Delaware’s Teacher Preparation is Setting a Higher Bar

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

When Frederika Jenner began teaching elementary school mathematics 42 years ago, she realized that she wasn’t fully prepared. “I didn’t have opportunities to learn innovative ways to teach mathematics,” she said. “There were some important skills and strategies that were missing.”

Jenner is now president of the Delaware State Education Association and her experience at the beginning of her career is just one reason she strongly supported legislation signed in June 2013 by Delaware Governor Jack Markell to increase the rigor of the process of recruiting and preparing teachers and principals. “Educators need more meaningful, real world training,” she said.

Acutely aware of the challenges her members face, Jenner explained that new teachers “need training in integrating technologies in the classroom, and how to judge student work.” Working with parents, classroom management and transition times are other areas where she believes educators need preparation.

Senate Bill 51 raises the bar for teacher preparation programs by:

  • Requiring candidates to have either a 3.0 grade point average, be in the top half of their most recent graduating class, or pass a test of their academic skills.
  • After they complete their classes, teacher candidates will have to pass a test of their knowledge of the subjects they plan to teach, demonstrate their teaching skills and complete a 10 week classroom residency (at minimum) supervised by a mentor.
  • The Delaware Department of Education and the teacher preparation programs themselves will monitor the performance of their graduates in the classroom and data on the programs will be reported to the public.

Catalyzing Change 

State leaders had long recognized the need to strengthen teacher preparation in the state. But the entities that would have needed to work together to strengthen the system—the Delaware General Assembly, the five teacher preparation institutions in the State, the Delaware State Education Association, and the State Department of Education—had not been able to forge a consensus on how to accomplish that.

That changed when the State began putting together its application for a federal Race to the Top grant, which it won in 2010. One of the priorities of Race to the Top was to ensure that teachers and principals had the knowledge and skills they needed to help students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college or careers.  Senate Bill 51 put into law the commitments the State made in its application.

“Race to the Top has given many stakeholders a lot of courage and support to make some really hard decisions, like increasing the selectivity of teacher preparation programs,” said Christopher Ruszkowski, who heads the Delaware Department of Education’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit.

John Gray, dean of the College of Education at Wilmington University, the largest producer of teachers in the State, also was enthusiastic. “This is the first time there’s been a real conversation at the State level involving different stakeholders talking about teacher preparation,” he said.

Collaboration Welcome 

Over the past two years, numerous states have also made major policy changes aimed at improving teacher preparation and selectivity.  The response from teachers in Delaware has been overwhelmingly positive. “Senate Bill 51 is an incredibly good first step toward improving the quality of teaching,” said John Sell, Delaware’s 2013 Teacher of the Year, who was actively involved in shaping the legislation. “Raising the bar will strengthen the teaching profession by producing higher caliber teachers.”

“For the first time I’ve ever seen, the State, local districts and higher education institutions are working together in a much more systemic way,” said Donna Lee Mitchell, a lifelong educator and the executive director of the Professional Standards Board, the agency responsible for educator licensing and certification. “We don’t always agree, but the work is really moving forward as a result of the collaboration.”

Support is particularly strong for making teacher candidates’ clinical experiences more meaningful. Beginning next fall, candidates will participate in parent/teacher conferences and professional learning communities, and teach students while being observed by their mentors. “Teachers want to see [preparation] programs become more connected to actual classroom practice,” Ruszkowski said.

Jenner, the president of the teachers’ association in Delaware, agreed. Teachers “need to have appropriate instructional skills and strategies modeled, they need to practice them, they need to do some troubleshooting and then try them again.”  

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