to measure up to Danielson’s impractical and ill-considered ideal.

  8. There’s no evidence that engagement leads to better learning outcomes. Engagement leads to better grades, yes, because teachers reward engagement with class participation and homework scores, but no evidence of increased mastery.

    Engagement is the false god that both progressives and reformers pursue. Students who care are students who learn!

    Alas. Tain’t necessarily so.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I think it is undeniable that “other things being equal, the more a student cares about the material, the more a student will learn.”

      Alas, most students don’t care a whole lot about the material. In general, they care significantly more about their grades.

      • I think it is undeniable that “other things being equal, the more a student cares about the material, the more a student will learn.”

        Actually, it is pretty deniable when looking at absolute results and groups.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          I think that Roger was thinking that the ceteris that would be paribus in this case includes things like cognitive ability, background knowledge, prior achievement, etc., if that’s what you were getting at.

          (And if it is, I agree with you that things like that matter.)

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Yes. When I said “other things being equal,” I meant everything other than interest. Of course, in real life, it is important to know what things aren’t equal–and when.

      • The more you like a certain food, like, say, garlic, the more likely you are to eat it.

        But, say we find a way to remove that garlic taste from garlic and make a clove of it taste like a tootsie roll.

        And then we find a garlic hater (and tootsie roll lover), feed him the de-fanged garlic, and announce that we’ve brilliantly found a way to make him just love garlic.

        This is how “engagement” works in practice, in my experience.

        • SuperSub says:

          But what if, in the process of making it taste like tootsie rolls, you eliminate a significant portion of the nutritional value of the garlic?

  9. My response to Roger and Michael on results and engagement:

    I understand that you are both saying “When holding constant for ability and other factors, an engaged student is likely to do better than an unengaged student”, and both of you are acknowledging that this is a relative “better”.

    I am saying, however, that a class of engaged low ability kids can do worse than a class of unengaged low ability kids in terms of measurable, absolute learning.

    Now, if you want to say that within the same class, holding instruction constant along with everything else, there might–might–be evidence that engagement matters. But even then, it’s iffy.

    It’s very difficult to teach low ability kids something meaningful without also making them unhappy. Engagement, in those circumstances, is a tradeoff with rigor.

    So let me say it again: Engagement is a false god. In all circumstances. It’s a nice to have, but should never be a highly relevant factor in any assessment other than “This teacher, when needed, can hold the student’s interest and make school seem fun”. It should not be confused with results.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      To clarify, I mean engaged with what they are supposed to learn. I find it hard to imagine a situation where being engaged with what they are supposed to learn would result in less learning than not being engaged.

      • SuperSub says:

        Suppose two lessons that are supposed to teach about organ systems. One class does a highly engaging lesson that includes video, coloring diagrams, and some sort of game.
        The second class does outline-style notes and a sheet with a buttload of questions about them.

        Holding material and students constant, does the first lesson guarantee improved learning? Does the engagement from the coloring and games truly cause the students to learn and retain the information better? You see this with a lot of creative projects. The students get caught up more with the process than the content.

  10. SuperSub says:

    Teachers should be evaluated based on what I call the fear quotient. Plain and simple, will a student do what they are asked by a teacher without hesitation because they fear the consequences of not doing it? The fear does not need to be due to intimidation… I had plenty of teachers, mostly female, who I did not directly fear but did fear the guilt of their disapproval if I did something wrong.

    That blind faith and obedience will guarantee that students will do the work assigned to them… so at that point, the question is lesson design and not teacher quality.

  11. Bocephus says:

    I would just like to point out that you incorrectly state that her rubric is ” is now the standard teacher evaluation rubric in New York and many other states”. This is not only wrong but misleading. Her rubric has been accepted on a state levels as have a dozen others.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      I have read in many places that her rubric has been implemented by more than 15 states and hundreds of districts.

      I changed the wording to read “New York City and hundreds of other districts around the country.”