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International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tqse20
Destructive domains: rethinking teacher
evaluation in the age of Charlotte Danielson
Samuel Tanner, Andrea McCloskey & Erin Miller
To cite this article: Samuel Tanner, Andrea McCloskey & Erin Miller (2021): Destructive domains:
rethinking teacher evaluation in the age of Charlotte Danielson, International Journal of Qualitative
Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2021.1956621
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2021.1956621
Published online: 28 Jul 2021.
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Destructive domains: rethinking teacher evaluation in the
age of Charlotte Danielson
, Andrea McCloskey
and Erin Miller
Literacy Education Division, Penn State Altoona, Altoona, PA, USA;
Department of Curriculum and
Instruction, Penn State University, University Park, PA, USA;
Reading and Elementary Education, University
of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, USA
In this manuscript, we argue that the increasing use of reductive tools
born out of neoliberal reforms in education, such as The Framework for
Teaching, a tool for teacher evaluation credited to Charlotte Danielson,
limits the possibilities for emergent, improvisational teaching. We con-
sider the broader political landscape of the last 25years to suggest that
The Framework for Teaching illuminates a preoccupation in education
with so-called measurable results in ways that hurt teachers while
advancing political agendas and profiting private corporations. Next, we
rely on storytelling methodology to critique the framework and offer
alternative ways of thinking about teacher evaluation. Ultimately, our cri-
tique intends to prompt more humane understandings of teacher evalu-
ation, thereby permitting and engendering improvisational pedagogies.,
Received 2 April 2020
Accepted 6 July 2021
I’m concerned about your professionalism, Sam.
I was sitting in my principal’s office. It was 2008, and I was in my fifth year as a high school
teacher English and drama teacher. It was my first year at Primville Area High School (PAHS)
Minnesota. I’d been tenured at my previous school, Cardinal High School, before being recruited
for this position at PHS.
My principal continued talking. She said:
We have received a complaint about your teaching in Dramatic Literature
I was confused. This was the first negative feedback I’d received about my professionalism
and, frankly, my teaching.
I’m placing a letter in your file. You are no longer at standard in Component 4F of the Danielson Framework.
We begin with Sam’s story as the point of departure in an argument that the increasing use
of reductive tools born out of neoliberal reforms in education, such as The Framework for
Teaching credited to Charlotte Danielson, is destructive and limits the possibilities for emergent,
improvisational teaching. We consider the broader political landscape of the last 25 years to sug-
gest that The Framework for Teaching illuminates a preoccupation in education with so-called
measurable results in ways that hurt teachers while advancing political agendas and profiting
CONTACT Samuel Tanner SJT20@psu.edu Literacy Education Division, Penn State Altoona, 3000, Ivyside Park,
Altoona, PA 16601-3794, USA
ß2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES IN EDUCATION
private corporations. Next, we rely on storytelling methodology to critique the framework and
offer alternative ways of thinking about teacher evaluation. The first vignette, begun above and
resumed later in this manuscript, highlights problems with overly rational, reductive conceptions
of teacher evaluation such as The Framework for Teaching. Our second account contextualizes
and presents an improvisational view of teaching evaluation as one possible alternative to frame-
works such as The Framework for Teaching. In this account, we present what may be a more
accessible and familiar idea, that improvisation can inform classroom teaching practices, and we
extend that application to the high-impact practice of teacher evaluation. Ultimately, we are
compelled by Philip et al. (2019) argument that teacher educators and teacher education pro-
grams “have to facilitate judgments and improvisations that allow teachers to understand the
inherent tensions in teaching”so that they can devise their own pedagogical responses to dis-
parate teaching experiences (p. 258).
An improvisational understanding of teacher evaluation is needed to promote and carry for-
ward the work Philip et al. call for a curriculum and instruction that resists scripting, privatization,
Just like in teaching, there is no way to prepare improvisers for the actual
content of the scenes they will find themselves in. Indeed, improvisers are always reacting to
unexpected, idiosyncratic offerings of their scene partners. Still, there are countless practices that
improvisers engage in order to cultivate their capacity to move with the different energies that
develop during improvised activity. So too, teaching can be imagined as the art of pedagogically
responding to the unanticipated, distinctive learning opportunities that appear when unique
groups of students come together in relation to diverse content in myriad learning communities.
New, unique discourses emerge each time improvisers create a scene. The same thing can hap-
pen in classrooms. Evaluators, like directors or teachers of improv, can pay attention to how
teachers negotiate this dynamic in affirmative ways.
Before we proceed, we include a note on our subjectivity in relation to this work so as to
make explicit our investments. Sam is a White literacy education scholar who taught high school
English and drama for fifteen years. Andrea is a practicing improviser and has taught and
directed improv with children and adults for nearly twenty years. She is a mathematics education
researcher who identities as half-White and half-Filipinx. Andrea was a mathematics teacher in
public middle and high schools. She is also an improviser. Erin is a White literacy education
scholar who taught elementary school before accepting a faculty position. Importantly, our schol-
arship is informed by shared commitments to the art of improv, public education, and resisting
neoliberal influences in education.
To continue, we contextualize the rise of The Framework for Teaching in the context of
Neoliberal Influences on Education.
Neoliberal influences on education
We are convinced that public schooling is an essential component to the success of democracy,
and so we regard the design of The Framework for Teaching, described below, as compromising
critical thought, the expectation of difference, and dialogue and debate about the complex
nature of teaching, learning, and society. Before exploring these ideas further, it is important to
consider The Framework for Teaching in relation to increasing trends towards neoliberalism.
Supporters of neoliberal policies trust the deregulated market to usher in democracy. Lipman
(2013) argued that neoliberalism has been the “defining paradigm of the past 30 years”and
described it as “an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and dis-
course, and ideologies that promote individual self-interest”(p. 6). Lipman went on to write “the
power of neoliberalism lies in its saturation of social practices and consciousness, making it diffi-
cult to think otherwise”(p. 6). Other scholars have also written about the increasing presence of
neoliberalism in U.S. institutions (see Davison & Shire, 2015; Giroux, 2003;2004;2014; Harvey,
2 S. TANNER ET AL.
2007; Olssen, 2006; Robbins, 2009) . Indeed, David Harvey (2007) argued that neoliberalism “has
in effect swept across the world like a vast tidal wave of institutional reform and discursive
adjustment”(p. 23). Deregulation, rather than facilitating dialogue or critical thought as to the
complexities and differences in teaching and learning, reaffirms a status quo that serves private
interests. The global economy has, historically, served and been served by the elite. This climate
of neoliberalism certainly seems to influence the rise of The Framework for Teaching described
below and begs an important question regarding teacher evaluation. How has teacher evaluation
been informed by neoliberalism and what can educators do to actually disrupt neoliberal under-
standings of teaching and learning? We present and discuss an improvisational ethos later in
this article as one such disruption.
The framework for teaching as a neoliberal project
Given the wide-reaching influence of The Framework for Teaching on public schools in the U.S.
and the high stakes nature of applications of the framework for public school teachers, there is
surprisingly little publicly available information about the person who is credited with this over-
haul of teacher evaluation in at least sixteen states
. What is clear is that Danielson spent time
employed at Educational Testing Service (ETS) working on teacher evaluation which is where she
credits the germination of the ideas for her teaching evaluation framework (Dodd et al., 2019).
She publicly introduced the framework in 1996, coinciding with the ascendency of neoliberal
influences on education at a national level in the U.S., which ultimately provided the conditions
for widespread adoption of The Framework for Teaching. For example, during this time, millions
of dollars were given to organizations with the power to lobby for political agendas, particularly
pro-charter and charter management organizations, non-traditional pathways to teaching certifi-
cation, and teacher evaluation. These foundations reshaped the role of private foundations in
the education sector. In 2009, the Gates Foundation provided 15 million dollars so that a ven-
ture-backed startup, TeachScape, could partner with Danielson as part of the foundation’s
Measures of Effective Teaching program. The Gates Foundation’s interest in teacher evaluation
specifically is also evident in its funding of nearly one million dollars to ETS in 2008 and 2009 to
“develop frameworks for the assessment of teacher knowledge”and “to study a range of meas-
ures that assess teacher effectiveness in order to better understand issues of implementation,
accuracy, fairness and cost-effectiveness related to measuring teaching quality”(retrieved from
During the rise of increasing philanthropic heavy-handedness in education, leaders of the
Obama administration also focused on neoliberal education reform, recruiting marketplace
notions such as choice,accountability,data-driven instructional practices, competition, and stand-
ardization in service of stated democratic goals. At the national policy level during this era,
President Obama signed The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) (Pub.L.
111–5) into law. The ARRA included Race to the Top Grants for states that committed to per-
formance-based evaluations for teachers and principals based on multiple measures of educator
effectiveness, adopted common standards, adopted policies that permitted the expansion of
charter schools, turned around the lowest-performing schools, and built and used data systems.
Given the working supposition that performance-based evaluations are essential to measuring
educator effectiveness, it is not surprising that states were drawn to a ready-to-implement
teacher evaluation system with high marketability that touted high measures of success for eval-
uating educators. In particular, the “common sense”language of The Framework for Teaching had
such broad appeal that it was included in multiple Race to the Top applications, and ultimately
became a mainstay in teacher evaluation systems across the country.
The Framework for Teaching, although perhaps not intended as such, through its punitive
implementation as an expression of high-stakes accountability undermined the idea that good
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES IN EDUCATION 3
teaching is, by nature, creative, improvisational, emergent, and impossible to measure. de Saxe
et al. (2020) insist that the Framework and other similar practices “continue to vilify teachers and
educators …[and] reduce the teaching profession to one that is both technicist and rote, all
under the guise of ‘equity’and ‘social justice’” (p. 2).
We proceed here with narrative research that critiques the framework and offers alternative
ways to consider teacher evaluation. This first story is written by Sam and is a continuation of
the vignette at the beginning of this manuscript. He was teaching in a Minnesota school district
that had adopted The Framework for Teaching as a teacher evaluation tool. Sam is now a teacher
educator and one of the authors of this paper. He was one of the many teachers who were dis-
couraged and disallowed from enacting creative, improvisational, emergent pedagogies through
the contradictory evaluations to which his teaching was subjected through the framework. The
next story concerns Sam and Andrea’s experience designing and implementing an improvisa-
tional teaching workshop series at a major university, and is offered as a counter-narrative to the
standardization of neoliberal reforms in education.
It is critical to recognize that many other models of evaluating educators currently exist out-
side of the Danielson framework and that many of these have been contested for similar reasons
(i.e. being reductive and prescriptivist)). For example, Tuck and Gorlewski (2016) take up the
ways that EdTPA, a standardized pre-service teacher evaluation tool, use race evasive, race-neu-
tral language –hallmarks of neoliberal ideology –to situate teaching as neutral and apolitical. In
response, Tuck and Gorewski proposed an alternative scoring tool that “makes explicit reference
to issues of race, dispossession, power, and privilege in the classroom”(p. 212). Related, Nash
and Panther (2019) found that TeachingWorks (2018) high leverage teaching practices, defined
as a set of universal core teaching practices employed by effective teachers, hyper-focused on
teachers’moves while undervaluing the ways that teachers communicate meaningfully with
learners. Nash and Panther found more interpretative value in culturally sustaining pedagogies
and learning teaching as an interpretive process (LTIP). In these ways, the improv model we sug-
gest is situated within an existent critique of market-based educational reform, as well as an
existing counter-movement to neoliberal educational reforms. Before we return to Sam’s story,
we consider why storytelling itself is a methodology appropriate for a discussion critiquing and
countering The Framework for Teaching.
Storytelling as methodology
Telling and interpreting stories continues to be recognized as a powerful research methodology
in the social sciences. Over the past twenty-five years, storytelling has become increasingly legit-
imatized as a rigorous research practice in education (see Barone, 2001; Connelly & Clandinin,
1990; Moen, 2006). Storytelling serves as a counter-methodology to the instrumentalization in
education described above because it invites nuance and complexity into understandings of
learning and teaching and communities. Using storytelling seems an appropriate way to weave
theory with practice in our work to evaluate and understand the complex work of teaching and
learning without overly privileging the status quo. We see that privileging is part of what is
problematic with The Framework for Teaching.
Storytelling, like improvisation as we take it up later in this manuscript, offers a research
methodology and practice that resists the ongoing trajectory in education research and practice
that favors standardization and instrumentalization (see Gannon, 2012; Heilbronn & Yandell,
2010; Wyse et al., 2012 for more about the pervasive, global nature of this trajectory). In fact,
Turvey (2012) wrote that “in recent years, it has become fashionable to demand of research that
it produces ‘evidence’that can be turned into easily generalisable findings”(p. 57). Turvey went
on to argue that this tendency had led to prescribed, managerial standards that work to render
invisible “the messy and wonderfully productive complexity of classrooms”(p. 57). Storytelling
4 S. TANNER ET AL.
can be used to complicate, rather than limit understandings of teaching and learning, and legiti-
mizing the stories of participants in teaching and learning offers a way to more richly understand
and recognize their experiences, especially as we write this piece against the neoliberal trends
we named at the outset that has enjoyed increasing influence, resources, and mandate
We pause here to acknowledge that storytelling can be used in educational research to per-
petuate one-sided narratives. Storytelling is not inherently disruptive of the status quo. We are
cautioned by Tuck’s(2009) consideration of damage-centered narratives that documents people’s
pain and brokenness as a way to speak back to power but often reinforce notions of such peo-
ple as ruined or hopeless. Still, our approach to storytelling and story interpretation here is about
making visible complex theory and experience as a way to disturb normalized ideas about the
evaluation of teachers.
The stories we tell and interpret below emerged from discussions the three of us had over
two years about The Framework for Teaching, a framework that presents, and thereby creates
and requires, a reductive understanding of teaching and learning. After telling and interpreting
many stories, we decided to share Sam’s experience as a high school teacher being evaluated
with The Framework for Teaching in relation to Sam and Andrea’s experience designing and
implementing an improvisational pedagogy workshop. Below, we share and briefly interpret
these two stories before moving to a broader discussion about how these vignettes relate to the
current circumstances of teacher evaluation we presented at the beginning of this manuscript.
The first story is intended to share a specific experience Sam had with The Framework for
Teaching, whereas the second story is more of an overview of a workshop sequence that Sam
and Andrea designed as an intervention. Finally, we offer implications and suggestions for ways
that teacher evaluation informed by improvisational pedagogy, rooted in practices of theatrical
improv, resists increasingly scripted, reductive understanding of teaching and learning. Now we
proceed with the story we started at the outset of this manuscript.
I’m concerned about your professionalism (Sam’s story)
My encounter with my principal baffled me. What had I done wrong? Was I in trouble?
“Are you showing movies to your students?”My principal seemed to be accusing me of com-
mitting a crime.
“We watched scenes from Franco Zefferelli’s version of Hamlet in dramatic literature today,”I
said, trying to figure out what was happening. Dramatic Literature was a senior English class.
“We’re reading the play in class.”
“Do you need to watch the movie?”My principal asked me dismissively.
I’d always taught films as texts, especially when teaching a play. I was perplexed by my princi-
pal’s question. She kept speaking.
One of your students was very uncomfortable about the material you watched. She said it was sexual. That
student won’t be returning to your class. I’ve changed her schedule. Also, I’ll be placing a letter in your file.
You need to be more professional about the type of material you show your students. Professionalism is an
important part of being a teacher. It’s part of how we evaluate you. I don’t know what you did at Cardinal
High School, but it’s not okay to talk about sexuality at Primville. I don’t want you showing movies in
My principal’s remarks stunned me. I didn’t see how it was possible to avoid discussions of
sexuality in literature such as Hamlet, especially in a senior-level English class. The class had
been curious about a scene in the Zefferelli film in which Hamlet threw his mother aggressively
onto the bed. I’d briefly mentioned that some interpretations of Hamlet included conversations
of Freud’s Oedipus complex.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES IN EDUCATION 5
“Can I talk with the student?”I asked my principal. “Or even their parents? I’m sure we can
come to an understanding. I’ve never had an issue like this before.”
I couldn’t believe that a single complaint from a parent could lead to the action being taken
against me. The power imbalance was striking. Who got to decide what was appropriate for me
to do in my classroom? One parent who had access to my principal? I wanted the chance to rec-
oncile with the parent, wasn’t provided the opportunity.
“No, we need to keep this confidential.”
A year later, I was placed on two three-day suspensions. I’d analyzed a clip from The Office
with a Drama Workshop class to illustrate comedic timing. I was also overheard saying the word
“bullshit”in that same class. Certainly, I could see how using the word bullshit was problematic.
Viewing The Office seemed more benign. Regardless, I was threatened with termination because
I wasn’t“at standard”in component 4F of The Framework for Teaching. I was placed on the
“teacher-assistance track.”Four colleagues were assigned to observe and evaluate my teaching.
My principal came into my classroom at the end of the experience and evaluated me using The
Framework for Teaching. I was at risk of being fired if my principal decided I was not “at stand-
ard.”My principal’s observation was the only time she had visited my classroom. She marked me
at standard and left. That year I was on the “teacher-assistant track”was the same year that I
was voted most inspirational teacher in the annual poll of the student body (see Tanner, 2016
and Tanner, 2017 for other accounts of this story).
Component 4F of The Framework for Teaching is labelled as the component concerning
“professionalism.”According to the framework, “expert teachers demonstrate professionalism in
service both to students and to the profession”by having a strong “moral compass”and are
“guided by what is in the best interest of each student.”We have many reservations about the
reductive and, frankly, superficial terminology throughout The Framework for Teaching. In relation
to the story above, we have two major problems with how the framework, especially component
4F, was used as a destructive teacher evaluation tool. First, the definitions of the word
“professionalism”and “appropriate”are highly open to interpretation, including interpretations
informed by social and cultural norms. Next, there is a contradiction in the component between
complying with regulations and supporting students. Below, we illustrate how The Framework for
Teaching undermined the autonomy of the teacher described above, Sam, and was used as a
legitimization of a particular set of values rather than a useful evaluation tool.
Component 4F of The Framework for Teaching privileges the evaluator’s interpretation of class-
room events at the expense of context, complexity, and divergent thinking. Component 4F of
the framework allows the legitimization of one interpretation of a teaching event, in part,
because the definition of professionalism is at best arbitrary and, at worst, dehumanizing and
serves to maintain established power relations and the status quo. It provides a language for the
evaluator to dismiss and disallow difference. According to the criteria in this component, a pro-
fessional teacher has a strong moral compass. That moral system is not defined other than it is
written that distinguished teachers hold to standards of honesty, integrity, and confidentiality.
All of these descriptors are vague and have contested meanings in practice. For example, the
principal in the story above claimed it was immoral for teachers to show movies or discuss issues
of sexuality in class. The teacher, Sam, thought it was disingenuous not to mention Freud’s
notion of the Oedipus Complex with high school seniors in an investigation of Hamlet, especially
regarding questions about choices actors made in the 1990 film version directed by Franco
Zefferrelli. Further, teaching a play with rigor and integrity, for Sam, required the students to
view and analyze a variety of performances of the material. The principal had power over Sam
6 S. TANNER ET AL.
as an evaluator. Therefore, the administrator’s understanding of morality and integrity were
legitimized and imposed in a way that led to punitive consequences for Sam’s teaching.
Additionally, because “confidentiality”is an indicator of professionalism in The Framework for
Teaching, Sam was unable to discuss this incident with students, other teachers, or even stake-
holders in the school, such as parents. Instead, a confidential letter of reprimand was placed in
Sam’s file. There was no mechanism by which Sam could discuss the principal’s interpretation of
the framework or come to some shared understanding. Ultimately, morality and integrity were
defined by the principal as having something to do with avoiding any mention of sexuality and
not showing films in classrooms. These values were imposed and labeled as “professional stand-
ards.”This process had little to do with the evaluation of pedagogical knowledge or practice and
more to do with “commonsense”orthodoxy as the principal understood and defined it.
Ultimately, component 4F was used to legitimize the principal’s view of teaching at the expense
of Sam’s autonomy and, frankly, humanity as a teacher.
Component 4F of The Framework for Teaching also weakens teachers’autonomy because
there is often a contradiction between serving students and following district mandates.
According to The Framework for Teaching, a professional teacher is guided by what is in the best
interest of each student and also complies fully with school and district regulations. We see two
immediate problems with this language. First, the word “best”is contested. Who defines what is
best for students? We admit that this question never has an easy answer, but we contend that a
better answer is sure to arise in dialogue, never through unilateral and swift judgments. Next,
these two intentions named in the framework are often competing. For example, in the story
above, Sam thought it was in the best interest of students to have honest discussions of pro-
vocative content in relation to a scene in particular production of Hamlet rather than repressing
or ignoring material that students were interested in. This was not an arbitrary opinion on Sam’s
part; this was based on his professional judgment as an English educator and in his extensive
knowledge and experience with the theories and practices of English and drama pedagogy.
Sam’s administrator deemed this pedagogical move to be “unprofessional”and, in her position
as principal, was able to legitimize that stance as district policy by invoking The Framework for
Teaching to write and file a letter into his employment record for the district. Ultimately, a
teacher who saw it as their job to serve students by resisting oppressive ideologies and school-
ing practices cannot do so without questioning school and district policies and procedures.
The Framework for Teaching, and many other similarly reductive tools in education oversimpli-
fies phrases that have contested meanings such as moral compass,professionalism, or even best
interest of the student. This simplification then functions as a sort of doublespeak that confirms
institutional precedent, standardizes the status quo, and normalizes the values of whoever is
interpreting the rubric from a position of power. It operates as commonsense. Such tools have a
great capacity to limit potential improvisations by teachers. These tools, more often than not,
serve discourses that maintain unjust practices of school and society. The story above illustrates
how these tools are capable of hurting people. Sam was constrained from enacting his profes-
sional judgment, thereby limiting his capacity to cultivate meaningful, pedagogical relationships
with his students. Furthermore, by undermining Sam’s professionalism, his very identity as a
teacher was called into question. This sort of crisis can and did cause lasting hurt and harm.
Below, we turn to an alternative way that Sam’s teaching might have been evaluated.
Teaching and learning are complex and, in our view, an improvisational approach embraces the
unpredictability of pedagogy. Indeed, Powell and Serriere (2013) described an improvisational
pedagogy as “the reconstitution of curriculum as embodied, experiential, and fluid, moving
beyond a pre-planned syllabus or package of materials”(p. 21). We are inspired by this view of
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES IN EDUCATION 7
pedagogy and are further cued by Philip et al. (2019) claim that “rather than pushing for pre-
scriptiveness, the role of teacher education cannot be to train teachers with specific solutions to
discrete problems”(p. 258). This claim about the prescriptiveness of teacher education can also
be directed toward teacher evaluation, especially in the interest of cultivating more humane,
improvisational understandings of teaching. After all, our efforts at providing high-quality teacher
preparation programming are only as good as the evaluation tools and methods our preservice
teachers will face in their teaching careers. Further, we take seriously Philip et al.’s(2019) concern
that “reductive definitions of practice and improvisation”have “potentially dehumanizing
implications.”(p. 252). Here we treat disciplined theatrical improv as an instantiation of impro-
visation in order to specify a practice that might move us away from neoliberal reform efforts
and contribute to more humane schooling practices. Therefore, we look to the ways in which
improvisers are evaluated in healthy, thriving improv communities to provide an illustration for
the rubric we presented above as a promising direction for teacher evaluation.
Consider what Ronen (2005) wrote about improv. He suggested that seasoned improvisers
will come across “radically different mindsets of what ‘good’improv looks like”(p. 20). In other
words, good improv is also contextualized and subjective. Improv, as a form, welcomes that
“quality”is fluid and improvisers have radically different views of what good improv is without
delegitimizing other perspectives. In fact, this difference often leads to unexpected moments of
discovery in a scene if improvisers welcome competing views. “Good”improv relies on the facili-
tation of productive dissensus instead of a standardized and arbitrary list of best practices that
are broadly imposed. We are not suggesting there is not a discipline or a quality to the craft of
teaching. Instead, we offer that teaching, like improv, is as Ronen (2005) wrote, “a personal”art
form where people work “without a script to guide their actions and motivations”and “tend to
pull a lot from their own lives and personalities”(p. 21).
Measurement tools such as The Framework for Teaching broadly standardize notions of
teacher quality and render a personal practice incoherent. Anybody can be a teacher as long as
teaching is impersonal and prescriptive but, since teaching is not those things, the practice itself
becomes lost. This allows standardized practices to be broadly applied at the expense of collect-
ive emergence and professional judgment. Although this trend has allowed neoliberal reformers
like Danielson to make a tidy profit off school districts, it does not promote complex views of
the idiosyncratic nature of teaching and learning. Instead of honing their craft, teachers such as
Sam in the vignette above are forced to worry about whether or not they are “at standard”on
narrow, vague rubrics in order to keep their jobs. Nachmanovitch (1990) wrote the following
about evaluating improv:
To either like or dislike our work for more than a moment can be dangerous. The judging voice asks, ‘Is this
good enough?’But even if we create something really stupendous, sooner or later we have to perform
again, and that inner judging voice is back again, saying, “It had better be better than last time.”Thus one’s
very talent can be a factor in blocking creativity. Either success or failure can turn that voice on. The easiest
way to do art is to dispense with success and failure altogether and just get on with it (pp. 134–135).
For Nachmanovitch, improvisation provokes the artist to let go of the idea of success and fail-
ure altogether. Sam’s vignette illustrates the experience of a teacher, explicitly acknowledged by
his students as inspirational, burdened with anxiety about whether or not his teaching was good
enough to secure his job. Understandably, this worry stunted his freedom to “just get on with”
the work of teaching. Again, we do not think Nachmanovitch is suggesting there is not a discip-
line or a craft to improvisation. Quality still exists. But quality is fluid and contextual. We worry
rigid and myopic evaluation tools make it too easy for powerful yet disconnected gatekeepers to
look for simple answers to simple questions by depersonalizing teaching as an instrumental, rep-
licable activity as opposed to a complicated discipline. Evaluators impose simple and arbitrary
benchmarks and reward teachers for obvious confirmation of the evaluators’intentions. Teachers
8 S. TANNER ET AL.
are not required to make unique or innovative choices but, instead, to conform to expectations
and meet standards.
A reductive method of evaluation such as The Framework for Teaching is of little use to impro-
visers. There is no simple, right answer when an improviser is working without a script. There is
no obvious and knowable right thing that should happen next. Improvisational moments and
scenes develop in their own, unique ways and require idiosyncratic responses that vary depend-
ing on the people and places involved in the work. So too, we argue, there is never a simple,
right answer in the classroom. Pedagogical moments develop in their own, unique ways and
require idiosyncratic responses that vary depending on the people and places involved in the
work. Of evaluation, founder of Chicago improv Viola Spolin (1999) wrote that
There is no one as dogmatic as the six- or seven-year-old who “knows”the answer. He is already reflecting
and accepting the patterns of the world around him. He is right, and they are wrong! It seems almost
impossible at first to eradicate this judgmental and thus limiting words from these very young children
Spolin was concerned about the possibility for the judgmental voice to limit the development
of improvisers. We extend that worry to measurement tools for teacher evaluation such as The
Framework for Teaching. In some ways, such tools provide dogmatic dynamics that allow people
such as the principal in Sam’s story to impose a judgmental ethos on a teacher and, therefore,
limit their capacity to improvise with curriculum and pedagogy. Perhaps, it is not the job of the
teacher educator or school administrator to impose one right answer for what “good”teaching
is on teachers and future teachers. Instead, maybe it is the work of leaders in education to facili-
tate spaces where teachers cultivate their capacities to translate experience and professional
judgment into meaningful experiences for students. In fact, the obsession in education with
measurable results might have led to frameworks of teaching evaluation that do little more than
create and solidify judgmental voices that render educators unable to make courageous choices
Practical deployments of improvisational pedagogy and evaluation: (Sam and
Sam and Andrea worked with two other colleagues at Penn State University in the fall of 2017
to design and facilitate a workshop series about improvisational pedagogy. We opened this
sequence to all faculty and graduate student teaching assistants at Penn State. 64 instructors vol-
untarily signed up to participate. Ultimately, 24 instructors from a variety of disciplines and ranks
were selected at random to participate in this eight-week sequence. This diverse group of partici-
pants represented disciplines such as Physics, English, Economics, Math, and more. The group
met for two hours each week and participated in theatrical improvisation to consider how theo-
ries and disciplines of improv might inform their teaching practice. The sequence culminated
with a public performance. As classroom teachers, improvisers, and education researchers, Sam
and Andrea framed an improvisational view of pedagogy as a reaction against the increasing
instrumentalization of teaching and learning. The goal of this experience was to invite partici-
pants to consider how practicing improv theatre might help them to be more flexible and affir-
mational in their teaching.
Each workshop began with mindful breathing and other theatrical warmups. Participants
practiced the central philosophy of improvisation, “yes, and,”over the course of eight weeks.
“Yes, and”is the idea that improvisers accept the spontaneously emergent reality that they
construct with others by affirming and adding onto each offering in an improvisational
moment. There are no best moves to make, no scripted endpoint to reach, and no mistakes.
Instead, the collective supports each other unconditionally as they build both a process and
a product. Each week, Sam and Andrea facilitated writing, discussion, and improv theatre
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES IN EDUCATION 9
that invited faculty to name the implications of an improvisational approach to teaching
might have for their teaching.
Both Sam and Andrea observed how much fun the participants seemed to have during
“It is so nice to come here and get out of my head,”a Biology professor said while standing
in a circle during the final session. “Being here clears my head.”
“Does anybody have any other thoughts?”Sam asked.
“I just think being able to say ‘yes, and’to our students is so essential. And it isn’t the sort of
thing we ever learn about or practice,”a faculty member in Math added.
Participants kept a journal during the workshop sequence. They were given the opportunity
to voluntarily share their writing.
“This not only taught me to respond to the unexpected,”one faculty member wrote in a
reflection, “but also to encourage the unexpected.”
Another instructor wrote that “I have become more open to joy. I thought I needed to
embody anxiety to be considered a serious pedagogue, or even someone worthy of respect. I
have tried to be more open to experience peace and joy in the classroom.”
Both Sam and Andrea were struck by how meaningful the workshop series about improvisa-
tional pedagogy seemed to be for the participants. Instructors connected improvisation to many
domains of their teaching including grading, reacting to unexpected student participation, and
being more comfortable teaching. Participants seemed to agree that an improvisational
approach to curriculum and pedagogy has much to offer in terms of student learning, teacher
retention, and other aspects of education. Sam and Andrea have taken these discussions up in
other research (see Tanner, 2019 and Tanner & McCloskey, under review). Below, we specifically
consider what an improvisational ethos has to offer for teacher evaluation, especially as a reac-
tion against reductive approaches such as those found in The Framework for Learning.
An improvisational ethos and teacher evaluation
In designing the workshop described above, Sam and Andrea attempted to articulate a way to
document what an improvisational approach to teaching might mean. They created a rubric
meant to help their participants articulate and practice specific elements of improvisational
teaching practice (see Table 1) . It was not their intention to standardize a list of particular practi-
ces but, instead, to create a tool that would help participants pay attention to and practice dif-
ferent dimensions of their teaching. Later, they came to understand their efforts to document
improvisational teaching as a reaction against the instrumentalization inherent in tools such as
The Framework for Teaching. The four categories included in the rubric Sam and Andrea created
were inspired by the dispositions practicing improvisers hope to cultivate: (1) Facilitating the
unexpected; (2) Teaching with vulnerability; (3) Saying yes, and instead of no; and (4) Teaching
with presence. According to the rubric Sam and Andrea created, a quality improvisational
teacher invites and responds productively to unexpected experiences in the classroom. This
teacher takes risks by experimenting with new content, responds affirmatively by saying “yes,
and”to student participation such as discussion, behavior, and thinking. Finally, the improvisa-
tional teacher exudes mindful courage and joy while teaching, and is able to manage the class-
room’s energy even when confronted with unexpected occurrences.
Sam and Andrea distributed this rubric to participants in the workshop as a tool for them to
reflect on the improvisational dimensions of their own pedagogy throughout the fall. By the end
of the workshop, Sam and Andrea regarded the tool as an example of how an improvisational
framework for teaching evaluation might provide an alternative to increasingly rigid, standar-
dized, and scripted approaches to teaching and learning.
10 S. TANNER ET AL.
Improvisational teacher evaluation rubric
The improvisational rubric for teacher evaluation that arose from the workshop described above
is rooted in what we have begun to describe as an improvisational ethos (McCloskey & Tanner,
2019). An improvisational ethos cultivates a shared commitment to affirming and validating the
existence and experience of others. This ethos emerges from principled engagement with theat-
rical improvisation because participants are required to take courageous risks as a group, value
the collective over the individual, and explore content without preconceptions. Participants in
the workshop learned to expect and embrace difference because co-performers’offerings are
always their own and are wholly unpredictable.
We have previously argued that working on the dispositional traits described above is difficult
work but contributes to building improvisational classroom communities in schools (Tanner,
2019). Applying this ethos more broadly to an understanding of pedagogy, especially in relation
Table 1. Improvisation and pedagogy rubric.
Superior Competent At standard Emerging
Instructor invites and
productively to all
experiences in the
with students) such
experiences in the
with students) such
experiences in the
with students) such
Instructor does not invite
experiences in the
speech, behavior, and
students) such as
Instructor takes risks
with new content,
making in each of
their class sessions
during a semester.
Instructor takes risks
new pedagogy, or
making in many of
their class sessions
during a semester.
Instructor takes risks
new pedagogy, or
making in one to
two of their class
Instructor does not take
new pedagogy, or
making in class
yes, and, instead
saying “yes, and”
to all student
saying “yes, and”
to some student
saying “yes, and”
to at least one
form of student
Instructor never responds
affirmatively by saying
“yes, and”to at any
form of student
participation such as
confidence and joy
while teaching, and
does not let
disrupt the flow of
the class session.
disrupt the flow
disrupt the flow
or joy while
always disrupt the
flow of the
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES IN EDUCATION 11
to current standardizing practices in teacher evaluation, allows a different conceptualization of
what teaching is and what it might be. We agree with Philip’s(2019) claim that “that creating
spaces”for disciplined engagement with “the improvisational dimensions of teaching is essential
for novice teachers to learn the relational and humanistic aspects”of the practice (p. 3). Our
rubric contributes to the projects of articulating and valuing improvisational dimensions of teach-
ing in order to offer this view of pedagogy against the reductive and scripted logic being
imposed in schools. Indeed, Hopkins (2014) argued that education continues to grow more joy-
less and oppressive, in part, because classrooms are not concerned with “joy and existential pos-
sibility”so much as a “deficiency of individuals in need of being fixed”(p. 112). The first vignette
we shared illustrated a story of how The Framework for Teaching promoted the view of a defi-
cient teacher. An improvisational ethos offers a counter to such logic. We regard the rubric that
emerged from the improv and pedagogy workshop described above as facilitative of an alterna-
tive view of teaching that values the affirmation of existential potential.
The improvisational rubric for teaching evaluation works against the imposition of standar-
dized values because the teacher is provoked to welcome unconventional discussion, thinking,
and behavior in the classroom through the “yes, and”component. Disciplined improvisation
requires the group to hold and negotiate the offerings of every participant as contested aspects
of the emerging activity of the group. This isn’t to suggest that individuals need to agree with
every thought, emotion, action, or statement brought to the group. In fact, improv expects and
welcomes contestation. Still, improv requires individuals to avoid dismissing, ignoring or delegiti-
mizing the offerings of others with the expectation that a principled improvisational process will
carry forward the material necessary for sustaining the group –even and especially if that mater-
ial is surprising, unexpected or contentious. This principle of “yes, and”offers an affirmational
approach to the classroom in which teachers and students practice building off of each other’s
offerings in order to create new knowledge.
Improv requires participants to be in relation with each other during the activity, regardless
of whether or not they agree with or support what is being offered. “Yes, and”doesn’t require
the teacher to agree or approve of everything their student says or does. It does not require the
student to do so either. But it does require the group to negotiate offerings with a radical open-
ness to the possibilities that come from engaging difference. For example, the “yes, and”
approach to teacher evaluation might have required Sam’s principal in the first vignette to
accept Sam’s teaching practice as a possibility instead of dismissing it. Further, Sam would have
been provoked to affirm his principal’s concerns as valid offerings. An improvisational ethos does
not ignore the ideologies people bring with them to school. It does not solve oppressive racial,
gendered, and social discourses that so thoroughly undergird schooling practices. But it does
require an open exchange and consideration of those ideologies within a context that values the
adaptability of the group more than the fixed imposition of a status quo. Sam and his principal
might have been brought into an affirmational exchange that could have led to transformation
for both of them and, therefore, what counts as legitimate teaching practices in that classroom
at that time. Ultimately, the “yes, and”component of the improvisational rubric is not an easy
solution to the problems of ideological, cultural, racial, and social difference (and historic pat-
terns of marginalization) in schools. Still, it does provoke educators to welcome complex encoun-
ters with these differences in ways that might contribute to more affirmational
The improvisational rubric for teaching evaluation resists the scripting of education through
the “facilitating the unexpected”category. According to the rubric, an improvisational educator
invites and uses surprising student offerings to contribute to the shared inquiries of a group.
This conceptualization of teacher quality does not promote narrow or scripted outcomes or proc-
esses in teaching. Indeed, Leander and Boldt (2013) suggested an improvisational way of
approaching learning might allow teachers to “make space for fluidity and indeterminacy as the
nature of things”by recognizing “difference, surprise, and unfolding”that happen in ways that
12 S. TANNER ET AL.
“are not rational or linear or obviously critical or political”(p. 43). The improvisational teaching
rubric provides a practical tool to promote the facilitation of such learning because, through the
“facilitating the unexpected”category each moment in a class allows another, unexpected
opportunity for what Leander and Boldt described as “an assemblage with the materials, time,
space, experiences, movement, play, emotion, and desires”to occur. (p. 43). In other words, the
teacher and the student, as captured in the “facilitating the unexpected”dimension of the rubric,
would be expected to welcome indeterminacy as a positive aspect of learning. The difference is
no longer viewed as a problem to be solved, rather, the difference is the natural state of being,
in classrooms and in the world. It is a resource to be harnessed for collective, creative
Once again, to bring this back to the first vignette, this rubric might have required Sam’s prin-
cipal to realize that discussion of a scene in particular production of Hamlet was not inherently
inappropriate or conclusive evidence of Sam’s deficiency but, instead, one of many legitimate
possibilities that emerged during a particular class. Sam’s principal would still be welcome to
analyze or discuss his pedagogical choice to explore that pathway with his students in relation
to the rubric, but she would be asked not to immediately dismiss his actions as evidence of his
insufficiency as a teacher by imposing her own ideological expectations as to what should be
happening in a classroom. The “facilitating the unexpected”category of the improvisational
rubric speaks directly against the idea that teaching is better when it is scripted to follow the
ideological, standardized expectations for activity and thinking imposed by particular stakehold-
ers such as those behind The Framework for Teaching. Ultimately, this improvisational teaching
rubric offers one alternative to attempts toward reductivity in education by provoking educators
to cultivate their capacity to welcome and work with the unknown and resist the current com-
pulsion to script teaching and learning. Further, this rubric begs an interesting question. What
might happen if we evaluate teachers in the way that improvisers are evaluated?
In 2016, Danielson wrote a widely-circulated commentary entitled “Charlotte Danielson on
Rethinking Teacher Evaluation”(Danielson, 2016). By 2016, her framework had been in wide-
spread use by states, school districts in the U.S. and abroad, and teacher preparation programs.
Indeed, an entire apparatus of professional development resources in the form of books, work-
shops, consultants, and other support services, emerged in the form of a for-profit company:
“The Danielson Group.”Yet in her commentary, Danielson expressed reservations with the ways
in which teacher accountability was unfolding. She wrote that she was “deeply troubled by the
transformation of teaching from a complex profession requiring nuanced judgment to the per-
formance of certain behaviors that can be ticked off on a checklist.”It may very well be the case
that Danielson was deeply troubled. She probably would argue that using the FFT in harmful
ways, such as those described by Sam above, is a misuse of The Framework for Teaching. But we
argue that the framework, partly because it is positioned as “the”framework for teaching, but
more importantly because it is built around a specific conceptualization of the nature of the pro-
fession –a conceptualization that is dehumanizing and anti-improvisational –is inherently
destructive. Any comprehensive treatment of teaching which does not require the negotiation of
differences in interpretations –between observers, teachers, and students –and further discus-
sion and learning about pedagogical contexts, will always and only further disconnections and
The story of the rise of The Framework for Teaching that we told at the outset of this manu-
script is one instance, rooted in a U.S. context, of how the field of education, both in theory and
practice, has struggled to defend itself against private interests that seek to capitalize on public
schools by creating marketable programs that limit creative potentiality in teaching and learning.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES IN EDUCATION 13
This is true in the U.S., but across the globe as well. This neoliberal trend is frustrating, to be
sure, but it is also insidious for those of us who remain convinced that the capacity for critical
thought, democracy, and the affirmation of difference is made or destroyed in our schools.
Schooling is a complex endeavor in which very few things are truly replicable. Place and time
and circumstance are always relevant. Indeed, the condition of schools is the condition of
humanity. The task of designing ways to evaluate and support “quality”teaching is challenging,
but it also might be why an improvisational view of teaching could provide a generative direc-
tion for the field –both in theory and practice.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
1. 1 We disguise the names of the two schools mentioned in this manuscript. We leave reference to the state of
Minnesota to contextualize Sam’s encounter with The Framework for Teaching.
2. 2 The rest of this manuscript is written in third-person. We return to first-person only during the continuation
of Sam’s story.
3. Much has been written about both the ontology and application of improvisation in education. We approach
improvisation through the lens of improv theatre, and see the potential for improvisational praxis to transform
a variety of educational practices including teacher knowledge, student learning, and policy. This discussion is
taken up in greater detail in other work (see Tanner & McCloskey, under review).
Notes on contributors
Dr. Samuel Tanner is an associate professor in the Penn State system as well as a creative writer and improviser.
His research concerns whiteness, improvisation, and critical pedagogy.
Dr. Andrea McCloskey is an associate professor at Penn State as well as an improviser. She is a mathematics edu-
Dr. Erin Miller is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research concerns anti-
racism, whiteness, and literacy.
Samuel Tanner http://orcid.org/0000-0002-4998-5424
Erin Miller http://orcid.org/0000-0003-0449-2770
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