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.”