Feature                                                      Pages 30-33


Connecting Common Core to

Teacher Evaluation 

Rigorous instructional demands tied to standards warrant systemwide supports at the supervisor level


Charlotte Danielson

Sean Williams, a third-year middle school teacher of mathematics, has heard the rumblings about the Common Core State Standards. His school district’s curriculum director distributed some sample test items of the type that will be on the new assessments given to students during the next school year. Williams begins to panic.

For starters, the problems look especially challenging to solve, even for him. Then his thoughts turn to his least-prepared students. “How will I ever be able to get them to a point in their understanding where they can solve these problems?” he wonders.

Williams harbors severe doubts about whether many of his students will be able to explain the process they followed to solve a problem, even when they’ve reached the correct answer.

At Williams’ middle school, Principal Clara Jones tries to stay current on the demands of instructional leadership. She visits classrooms frequently and engages teachers in problem solving around instructional issues. But she wonders what this Common Core is about. She’s read articles in the professional literature, and her district has conducted a number of meetings to help administrators understand the standards. But how does Jones know what to look for when she’s observing a class?

For example, Sean Williams seems to be a good teacher. His students enjoy being in class, and Jones receives no parental complaints about him. He always is willing to volunteer for activities around the school and across the district.

But is this enough in the face of the new Common Core standards? Should the observation/evaluation process be more substantial to comply with the new standards? And if the answer is “yes,” what must teachers, as well as principals, do to achieve at this higher level?

Related Purposes
The evaluation of teaching practice assumes teachers themselves understand the criteria by which their performance will be assessed and the standards to which they are aspiring to improve their practice. Those conditions are not yet met with the Common Core, so before we can determine their precise impact on teacher evaluation, we must first understand the demands of the CCSS themselves and what they represent for the teaching profession.

The Common Core State Standards are a relatively new answer to an age-old question: What should students know and be able to do as a result of their years in school? Until now, the answer to that question has gone something like this: “The student graduated with four years of English, three years of math, etc.,” with no consistent detail as to what those years of study produced in terms of knowledge and skills.

The need for the CCSS became clear in the early years of No Child Left Behind, when school districts were charged with ensuring that all students, in all subgroups, demonstrate proficiency on the state’s content standards by 2014. Legislators, state departments of education and school districts have worked diligently to make this happen.

However, when it became apparent that the standards for students varied markedly from state to state and when some states requested waivers when they encountered seemingly insurmountable difficulties, national policymakers were not able to get a picture of how well the nation’s schools were preparing their students for the demands of adult life. The discrepancy in state standards became evident when student performance on state tests was compared to their performance on the only national tests then currently available, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In a number of states, student performance on state tests showed continuous improvement, while their performance on the NAEP was essentially flat.

The most common explanation for this apparent discrepancy is that because the state standards are unique to each state, and the assessments to measure them differ from one state to another, states can adjust the “cut scores” for students taking the tests, thereby ensuring that student performance appears, at least, to be constantly improving. These anomalous results, combined with the widespread observation that American students did not perform particularly well on international assessments, caused many in policy circles to determine that the United States needed more rigorous and common statements of what students should know and be able to do as a consequence of their years in school.

Hence the Common Core State Standards, drafted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers over several years, and adopted by legislators in 45 states by 2013.

However, it was quickly recognized that the content standards themselves would be meaningless in the absence of assessments and would offer little guidance to policymakers or practitioners in strengthening schools. The assessments — now being developed primarily through a pair of assessment consortia (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) as well as a few individual vendors — will serve, therefore, as the operational definition of the standards. That is, if a student has mastered a particular standard in 8th-grade mathematics, he or she will be able to solve a problem like this.

What’s Known
The assessment of student mastery of the new standards has been limited thus far, making it impossible to speculate about long-term consequences of their implementation. However, a few things are known:

The standards are rigorous. The CCSS represent learning at a high level, previously reserved for the most elite private schools nationwide. The standards put a premium on high levels of student intellectual engagement.

In literacy, it’s not sufficient for students to be able to closely read text and make literal and inferential interpretations of the content. They also must determine the themes or central ideas of a text, interpret the meanings — sometimes figurative — of specific words, ascertain the point of view of the author, etc. In mathematics, it’s not sufficient for students to apply the correct procedure to arrive at the correct solution to a problem. They also must construct viable mathematical ideas and critique the reasoning of others.

The standards are discipline-specific. The CCSS have been written for English language arts in literature and informational text (in the content areas) and writing and mathematics. The standards acknowledge that in all disciplines, much valuable learning depends on proficiency in literacy and numeracy. So while common standards are expected to be developed in other subjects, the emphasis to this point has been on these core subjects.

Multiple interpretations exist for how best to translate the standards into instructional practices. Just because the CCSS specify what students should know and be able to do, they do not mandate certain techniques for teachers to use with their students. Those are instructional decisions, best made by teachers individually and in collaboration with colleagues.

Implementation Path
To address the standards effectively, teachers and their school district supervisors must ensure that particular elements of the instructional program are in place in the areas of curriculum planning, materials selection, content knowledge, teacher instructional skills and observational and coaching skills of supervisors.

The curriculum must include the content envisioned in the CCSS. In most schools, curriculum decisions are not made by teachers in isolation. Curriculum directors are at the helm in school districts, typically reaching decisions through a consensus process involving teachers across the district. Usually, those curriculum decisions are heavily influenced by the content laid out in the most widely used texts and other instructional materials adopted by the district.

The CCSS make deeper demands on those curriculum decisions. District leaders, in collaboration with teachers, should determine the content of the curriculum for each grade in light of the specific requirements of the Common Core. For example, the CCSS place equal weight on literature and informational text, which marks a shift in emphasis for many schools.

This is not to suggest teachers play no role in curriculum decisions. Because they know their students and their levels of knowledge and skill, individual teachers are obliged to supplement the officially adopted materials to meet the needs of their class.

Teacher Capacity
Teachers must have the deep content knowledge to understand the CCSS themselves and to convey that knowledge to their students. Like Sean Williams, the fictional middle school math teacher introduced earlier, many teachers’ first reaction is often one of panic.

This response is natural — a consequence of the Common Core’s rigor and the inadequate academic preparation of many of today’s teachers. How many teachers of 3rd graders can themselves explain the structure of the base 10 system? How many 5th-grade teachers of literacy can “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence?” These are advanced skills, and teachers may need a few years to hone the skills now being asked of their students.

Teachers also will need the instructional skill to engage students in high-level intellectual work. Students will not magically acquire the advanced knowledge and skills described in the CCSS. These will have to be taught. Teaching for high-level cognitive engagement differs from explaining facts and concepts or teaching procedures. Engaging students in active intellectual work means wrestling with unfamiliar problems and situations, recognizing patterns in mathematics or historical events, and formulating and testing hypotheses regarding possible scientific explanations for events. These are thinking skills, so cultivating them in others demands a different set of instructional approaches.

Meanwhile, supervisors and coaches must have the skill to recognize effective instructional practice in the Common Core and to mentor teachers to reach higher levels of performance. Just as teachers’ traditional preparation and practice have been generally inadequate to prepare them for rigorous CCSS instruction, so have that of supervisors and coaches, who need to be ready to help teachers strengthen their instructional practices.

Caution Advised
It’s only in this larger context that we can consider teacher evaluation and its connection with the Common Core. To the extent teacher practices must produce the student learning envisioned by the higher standards, they must be aligned to CCSS. But it would be a mistake to implement evaluation processes based on the CCSS until teachers and supervisors fully understand those implications.

Evaluation of teacher practice is and will continue to be a powerful lever for instructional improvement if conducted within the context of a collaborative observation/evaluation cycle in which the teacher plays an active role in self-assessment, reflection on practice and professional conversation.

In my view, it would be a fundamental error to conduct high-stakes evaluations of teachers facing an array of new, rigorous demands with significant consequences for their employment and professional status, without first offering the systemwide supports to make those initiatives possible.

Charlotte Danielson is an internationally recognized expert on teacher effectiveness and the design of teacher evaluation systems, based in Princeton, N.J. Her latest book is The Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument. E-mail: charlotte_danielson@hotmail.com  

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