Grading the graders: Delaware releases new scorecards on teacher prep programs

 (AP Photo/George Lange)

(AP Photo/George Lange)

Delaware students get graded. Delaware teachers get graded. Now the programs where students go to become teachers are getting their report cards.

The Delaware Department of Education released a new ratings system Friday for the state’s teacher prep programs, despite strenuous objections from the state’s higher-education community.

The new scorecard groups each teacher prep program into one of four tiers, with tier one being the highest and tier four the lowest. It takes into account the quality of incoming students; the number of graduates who serve in Delaware schools; whether or not those graduates stay in Delaware and how well graduates perform once they’re placed into jobs.

The results were rather grim.

Of the state’s 58 educator prep programs, just two earned a tier one rating. Seven landed in tier two, 21 rated in tier three, and two finished in tier four. Another 26 programs didn’t register enough students to even earn a rating.

State officials hope the scorecards will spark public conversation around the quality of educator preparation programs and create a new layer of transparency.

“At this point we certainly have everyone’s attention,” said Christopher Ruszkowski, chief officer of the Teacher & Leader Effectiveness Unit at the Delaware Department of Education. “Now we can turn the page and say what’s next?”

What’s next is likely a tussle with the state’s higher-education leaders, who say the new rating system is ill-conceived and unfair.

On Monday, three of the state’s leading colleges met with Delaware’s acting secretary of education, Steven Godowsky, to voice concerns with the new rating system.

Representatives from Wilmington University, the University of Delaware, and Wesley College “strongly urged Mr. Godowsky and the [Delaware Department of Education] to either hold the scorecards’ publication or eliminate the numerical ‘tiers,’” according to Laurie Bick, director of public relations at Wilmington University.

Immediately after the report card went live, Wilmington University published a lengthy press release detailing its displeasure with the new rating system.

The frosty, 1,600-word statement blasted the rating system for focusing too much on the qualifications of incoming students instead of their post-graduate performance. It also noted that teacher prep programs have little control over whether students choose to stay in Delaware after they graduate, a key component in the just-released rating system.

“Some of the rankings and measurements included in the report can be categorized as unimportant while others can be considered irrelevant and invalid,” the statement read. It later concluded, “The result is inaccurate data, some overtly wrong data and the misrepresentation of Delaware’s educator preparation programs and their success to date.”

In addition to the statement, John Gray, dean of Wilmington University’s College of Education, penned a 3,300-word letter objecting to several individual data points used by the Delaware Department of Education.

Officials at the University of Delaware cited similar concerns, noting again that retention and placement are beyond the purview of teacher prep programs.

“It’s not that we’re unwilling to be held accountable,” said Carol Vukelich, the interim dean of UD’s College of Education and Human Development. “Accountability is good. But you have to agree that the data being used for accountability is appropriate.”

This year’s batch of scorecards are considered preliminary and “without formal regulatory consequences” according to the Department of Education. The institutions of higher education argue, though, that by merely releasing the scores the Department of Education is subjecting them to scrutiny.

“Whenever you release information publicly there are consequences,” said Vukelich.

The Department of Education plans to tweak its rating formula over the next year and launch finalized scorecards in 2016. That’s also when consequences for poor performance kick in.

If a program receives a tier four rating or fails to enroll enough applicants to merit a ranking, the state will have the authority to place it on probation. After that two-year probation period ends, the state can extend the probation, return the program to good standing, or rescind state approval for the program.

The latter step would mean the state no longer licenses graduates of the program to serve in Delaware schools, a move that would “de facto end the program,” according to Ruszkowski.

Though the objections raised by the higher-ed community vary, they hinge largely on a single idea: that the state shouldn’t judge teacher prep programs based on where its graduates choose to teach.

“We have no control over those outcomes,” said Vukelich.

The Department of Education, though, argues that the state has an interest in where graduates end up. After all, they say, the state invests major money in teacher preparation, both through regular appropriations to state universities and grants to private universities. It ought to track whether those investments are benefiting the state.

“We want to make sure those dollars are invested wisely and want to see a return on our investments,” said Ruszkowski. “Those investments should benefit Delaware children.”

On the issue of control, Ruszkowski says, programs can start initiatives and create incentives to keep graduates in state for the long term. And, big picture, the state hopes these scorecards will encourage teacher preparation programs to take ownership of what happens in Delaware schools.

If the best teachers aren’t ending up in Delaware classrooms, Ruszkowski argues, part of the burden falls on the state, part of the burden falls on the individual districts who do the hiring, and part of the burden falls on the programs who stock the teacher pipeline.

“Our educator preparation programs are intimately and intricately connected to what’s happening in our schools and our classrooms today,” said Ruskowski. He later added, “When it comes to our students’ lives there has to be a sense of shared accountability.”

The scorecards have been about five years in the making, according to Ruszkowski. In 2013, the state’s General Assembly passed an educator-prep reform law that, among other things, paved the way for the scorecards to be compiled and released.

Once the state finishes tweaking the scorecards in 2016, the Department of Education will release updated scorecards once every two years.

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