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Charlotte Danielson on teaching and the Common Core

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Education Week

by Anthony Rebora

Charlotte Danielson, a former teacher and school administrator with degrees from Cornell and Oxford Universities, is one of the most recognized authorities on teaching practice in the United States. A popular speaker and trainer, she is best known as the creator of the "Framework for Teaching," a 115-page set of components for effective pedagogy that is used in many states and districts to inform teacher evaluation and professional development.

Danielson recently released a new edition of her Framework for 2013, with updates designed to reflect the Common Core State Standards.

In a recent interview, we talked to her about the common standards and how they might change teachers’ work.


What are the central implications of the common standards in terms of instructional practice, or the way teachers teach?

That’s a good question, because we tend to think about the Common Core in terms of what students learn — for example, whether they demonstrate understanding of a concept or strong argumentation skills, being able to establish a point and defend it logically. Those are, of course, curriculum and ultimately assessment issues. But they also have implications for instruction — that is, how do you teach students the skills of argumentation? How do you teach in a way that advances conceptual understanding rather than superficial knowledge? These types of learning outcomes require different kinds of instructional practices — ones that many teachers are not adequately prepared to use.

I think the Common Core rests on a view of teaching as complex decision making, as opposed to something more routine or drill-based. That’s a view I’ve always taken as well. It requires instructional strategies on teachers’ parts that enable students to explore concepts and discuss them with each other, to question and respectfully challenge classmates’ assertions. So I see the Common Core as a fertile and rich opportunity for really important professional learning by teachers, because — I don’t know now how to say this nicely — well, not all teachers have been prepared to teach in this way. I see that as one of the enormous challenges facing the Common Core rollout.

When you walk into a classroom, will good teaching look different under the Common Core?

Well, that depends on how teachers are teaching now. But when I walk into a classroom, of course I care about what the teacher is doing, but in some ways I care even more about what the students are doing. What’s the nature of the task? Are students being invited, or even required, to think? Naturally, that has implications for what the teacher is doing and what the teacher has already done. That is, has the teacher designed learning experiences for kids that engage them in thinking or formulating and testing hypotheses or challenging one another respectfully or developing an understanding of a concept? You really only know what a teacher is doing when you look at what the students are doing. I also listen carefully to how teachers question students — if they ask kids to explain their thinking, for instance. That’s very different from just saying that’s the right or wrong answer. It’s a very different mindset about wanting to understand the students’ thinking and their degree and level of understanding.

How much of your framework has changed as a result of the common standards?

Not much. What I did was make explicit some things that were always there. The Framework for Teaching has always been grounded in the same fundamental assumptions as the common standards — for example, the importance of student conceptual understanding and of student intellectual engagement. I just called those things out. But it’s important to note that the common standards so far only apply to two subject areas, literacy and mathematics, whereas my framework is generic — I intend it to apply to all settings. So in terms of the actual rubrics and the critical attributes of the different levels of performance, I could only incorporate those aspects of the common standards that in fact apply everywhere — for example, those things we’ve been talking about like argumentation and conceptual understanding. For things that are more subject-specific, such as the close reading of texts and the balance of fiction and nonfiction, I included those only in the examples for particular critical attributions.

The Common Core documentation says that the standards are designed to give teachers flexibility. Does that make it more difficult for schools to evaluate teachers — insofar as there is no one right or prescribed way to do things?

It’s true that the common standards are silent on the subject of how students should learn the content of the standards — there’s no doubt about that. But I don’t think that necessarily makes it "more difficult" for administrators to evaluate teachers’ practice. That is, if I’m going into a classroom and looking for how well a teacher is implementing the Common Core, I’m going to look for those common themes that run through the Common Core, and if it’s literacy or math, look for specific things. Again, I tend to look at what the students are doing. So, for example, do you see evidence of the teacher developing the skills that would encourage good argumentation — not only by asking good questions themselves, but by encouraging the students to ask good questions and respectfully challenge one another’s point of view? That kind of holistic inquiry has always been a part of my Framework.

OK, so, imagine you are a school leader. How much room would you give teachers to experiment as they are implementing the Common Core?

I personally would allow them to experiment quite a bit, because, again, the common standards only describe what students will learn. There are many ways to achieve those goals. In addition, this is all very new. As I said a minute ago, this is a rich opportunity for good professional learning — and for teachers to work together and maybe watch videos of one other teaching, then pause the video and talk about how or why particular decisions were made. I think implementation of this will be more productive if it’s done through groups of teachers working together or with a principal or instructional coach or team leader — as opposed to having a principal say, “This is the way it has to be.” It seems to me that, given the opportunity for deep professional learning work, teachers will have the expertise in this at least as much as principals or other school leaders. I mean, they’re the ones who are going to be able to say, “This is what Common Core looks like in algebra,” or “This is what it looks like in 3rd-grade reading class.”

Furthermore, we’ve discovered in our work that principals don’t always recognize real student engagement. If the students are compliant and doing what the teacher says, if they’re on task and busy, principals will often call it "engaged." But the students might not be doing any thinking at all. They might just be filling in some blanks on a worksheet. So I think this shift is going to challenge a lot of people to think deeply and differently. That’s my hope. And from a school leadership perspective, this means you don’t want to be ramming things down people’s throats — I think that’s at odds with the spirit of what you’re trying to do with the Common Core.

There’s a lot of talk about teachers being able to share and to make greater use of supplemental curriculum materials like primary sources. Do you have any recommendation for teachers on evaluating the quality or relevance of such resources?

Yes, the use of primary sources in lessons — diaries, ships’ logs, letters — can be wonderful and extremely enriching. And when teachers use these kinds of things, they can engage students in the kinds of learning that absolutely reflect the Common Core — that require analysis and conjecture and move away from rote learning. And I think that as more materials become available online, and as teachers begin to delve into the standards and understand what kinds of skills they are trying to develop in students, this can be a very rich experience for teachers themselves. They will be able to get involved in conversations with other educators and gain expertise as to the kinds of resources they need or want. I also assume that districts and curriculum directors will also help teachers evaluate lesson materials, in terms of their applicability to particular standards. At least in the early going, teachers may just need to trust their school or district leaders’ judgment on the value of particular materials.

What’s your advice for developing formative or benchmark assessments based on the common standards, given that the official Common-Core-aligned assessments are still under development?

I think it’s the same issue as with teaching in general. You need to have a deep understanding of what the standards are about. Let’s say you teach 4th-grade mathematics. From reading the standards, you can see that there’s a premium on mathematical reasoning, let’s say. So you would want to be both teaching and formatively assessing kids on that. For example, do the students understand the processes they are using? Can they apply them in varied situations?

But we have to define what we mean by formative assessment — some people use that term to mean interim summative assessments, these benchmarking exams that companies sell. That’s not my definition of formative assessment. I consider formative assessment to be a part of teaching, something that is assimilated into lesson plans and instructional decision making. It’s ongoing monitoring done by the teacher, not just of the group as a whole, but of individuals as well. In my view, it’s not mini-summative assessments — it’s not something you administer, if you will, in January. It’s an integral part of instruction. Formative assessment is not something you buy off the shelf. It’s a skill you learn how to do.

But how do you know if you’re doing it well?

The same way you know if you’re doing teaching well. To me this is another place where there’s an opportunity for teachers to work together and determine what it looks like on the ground when students are reaching the kinds of higher-level learning objectives the Common Core describes. It has to be part of teaching — an integral part of conversations teachers need to be having about whether they are implementing the standards with fidelity. What kind of responses are we getting from our students? What kind of evidence do we have that they understand what they are learning? I think figuring out how to measure these expectations is very much on-the-ground work.

How will the Common Core affect teachers who have students with a wide range of skill levels or high needs?

Well, that hasn’t changed. That is the perennial instructional challenge — kids come into your classroom with a huge range of backgrounds and skills. I fear that the Common Core papers over that problem.

In what way?

Well, in mathematics, for example, you’re expected to focus on a few key concepts for 3rd graders. But suppose you’ve got some students who never mastered the 1st-grade skills. The standards documentation, as far as I can see, is silent on how a teacher handles that situation.

So what’s your advice for a teacher in that position?

As an outsider, it’s hard to be specific, but I think one has to understand the developmental learning sequence of particular concepts and teach them in a way that’s compatible with the central themes of the Common Core. That is, the specific topics to me are less important than the big ideas. So if I’m teaching for conceptual understanding, which is a big idea in the Common Core, I’m going to go for conceptual understanding while maybe modulating the specific skills I’m teaching. Say I’m a 4th-grade teacher and prime numbers is a 4th-grade skill, but I’ve got some 4th graders who don’t understand place value. In that case, my own personal inclination would be to ensure that my students develop conceptual understanding of place value at that point — because that’s what they need. So the big idea of conceptual understanding is still consistent. But the actual topic? I don’t see how you can responsibly say anything other than that you have to be flexible and teach students what they have the background to learn at that point. Otherwise, you’re setting them up for failure.

Are there things about the Common Core that you don’t like?

No, not really, not conceptually. But I do worry somewhat about the assessments — I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it — and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools, we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That’s what I mean by train wreck. But who knows? We just don’t know enough about the assessments right now. But when I have shown some of those released items to groups of educators — to teachers and administrators — the room just goes very quiet. So I can imagine a hostile response on the part of some educators and communities. But I’d like to be wrong about that.