Delaware’s Teacher Preparation is Setting a Higher Bar

A teacher helps a student read.

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. “Strengthening teacher preparation is very, very important,” she said. “Educators need more meaningful, real world training.”

She is acutely aware of the challenges her members face and the need for better preparation to deal with them. “We have a greater diversity of students than I had when I first started teaching, and a higher concentration of high need students,” Jenner said. She 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.

Headshot of Frederika Jenner.

Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association. Photo credit: Frederika Jenner

Senate Bill 51, the legislation signed by Governor Markell, addresses a number of weaknesses in Delaware’s policies identified by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a non-profit education policy organization, as well as a report on teacher prep issued by the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in 2012 on transforming education preparation. The legislation, which goes into effect in the summer of 2014, 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 

Stakeholders do not see eye-to-eye on every aspect of the new legislation, but they are optimistic about much of it and appreciate the unprecedented level of collaboration that it represents. “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.”

The response from teachers has also 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.”

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. “Many first-year teachers say they did not feel adequately prepared,” Ruszkowski said. “Teachers want to see [preparation] programs become more connected to actual classroom practice.”

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.”  

Leading the Charge Nationally 

Delaware is among a number of States focused on improving educator preparation and effectiveness as part of their statewide reform agendas in 2012 and 2013:

  • Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi and Rhode Island all recently raised admissions requirements for those who want to be teachers.
  • The Rhode Island Board of Education recently adopted new standards for teacher preparation programs that hold new graduates accountable for improving student performance.  Starting in School Year 2016-2017, those seeking entry to teacher preparation programs will have to score in the top 50 percent of that year’s test-takers on college entrance exams. Entrance requirements will rise to the top one-third in 2020. In addition, candidates must have a grade-point average, or GPA, of 3.0 in their secondary or post-secondary classes.
  • Over the past two years, states such as Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island also have made major policy changes aimed at improving teacher preparation.
  • Seven States were recently selected to participate in the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) Network for Transforming Educator Preparation, a two-year pilot program focused on ensuring that—on their first day on the job—educators are ready to help prepare their students for college and careers. The participating States are Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Washington.      

Takeaways

  • Early and ongoing communication is critical: State leadership spent 18 months meeting with all of the teacher preparation programs in the State to gather feedback and address their concerns about proposed policy changes.
  • Identify and reach out to all stakeholders: “We found out that there were numerous teacher preparation programs within institutions that were not getting the message because these programs don’t always communicate with each other,” said Donna Lee Mitchell, Executive Director of the Delaware Professional Standards Board.
  • Make sure to establish clear accountability measures: Delaware began very early in the process to define data points to be used for tracking institutional performance, and the State worked collaboratively with preparation programs to refine those measures.
  • Redefining teacher preparation requires significant change management: “We’re asking undergraduate institutions to become teacher training programs, which requires an articulated continuum from freshman year to senior year in most cases,” said Christopher Ruszkowski. “This is a major culture change for liberal arts programs, but the two ideas are not mutually exclusive.” Building the buy-in to make this shift is a significant challenge.

Resources

Senate Bill 51 Overview

Senate Bill 51 makes five major changes to teacher preparation programs:

Establishes more rigorous entry criteria: To be eligible for entry, applicants must have a minimum 3.0 GPA or score in the top 50 percent for coursework completed during the most recent two years of the applicant’s general education (either secondary or post-secondary). Alternatively, applicants can become eligible for entry by passing a State-approved academic skills assessment. Each program can offer a waiver for up to 10 percent of individuals applying.

  • Establishes exit criteria: To obtain an initial teaching license students must pass a rigorous test of their content knowledge and demonstrate effective teaching through some form of performance assessment.
  • Residency: Students must participate in ongoing residency experiences, including an intensive, minimum 10-week residency with mentoring from a high-quality teacher.
  • Evaluation: Educator preparation programs must assess their candidates on an ongoing basis using a system aligned to the statewide teacher-evaluation system.
  • Accountability: The State will track and report on the quality of educator. preparation programs by linking teacher performance to licensing institutions of record.