The aspiring Denver teacher stood in front a cluster of four gray school desks where three of his peers were seated in blue plastic chairs, pretending to be students.

“One, two, three — all eyes on me,” he said.

“One, two — eyes on you,” they chanted in unison.

The next words out of his mouth came rapid-fire — not quite as fast as the guy at the end of commercials who says the offer is void where prohibited, but almost.

“John’s tracking me, Eric is tracking me, Tara has her voice off,” he said. “When I say ‘one,’ we’ll stand up and quietly push our chairs in. When I say ‘two,’ we’ll track the doorway. When I say ‘three,’ we’ll walk silently to the doorway. John, what are we doing when I say ‘one?’”

The role-playing exercise was a key part of the Friday afternoon practice session for the prospective teachers, who are participants in a new — and somewhat controversial — teacher residency program run by the New York-based Relay Graduate School of Education.

Relay opened an office in Denver this past spring on the second floor of Trevista at Horace Mann, an elementary school in the northwest part of the city with space to spare in its blond-brick art deco building. About 60 aspiring teachers began the two-year residency program over the summer. Relay runs the same program in nine other locations across the country, including Memphis, Nashville and Chicago.

The first year, each resident spends four and a half days in a real classroom working alongside an experienced teacher who acts as a mentor. In keeping with Relay’s charter school roots — it was founded by the leaders of three charter school networks, including KIPP — many of the Denver schools where residents teach are charters, including DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep.

The residents also take classes online and at night, and meet once a week on Friday afternoons for what Relay calls “deliberate practice.” The following year, the intention is for them to work full-time as teachers in charge of their own classrooms while simultaneously completing a master’s degree and earning a teaching license.

The model, nicknamed “Teacher Prep 2.0,” is different from traditional university programs in that it emphasizes practice as much as — and some would say more than — it does theory.

“The goal is to give them that theoretical baseline but never stop there — to always move to application and then to move to practicing it with your colleagues,” said Therese Zosel-Harper, a former social studies teacher and the dean of Relay Denver.

Criticism and a lack of research

But that approach has drawn criticism from the teacher-preparation establishment, which has itself been criticized for failing to provide would-be teachers with enough real-life experience.

Just last week, the Boulder-based National Education Policy Center published a brief (view it below) written by a university professor concluding that research has yet to show that increasingly popular independent teacher training programs like Relay are better than the traditional route.

Relay officials agree that the research is inconclusive. Part of the reason, scholars say, is that individual teacher training programs vary widely in what they require of their trainees.

“No one really knows what is the best way,” said Mayme Hostetter, Relay’s national dean. “But we see this as one very good way to have folks enter the profession — and we’ve gotten positive feedback from the residents themselves, as well as from the schools we’ve worked with.”

Relay measures its success in other ways, too. To earn their master’s degrees, teachers must meet student learning goals — for instance, that their students will achieve a year’s worth of reading growth. In fact, Hostetter said, Relay’s own data shows that elementary students taught by its residents gain an average of 1.3 years’ worth of reading growth per year.

“Those aren’t data we’re holding up to the world saying, ‘Incontrovertible truth! We are better than anywhere else,’” Hostetter said. However, she said Relay does see them as a positive sign.

But Ken Zeichner, a professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education, argues that’s not enough. In the brief released last week, he writes that test scores are “a limited measure of success” — and one relied upon too heavily by Teacher Prep 2.0 programs. Such programs, he argues, focus on preparing teachers to teach “other people’s children,” meaning those living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

“From my perspective, by only looking at test scores, we’re creating a second-class education for poor children in this country that (is) just about test scores,” Zeichner said in an interview.

Instead, he writes that teacher preparation programs, including university-based programs, should be judged by a mix of factors, including standardized test scores and how their graduates increase students’ social and emotional skills, creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Hostetter agrees. “Those goals are incredibly noble and what we’re working toward,” she said. As of now, she said Relay focuses on teaching residents how to build relationships with students, create a strong classroom culture, manage a classroom and teach academic lessons.

In the end, Zeichner echoes previous scholars’ analyses in concluding that more research is needed to identify the characteristics of high-quality teacher education programs.

“I’m not against innovation,” he said. But, he added, “I believe you can have innovation and high quality. What I see is this obsessive push for innovation without focus on the quality.”

Learning by doing

Denver Public Schools doesn’t have an official relationship with the Relay teacher residency program, although DPS has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars sending its principals and principal supervisors to a separate leadership training program run by Relay.

In fact, the district has its own teacher training program, the Denver Teacher Residency, in which aspiring teachers work for a year in a classroom alongside a mentor teacher while earning a master’s degree from the University of Denver.

Instead, the Relay teacher residency program works with individual schools to train their prospective teachers. Many of the schools previously ran their own in-house programs before helping to recruit Relay to open an office in Denver this year.

“We believe deeply in the power of practice and the idea that teaching is really a performing art, so it makes sense to train teachers more like athletes,” said James Cryan, the founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, which runs two charter elementary schools in Denver this year and a preschool program in Aurora.

“We were looking for a program that is more practice-based and focused on the foundational skills needed to be effective in a classroom in front of our scholars.”

Eleven of Rocky Mountain Prep’s “teaching fellows” — each school calls its teacher residents something different — are going through the Relay teacher residency program this year. The program typically costs participants $6,500 for two years, Relay officials said.

Even just a few weeks into the school year, Cryan said he sees positive signs.

“What I’m seeing in classrooms is teachers who are confident early in the year and who are getting into the swing of things quickly,” he said. “We’re excited by a promising start.”

DSST, a network of 12 Denver charter middle and high schools, has 18 “apprentice teachers” in the Relay program. Before teaming up with Relay, DSST had its own residency program — and Nicole Fulbright, the network’s director of curriculum and assessment, said it’s seen evidence the model works. New teachers who went through it scored slightly higher on their evaluations than new teachers who didn’t, she said, though she cautioned that the sample size was small.

DSST hopes Relay will allow it to grow its apprenticeship program, Fulbright said.

“We … have seen that they offer very high-quality development to teachers that gives them the theory but also the actual practice with skills they’ll need to be successful,” she said.

That’s what the residents were doing at that recent Friday afternoon practice session. The assignment? Imagine you’re substitute-teaching kids you’ve never met, some of whom would rather squirm or whisper than listen. How would you give clear directions?

One by one, the prospective teachers spent a minute delivering instructions — praising obedient students and correcting those off task — at breakneck pace. It’s a classroom management style used in many charter schools and increasingly in traditional district schools too.

Some, including Zeichner, have criticized the style, which they say is primarily used in schools that serve poor students of color, as “highly controlling.” Teachers who use it expect students to sit up straight, listen and “track” whomever is speaking with their eyes.

Hostetter said she doesn’t understand that criticism. “It’s pretty straightforward,” she said.

After the residents delivered instructions, they spent another minute getting instant feedback from their peers. Then they did it again and again and again, building up a sort of muscle memory their instructors hope will help when they’re in front of real students.

“A lot of this stuff is learned by doing,” said Leon Hayes, a former security guard and math tutor who is now a kindergarten teaching fellow at Rocky Mountain Prep.

Erika Hellfritz, a math tutor who is also serving as a teaching resident at Hamilton Middle School and wants to be a social studies teacher, agreed. “I love the residency model versus sitting in a lecture,” she said. “I love that we get both: the theory and the real tangible practice.

“The feedback I receive here is what I remember most when I’m back in the classroom.”

Read the full National Education Policy Center brief below.