Teachers brainstorm where features of the ideal classroom fit into the Danielson Framework's four domains.

Training sessions about a classroom observation model opened up dialogue between teachers and principals this month, even after becoming a flashpoint in the city and teachers union’s ongoing conflict over a new evaluation system.

The city and union planned to host trainings on the teaching model the city hopes to adopt for its new evaluation system together. But after Mayor Bloomberg ratcheted up rhetoric against the union in the State of the City address, the union cut city officials out of the planning. The sessions began two weeks ago, drawing hundreds of attendees even after the Department of Education emailed principals informing them that the sessions were off.

I spent an afternoon last week at a training session at the United Federation of Teachers’ Bronx headquarters, where well over 100 union chapter leaders and their principals were receiving a crash-course on the Danielson Framework, a classroom observation model that serves as one component of the city’s proposed evaluation system. The city has encouraged principals to practice using the Danielson Framework when conducting informal classroom observations this school year, and 140 schools have been piloting the observation model more formally.

As an impasse over new teacher evaluations has deepened between the city and the UFT, a tension has emerged about whether the model is meant first to help teachers improve — the union’s position — or whether it is a tool to help principals usher weak teachers out of the system, as the city’s rhetoric has sometimes suggested.

Catalina Fortino, the UFT’s vice president of education, said the purpose of the training sessions is to foster “a shared understanding” of the model for teachers and principals — an understanding that the city’s pilot of the Danielson framework had failed to develop, she said.

“I don’t think that the way it was rolled out there was sufficient attention and time given to this type of deep understanding about the framework,” Fortino said. “It can be used as an evaluation tool, but school communities needed to spend more time [and] professional learning around what each domain was, what that practice would look like and sound like in the classroom.”

The advantage of Danielson, teachers and principals said, is that it introduces a common vocabulary to talk about what a well-run classroom should look like, even though activities would be different across different grades. For example, guided reading is a common teaching method in the lower grades, so high school teachers would not be expected to use it. But Danielson unites teaching methods under the category of “professional practices,” which tells observers to look for the use of discussion techniques and instruction materials, and how a teacher paces a lesson and arranges students to work in groups or individually.

“This framework is to make sure we speak the same language, but it’s going to look different depending on the class,” said Jasmine Varela, the principal of P.S. 18, which is not in the pilot program.

But Varela’s optimism that the rubric would help her fairly judge teachers wasn’t universal.

Kathleen Bornkamp, principal of P.S. 97, said some of her teachers are not scoring as high on the rubric as she would expect — precisely because the rubric expects the same general characteristics in all grades.

“You’re just not going to see a kid in kindergarten initiate, “Oh that’s a really good question.” There’s just not that language. But that’s not to say that that teacher isn’t a proficient or a highly proficient teacher,” said Bornkamp, whose school is part of the city’s Danielson pilot. “The rubric doesn’t always reflect what they’re capable of. I have some really good teachers at my school and they’re not always coming out to be the highly developed that they are.”

Plus, she said, practicing observing teachers using Danielson had proved to be time-consuming, said.

“The Danielson Framework makes sense, it’s good teaching,” she said. But “the turnaround is tough — getting it online, getting it written up and getting it out to our staff. They want us to do it like within 24 to 48 hours. That’s the biggest challenge for me as principal.”

Pilot schools are visited by talent coaches every other week, who provide professional development an question and answer sessions to teachers about what the evaluation process looks like now and could look like in the future.

Reviewing the union’s presentation about the long list of responsibilities embedded in the Danielson rubric, a middle school teacher who asked not to be identified said students’ home lives present a formidable challenge.

“This is all great and dandy and I’m all for it, but I’ve always said this, what’s up with the parents? These students come from broken homes,” she said. “When you’re talking about meeting cultural competence with high expectations, these are all our responsibilities, but what are the parents doing?”

But another teacher from a small high school pushed back against that way of thinking. She said she preferred to be assessed according to what she does do, rather than according to what she cannot.

“I teach 150 students and I saw five parents on parent-teacher night, total, for [grades] 10, 11, 12,” the teacher said. “I say, I can’t control the parents, but I can reach the kids. I call, I write letters, and I sit with the kids and I drill it into them.”

Indeed, an activity during the training session revealed that many teachers and principals were largely on the same page about what a new model for observations should assess. Asked to identify signs of good teaching, teachers and principals ranked evidence of student work, students’ ability to articulate what they have learned, and an organized classroom high on their lists.

Most didn’t realize it initially, but they had listed several of the components that make up the Danielson Framework.