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Think outside the rubric. Teach outside the box.
How the Danielson rubric changed education - By Georgia Lignou
By Georgia Lignou, Teacher of Social Studies and UFT Chapter Leader at Bryant High School
Posted with permission from the author. Originally posted at: https://iceuftblog.blogspot.com/2023/03/think-outside-rubric.html
When training to become teachers, we learn that planning starts with the “why” and this will direct the “what” and the “how” of the lesson. However, most often when we plan, we find ourselves thinking about the Danielson rubric more than we think of the students’ needs, the topic we teach or the strategies that can be most effective. When a rubric becomes the center of teaching and every discussion on instruction turns into a discussion of the rubric, we know we have a problem.
The Danielson rubric of evaluation entered our profession about ten years ago. For the first few years the administrators who were tasked to enforce it were trying to figure out how. Many administrators coming from an older tradition in education saw it as another bureaucratic tool that interfered with the culture and vision of their schools, while principals who were the new products of the Bloomberg tradition were more eager to codify the expectations, and some saw themselves as pioneers in creating the new Danielson rubric-based classroom.
Ten years later, many of the old Danielson skeptics have retired to be replaced by Danielson believers and Danielson crusaders who elevated the rubric to a dogma. Teachers are receiving write ups which are so removed from the reality of the classroom that have more in common with medieval scholastic discussions about how many angels fit on a needle. In addition, a new generation of teachers has been trained under this system and that is the only thing our students have experienced in the classroom since kindergarten. So, what are the results?
It has created a big discrepancy on how teachers are evaluated and often the difference between a Developing and an Effective or a Highly Effective rating is literally a change of address as teachers find out when they transfer, sometimes to schools within the same neighborhood and under the same superintendency. The DOE instead of using Advance to identify these abuses, is turning a blind eye to how diverse, subjective, bias, and punitive at times, the interpretation of the rubric is, when this rubric was introduced on the promise to quantify and mainstream standards of performance.
The evaluators do not teach, so they do not model what they expect, and there is no independent committee a teacher can go for justice and the APPR complaint process is, to put it mildly, a joke. The leadership of our UFT is relying of the fact that many principals prioritize differently; they still use common sense, and they are flexible with the rubric. So, for the UFT, the problem is limited to a few unreasonable administrators. However, when we brought to the attention of the DOE the fact that in Bryant HS, where I work, we have a history of low ratings, to the point that last year about half the teachers were found Developing on the MOTP measure only to be saved by the MOSL, we were clearly told that our principal was using the rubric “with fidelity” implying by omission that other principals are not. But for how long? In fact, with every passing year the number of schools where teachers are feeling the pressure is increasing.
The Effective ratings are turning into Developing even on lessons and strategies that were acceptable the previous year. Still the current application of the Danielson is inequitable and unfair but if its interpretation becomes ever more uniform. Bryant will be the example and not the outlier. It is indicative that the principal who we had up until last year, the same principal who thought that when teaching remotely in the middle of the pandemic was a good time to penalize her teachers for classroom management, engagement, and discussion, was promoted to a higher position in the DOE.
Perhaps most important is the effect Danielson has on teaching itself. The workshop model of a lesson has become the only acceptable format. Group work, student to student verbal interaction and high-level discussion has become the only signs of student engagement. High level open-ended questions have become the only acceptable teacher input. The mini lessons are so mini that if the students blink, they miss them. Anything more, and the lesson is deemed teacher centered and therefore ineffective.
Students every day, and in every subject area, go through the same motions: a Do Now, a mini lesson, a reading using a graphic organizer for analysis and inquiry, group work, assessment, some more group work, protocol-based discussion and sentence starters, a share out and an exit slip. The material must be differentiated, and the teacher is to circulate with a tennis-chart (in case you are wondering, the tennis-chart replaced the traffic lights that used to litter our classroom floors for a few years) to assess what the students understood and where they need the extra help ideally to provide it on the spot. So, these are the buttons a teacher is expected to press with proper timing and even then, that Holy Grail of an effective lesson is hard to come by. In summary, we are tolerating a system where teachers are not treated as professionals, but they are micromanaged as mere facilitators of a well-orchestrated prescribed process, and yet they are the ones who must take responsibility for its failure.
Independently, the above practices are valuable, but in combination they have become a nightmare of planning and execution. The learning environment this creates lacks spontaneity and leaves little room for the magic a charismatic teacher can bring to the classroom, putting the students through an unnatural even ritualistic daily routine instead. In fact, lessons must be “student led” and the main input of the teacher is to keep the timing of the activities. Many times, we just supervise our students as they copy things from documents to rubrics seemingly engaged when many are not even clear what it is they are examining.
We have not paid attention to the fact that their basic knowledge is not at the level that meaningful discussion is even possible. We are so eager to move the students to the group work part of the lesson that we pay little attention to the lack of context necessary to connect the snippets of history, literature, science, or math that might be the focus of the material that day. Teachers are faced with an unprecedented workload that barely leaves any personal time free, and they are penalized for things that are not under their control. That includes what the students say or whether students get distracted by their phones when we all know that disengaging them from their electronics has become impossible. On top of it we have piled other challenges by turning most of our classes to ICT and blended-ENL, thinking that differentiation will bridge the academic gaps. No wonder schools are faced with low morale, high turnover and the profession itself with a severe shortage of teachers. Finally, the whole system is fixated on numbers, but we rarely stop to think, how can we really measure knowledge.
Is this education? Teachers say it is not. Student boredom and the gross lack of knowledge say it is not. Common sense says it is not. Then what is it, especially in a day and age that is so transitional and the calling to us all is to envision the education of the future? As an educator, I am trying to figure it out every day, but what I do know is that a rubric does not hold the answer. Figuring out what works can start by acknowledging that which ten years later we know does not work. It must be a collective effort involving educators not outside gurus and technology companies. For that, perhaps we should go back to the original questions that drive our instruction.
“Why” we teach? The system calls it college readiness, but maybe we can agree that it is to help young people with whom we have been entrusted to become adults, able and flexible to deal with the demands and adversities of life and empathetic enough to connect with others. It is to create well rounded critical thinkers and civically engaged citizens, well versed, and trained in humanism, art, science, and mathematics to become world citizens. It is to help them develop the cognitive flexibility to apply the general to the specific and recognize the specific in the general. A well-rounded world understanding is a big task, but how can we get there if our students can be in 11th grade not knowing where the seven continents are and need convincing that the body of water between the US and Europe is not the Mississippi River?
“What” we teach? That of course is guided by each subject area, and it cannot be addressed in this article which I am trying my best to keep short.
“How” we teach? Engagement and relevance are a must, but how does or can that look like is a big discussion that relates to different styles of learning and the individual character of the students. The Danielson rubric has been interpreted so that engagement means verbal, student to student interaction, and true to be told, no serious educator will argue that discussion is not important, but focusing only on that is an impossible task for the teachers, and discriminatory to those students who learn differently. It is worth mentioning that in my 27 years of teaching, my best students were not talkers. They were listeners, readers, writers, and thinkers. But yes, students should be encouraged to talk, however, it is illogical to expect students in an algebra class to be engaged in the level of discussion students will be in an AP Government class or penalize the teacher for the lack of it in an ENL beginner’s class.
What is the role of the teacher? What is the role of technology? What is the foundation for critical analysis? In addressing the “how” in teaching, the questions are many, but as we look for the answers, we cannot forget that teaching is not just a craft. It is mainly and foremost an art and how we teach bears more resemblance to the flowers in a spring field than to the buttons of a computer keyboard.
And the last and probably most contentious question is how we measure learning. Again, no serious educator will argue that there is an exam which can accurately do that. However, as the legislation to get rid of the Regents exams is already being discussed, we must think carefully what effect that will have on our evaluations and our profession.
The last two years when graduates did not need to take the Regents, graduation skyrocketed. Why? What do we prefer to be judged by, the results of our students, even if the exam is not perfect, or our compliance to a rubric? Right now, the answer still depends on what school we work at, but if Danielson stays in place, we do need to think preemptively and see it for what it does. The Danielson rubric is boxing us in, and it is suffocating our profession. It is one of those things that future generations will look back at and say, “what were they thinking?” So, what are we thinking?
Editor’s note: Georgia Lignou is Chapter Leader at Bryant High School.
We should start a conversation on teachers getting their freedom to teach back. In 2005, the UFT agreed to contractual changes that forced many veteran teachers to be trapped in their schools or become Absent Teacher Reserves if schools closed. In 2013, we put another nail in the teacher professionalism coffin when we let charter school champion John King impose Danielson on us.
After ten years of Danielson and with UFT contract talks heating up, maybe now is the time to convince the State Legislature to empower teachers in their classrooms.
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