American graduate schools of education have been under fire—and not just because the achievement levels of U.S. students have been so mediocre. A view has emerged that “ed” schools don't focus enough on the nuts-and-bolts of a teacher's most difficult job: running the classroom. It's a concern that has spawned a great many initiatives, such as Teach for America , founded to try to attract America's best and brightest to teaching. To important new programs such as that, add another: the Relay Graduate School of Education. Started in New York but now working in cities across the country, it's the product of the vision of Norman Atkins, a pioneering school reformer who's never bothered to promote himself.
Raised in Evanston, IL, a racially-integrated community, he has had a lifetime passion for the issues of race, class, and poverty, first as a journalist of distinction, writing for major newspapers like the Boston Globe and Washington Post, as well as New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. His college roommate at Brown, David Saltzman, was one of the founding board members of what became the Robin Hood Foundation and Saltzman hired Atkins in 1987 to figure out the startup program focus for the Foundation. In that capacity, Atkins visited social service organizations and schools all over New York City. While after-school programs were very much in favor at that time, Atkins wondered why there was so much “mopping up” that had to happen after school because the schools were not doing their jobs. He was energized by the well-run inner-city private schools he saw, especially the De La Salle Academy, run by Brother Brian Carty, in upper Manhattan. This independent, non-sectarian middle school offered solid teaching in an orderly environment for many poor kids. How, he wondered, could more such schools be established and staffed? Doing so, would become Atkins's life mission.
His first step was to co-found one the nation's first charter schools—in Newark, just weeks after New Jersey authorized charters for the first time. The North Star Academy Charter School opened in 1997, creating a public school version of De La Salle and setting the template for schools that show that even poor kids can achieve at the highest levels, given strong teaching. Seeking independence from state authorities, Atkins founded Uncommon Schools, a charter school management company that raises charitable funds and invests in a “best practices” curriculum to help kids succeed. Uncommon Schools, whose board Atkins continues to chair, has grown to encompass 46 schools and 14,000 students, and boasts some of the highest achievement numbers among charter school organizations.
Still, Atkins, who himself earned a master's degree in education from Columbia University, concluded there was a disconnect between what education schools teach and what teachers need to know to succeed in the classroom. Thus was born The Relay School, the brainchild of Norman Atkins and David Levin, the founder of another major inner-city charter school network, the now-legendary Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools. Over drinks one evening, the two commiserated about the fact that they were bidding against each other for the same teachers. There had to be a way to create more good teachers so that they could teach more kids. A partnership was hatched and $30 million in seed capital was raised at the 2008 Robin Hood Foundation annual gala. The New York State Board of Regents awarded a charter for the new graduate school of education the same year, originally housed at Hunter College (and called TeacherU). In 2011 the school became an independent graduate school and changed its name to Relay, referring to the idea that a relay of multiple highly-effective teachers can improve a child's life forever—while multiple ineffective teachers can cause nearly irreversible harm. It was the first newly-credentialed graduate school in New York in more than 80 years.
Relay takes a simple but revolutionary approach: help aspiring and current teachers hone their classroom skills. Picture a gaggle of young graduate students gathered in a middle school classroom in Newark early on a Saturday morning. All are teachers, many from charter schools, some teaching in a few of Newark's worst public schools. They look tired. They gather two weeknights a month for instructions in general pedagogy plus one Saturday a month for a longer session on content pedagogy. Saturday sessions open with a community-building exercise to deepen friendships and to remember why they went into teaching. That is part one of the 6-hour Saturday: to praise and encourage with reminders about why being a teacher matters. Then the tough work starts. Math teachers are in one classroom while a 20-year veteran math teacher presents a lesson from the Common Core standards about how to promote classroom discussion when teaching math. She posts a tough math problem on the board, and it's clear that several of the teachers–men and women, over 50% minorities–are struggling to solve it. The teacher calls on one student to put his answer up on the screen and to walk the class through his approach as if he were the classroom teacher. The master teacher nods but says nothing during the lesson. Then she turns to the rest of the class who proceed to shoot their hands up, offering critiques not just of the solution but of the way the first student presented his answer. He didn't write the solution in simple logical order. He failed to draw out the way one student's answer overlapped with his. He got off-track when one student admitted to not knowing how to calculate a percentage. He lost sight of the original lesson goal in the thick of the calculation. He did too much talking. He didn't highlight where he made a mistake. That turns out to be a big error at Relay. Teachers are coached in how to “be puzzled,” how to model the process of self-checking, how to “normalize error,” so that the students will see their mistakes, self-correct, and move on.
Then, the best part. The master teacher says: do it again. The grad student stands up and teaches the math problem again, immediately incorporating all the feedback from his peers. One watches in astonishment as this not-very-serious-looking kid smiles, stands up and complies—flawlessly. The teachers would repeat this exercise through all their lessons that day. Learn, Practice, Perform. It's the Relay School mantra. The young teacher had learned how to take the principles of good teaching and apply them to his math class. Therein lies the heart of the Relay School. It is a graduate program in teaching that is quite simply breaking the mold. Schools of education (undergraduate and graduate) focus on theories of child development or a field of pedagogy entirely detached from content. Most teachers do not have an undergraduate degree in the subject they teach and, once hired, are rewarded for graduate school study that is completely divorced from teacher effectiveness. At Relay the mission is to prepare an effective teacher as measured by gains in student achievement and character development. If the students aren't learning, the teachers aren't teaching. That mission cuts to the heart of what Relay does and it is a wake-up call to the entire profession. Its premise: that teaching is a skill that can be taught and through practice improved.
Relay uses its own original curriclum—including a set of how-to-teach books, especially Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov—to teach concrete techniques to use in the classroom, giving graduate students the chance to learn those methods from “champion” teachers. Faculty consists entirely of teachers who have a long track record of closing the achievement gap in their own classrooms. The Relay students are each given a video recorder and tripod to record how they put their graduate study lessons into practice. The Relay faculty make extensive use of video to highlight teaching practices, and students are given ample opportunity to experience lots of “at bats,” or putting techniques into practice and to be studied piece-by-piece by faculty and peers to hone their teaching skills. One Relay faculty member I met said she has been teaching for 23 years. She was thrown into teaching with no preparation and no support and is determined to prepare younger teachers to avoid her mistakes. One young man, one year out of college, is a Teach For America Corps member and current grad school student teaching in a Newark alternative school for kids at high risk for dropping out. He said that the material he has learned at Relay is directly applicable to his daily school tasks. “I take what I learn Monday and use it on Tuesday.” Another graduate student has been teaching in Newark for 10 years and feels he finally has the skills to teach “all students, even those with special needs. I hated leaving kids behind.”
There's good reason to believe that Relay could prove to be widely influential. In a profession many leave after only a few years, nearly 85% of Relay alums are still teaching—or working in public education in some capacity, some leading their own schools as principals. Relay is fully accredited with the various accrediting agencies and is able to expand by opening branch locations under this accredited umbrella instead of gaining approval state-by-state. For the current academic year there are 1,400 graduate students on Relay “campuses” (shared space with partner school networks) in Chicago, Houston, Newark, New York and New Orleans. Eventually, the online program will also be scaled up to make these teaching skills more widely available.
Atkins, in other words, is aiming high—seeking to influence education as a field, not just classrom teaching. At the one-year National Principal's Academy, district and charter school principals come together 2 weeks in the summer and 4 weekends during the school year to learn how to become educational leaders, not just bureaucratic managers. Some 200 principals from 18 states participated this past year. This next academic year, Denver public schools, Relay's largest partner in this program, plans to send 50-60 principals and Relay may hold an additional training class in Denver for this group. Relay operates on mastery of core skills, not “seat time.” Each module builds on the last one and the grad students repeat lessons (either online or via classroom/video methods) until each skill is learned. Some students move through quickly; others take more time. Relay has an open admission process, but is considered extremely demanding in terms of the rigor required to earn a degree. Approximately 80% of students entering the 2-year program (450 hours) complete it. Like its forerunner at Uncommon Schools, teachers are taught assessment methods that provide meaningful information about student academic gains. All Relay graduates (teachers and principals) must have demonstrated that the students in their classrooms or in their schools have made at least a year's worth of academic growth in a year's time. About 25% of master's degree graduates graduate with distinction, meaning they were able to demonstrate 1.5 years of student learning growth in one year's time.
Relay runs a lean organization. Every staff member has several different jobs. Dean Verilli, for instance, who runs the Newark program and hosted me for a day visit, teaches the core pedagogy content, coaches and observes the teacher candidates' progress toward reaching their program goals (scoring each one along a detailed rubrick), recruits, and supervises 50 master teachers. He also trains other deans who will take the lead in other regions. They often shadow him for as long as a year before moving out to the new location. At the main office in New York City, there is a shared services team that works on technology, finance, student enrollment, curriculum design, talent, and instructional media. One person working in the NYC office researches new cities for expansion based on interest from teachers, availability of school partners, an assessment of teacher certification laws, and interest from philanthropic community to provide start-up costs. Interestingly, the Newark school contract, for instance, provides partial tuition reimbursement and a $10,000 teacher bonus for certification training, and Relay is the only certified training program available under that contract. Many teachers opt for the one-year alternative certification program but New York State requires all teachers to have or be working toward a 2-year masters' program. Atkins reports that the NYC Relay program is already financially self-sufficient, meaning that the operating costs are fully covered by tuition. All the program sites pay an allocated shared service charge back to the main office but sites are not expected to be self-sufficient for their first five years. The national service office in New York is supported substantially through philanthropic revenues. As the program grows to scale, overhead costs per site will shrink as program resources are standardized and revenues increase.
Tuition is $17,500 total for the 2-year masters. Many partner teachers (TFA, Blue Engine, etc.) receive Americorps stipends of $11,000 that they can apply to the tuition. Most teachers end up paying about $6,000 over two years for the program. For the principals' program, tuition is $15,000 and is usually substantially covered by the school or school district. (Schools also pay travel to the classes, and Relay pays lodging.) Relay has been successful in raising philanthropic support, $8 million in 2014, projected to grow to $12 million in 2015. When you add in tuition and about $800,000 in partner fees (school partners who elect to pay tuition for their teachers, not required), the annual revenues for last year were $17 million, projected to grow to $23 million in 2015. Of note is that public grants were $145,000 in 2014 and will increase to $851,000 in 2015. The public grants category includes Americorps funding plus national competitive awards such as a Department of Education award ($400,000) for the principals program. While these are large sums, public support was still only 8.5% in 2014 and 3.7% in 2015.
Atkins says that after a while he had no fun simply writing checks at the Robin Hood Foundation, helping others run their organizations. He thought, “I can do that!” This is the hallmark of a social entrepreneur. His colleague in that first charter school, Dean Verrilli, said that Atkins had both the vision and the practical sense to make that vision a reality. Atkins is a man in a hurry. Each year is too much to waste for children who need a better education. He has stayed below the radar in battles over charter schools and teacher training. In his words, “I want to stay positive and not be a critic of teacher education.” Yet he went on to say that the way teachers are recruited, trained, supported, and evaluated is so badly broken, “you could pick any spot in that system and get to work.” And Atkins has certainly been busy. While serving as CEO of Relay and Board Chair for Uncommon, he helped to found Zearn, an online math website, as well as Generation Teach, a program to pull high school and college students into teaching through summer internships. He believes the role of the teacher as we understand it will evolve dramatically in coming years as technology changes the way students are taught. Thankfully, as the world changes, Relay will have a corps of teachers at the ready for the kids who need it most. At Relay, great teachers are made, not born. Atkins is a wonder and has a well-deserved place among the winners of this prize.