A new graduate school of education, Relay, to open next fall

The founders of Teacher U, the nonprofit organization that developed a novel way of preparing teachers for low-income schools, will create their own graduate school of education, following a vote by the Board of Regents last week.

The new Relay School of Education will be the first stand-alone graduate school of education to open in New York since 1916, when Bank Street College of Education was founded, and the first in memory to prepare teachers while they are serving full-time in classrooms. The new institution will open its doors next fall; current Teacher U students will remain enrolled at their partner school of education, the City University of New York’s Hunter College.

The Regents’ decision inserts a new model for preparing K-12 teachers into New York’s education landscape. Unlike alternative certification programs such as Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, Relay will not rely on existing colleges to provide its teachers with coursework required for certification; the new graduate school of education will design and deliver all of those courses itself. And Relay will likely take teachers who come into the school system through alternative programs like TFA.

Meanwhile, unlike most traditional schools of education, Relay will make training teachers its sole priority and will make proven student learning gains a requirement of receiving a Master’s degree.

The new school has already generated opposition from several existing schools of education, including from a top official at CUNY. In formal responses to the Teacher U group’s proposal, leaders of existing schools cited concerns about quality and the fact that, as officials at Fordham University put it, a new graduate school of education would be “duplicative in a market with sufficient program offerings,” according to a summary of concerns(PDF) made public by the Regents.

The Board of Regents approved the proposal with a unanimous vote and one abstention last week nevertheless, said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state education department. He added that State Education Commissioner David Steiner, who helped form Teacher U in his last job as dean of the school of education at Hunter College, recused himself from discussions about the application.

During recent visits to Teacher U’s current program, instruction topics ranged from how to tailor reading discussions to the racial and class backgrounds of students to how to write on a white board without covering your face with your writing arm. Much of Teacher U’s curriculum is devoted to passing on lessons learned by teachers at the charter schools that founded Teacher U, such as those collected by Uncommon Schools managing director Doug Lemov in his book Teach Like a Champion.

Teacher U also breaks students into groups arranged by subject matter and grade level to study what Atkins termed “pedagogical content knowledge” — the specific kind of knowledge needed to teach particular academic subjects. The term draws from the traditional academy; Stanford professor Lee Shulman coined it.

The new Relay model is in line with a push by Steiner and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch to rethink university-based preparation programs. In 2009, Steiner announced that the state would consider giving alternative preparation programs the authority to certify teachers.

Teacher U CEO Norman Atkins, who will be the president of the new graduate school, said that Relay students will have to prove that their own students have made at least a year’s worth of improvement on standardized assessments in order to graduate. To do this now, Teacher U students use a mix of New York state assessments and, for grade levels and courses that are not tested by the state, select outside assessments to prove their effectiveness, Atkins said.

Response to the Teacher U program and the new graduate school reflects divided views about how to improve teacher education programs — and, in some quarters, about how much change is actually needed. Reaction also reflects contentious opinions about the founders of Teacher U, three charter school networks with impressive student achievement records but which operate outside traditional school districts: KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools.

Locally, the new graduate school’s entrance has already generated resistance from traditional colleges and schools of education, including Teacher U’s current host, CUNY.

“We welcome alternative approaches to teacher preparation,” CUNY’s executive vice chancellor and provost, Alexandra Logue, wrote in a letter to state officials last December. “However, New York City already offers a rich set of alternative approach programs, and so adding another player right now seems unnecessary given what is already a highly crowded field.”

Atkins said the program needed to become independent in order to innovate and achieve financial sustainability. As a certified graduate school, Relay can charge tuition and its students can receive federal student loans; neither is possible as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

The Teacher U team did address one concern before receiving Regents approval. The team had wanted to call its new school the Teacher U Graduate School of Education, but existing education schools complained that the letter “U” might cause the mistaken idea that the school is a university. It will actually be only a graduate school.

The founders — led by Atkins, board chairman Larry Robbins, and KIPP co-founder David Levin — selected Relay School of Education.

“In this race to close the achievement gap, we believe the baton of learning must be passed from master teachers to as many other teachers as possible,” Levin said in a statement. “Relay is designed to ensure that every teacher has the opportunity to be that excellent teacher.”

Steiner played a role in creating the program as dean of Hunter’s education school, and Hunter has continued to adopt some innovations led by Teacher U into its own separate program. One of these is the practice of giving teachers portable video cameras to use to record their teaching — and then have faculty members study the video results and respond with feedback.

CUNY raised concerns about the program nevertheless, urging the Regents to take “extreme caution” in considering the Teacher U group’s application.

“What TUGSE is proposing is essentially a similar educational model as the existing Teacher U/Hunter College partnership program, except that TUGSE would lack the depth of intellectual and other resources that a university brings to a partnership,” Logue wrote in the December letter.

Atkins described his organization’s relationship with CUNY’s Hunter College as solid. “We’ve loved working with Hunter College and continue to feel that Teacher U can continue to do terrific work in partnership with Hunter,” Atkins said. “At the same time, the founders were eager to develop an independent institution of higher education that could push on innovation and become financially sustainable.”

Logue’s letter went on to criticize Teacher U for having “no track record of successful teacher preparation as an independent entity” and for basing its program on “the presumed superiority of charter schools in securing great pupil learning and achievement gains.” But, she wrote, “data on charter school successes are mixed.”

As evidence of Teacher U’s effectiveness, Atkins cited the student achievement reports that Teacher U’s first class at Hunter College compiled in order to graduate. Seven out of 110 teachers did not receive Master’s degrees because they could not show that their students had made at least a year’s worth of academic progress. Of the 103 who graduated, 52 percent demonstrated that their students made at least one-and-a-half years of growth, Atkins said.

Teacher U has received praise at the national level, including from a group that has defended traditional schools of education in the past: the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. James Cibulka, the president of NCATE, submitted a letter to the Regents endorsing the Teacher U team’s application, citing a recent report by NCATE that cited Teacher U as an “exemplar” of needed efforts to “turn teacher education in the United States ‘upside down.'”

A partnership of three local charter school networks — KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First — produced Teacher U three years ago. The groups’ decision to create a teacher training program represented the next step in a learning curve that traces its roots to the founding of Teach For America 20 years ago. Whereas Teach For America, which trained many of the charter schools’ founders, began by offering vague summer training to its corps members, the program has concluded that more support is necessary.

Teach For America teachers are now among the students at Teacher U, which builds in more than 300 hours of classes taught by experienced teachers, many of whom still work full-time in the classroom.

Relay faculty include Levin and both charter and district school educators, such as Julie Jackson, the principal of the North Star Elementary School in Newark, New Jersey, and Jodi Freidman, a teacher at P.S. 63 in Chinatown.

The Relay School of Education intends to prepare teachers to teach in both charter and district schools, Atkins said. While most of the program’s first class of graduates taught in charter schools, 18% taught in New York City public schools.