The reason that I use Lisa Delpit’s term “other people’s children” here is to underline the point that few if any Relay staff and advocates for the program in the policy community would accept a Relay teacher for their own children.

Ken Zeichner is the Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Washington. He is a member of the National Academy of Education and a Fellow at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

A former elementary teacher and longtime teacher educator in NY, Wisconsin, and Seattle, his work has focused on creating and implementing more democratic models of teacher preparation that engage the expertise of local communities, K-12 educators and university academics in preparing high quality professional teachers for everyone’s children.

He has also challenged the privatization of K-12 schools and teacher education by exposing the ways in which venture philanthropy has sought to steer public policy in education, and the ways in which research has been misused to support the privatization process. His new book “The Struggle for the Soul of Teacher Education” will be published later this year by Routledge.

This interview took place via email between January and February of 2017. It’s presented in full, with only very slight editing for style.

Editor’s Note: On March 8th, the Senate  voted to roll back the Obama Administration teacher education regulations. Ken contacted me to say this regulatory change will NOT affect what he said in this interview about Relay and the teacher preparation academy provisions in ESSA.  -Carolyn Leith

As an introduction, could you explain for our readers: What is the Relay Graduate School of Education and why we should be concerned.

Relay Graduate School of Education is an independent institution not affiliated with a legitimate college or university that prepares new teachers and principals and provides professional development services for teachers and principals to school districts and charter networks. It was founded in 2007 by three charter school networks (Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First) within Hunter College’s Education School and became independent in 2012 changing its name to Relay Graduate School of Education.

Until recently, its teacher preparation programs were all “fast tracks” preparing uncertified teachers who were fully responsible for classrooms after only a few weeks of preparation. Among those who they prepared were many TFA (Teach for America) teachers in NYC. Recently, they have begin offering a “residency” option in certain locations where during the first year of the two year program their teachers are not fully responsible for classrooms and are mentored by a licensed teacher. In both the fast track and residency versions of the program teachers receive a very narrow preparation to engage in a very controlling and insensitive form of teaching that is focused almost entirely on raising student test scores. Relay teachers work exclusively with ‘other people’s children’ and provide the kind of education that Relay staff would never accept for their own children. The reason that I use Lisa Delpit’s term “other people’s children” here is to underline the point that few if any Relay staff and advocates for the program in the policy community would accept a Relay teacher for their own children. Most parents want more than a focus on standardized test scores for their children and this measure becomes the only definition of success in schools attended by students living in poverty.

The evidence is clear that the kind of controlling teaching advocated and taught by Relay has often resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum (1), and in some cases in “no excuses” charters, in damage to the psychological health of children as evidenced in research of Joan Goodman at Penn in Philadelphia.(2)

We should be worried about Relay because it prepares teachers who offer a second class education to students living in poverty, and in my opinion based on examining the evidence, it contributes to exacerbating existing educational inequities in both student opportunities to learn and in the equitable distribution of fully prepared professional teachers.(3)

According to their website, it appears Relay was founded by three charter
school networks: Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First. Can you explain for our readers what student populations these charters serve and their approach to student instruction?

These charters exclusively serve students living in poverty, most of whom are of color. Relay teachers also work in other charters however, and in some cases they may also teach in public schools.

Relay originally received NY State approval when they were still part of Hunter College.They have used this approval and their accreditation by the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation the Middle States Commission on Higher Education Accreditation to gain approval to operate in other states. One could legitimately raise the question- how can a program gain approval from states and accrediting agencies that prides itself in having no theory, where few if any of its instructors have advanced degrees in education, and where much of what most people believe teachers need to know and learn how to do is missing from their curriculum, The answer is that Relay is very good at packaging and selling itself to others as offering successful teacher education programs despite the lack of any credible evidence supporting their claims. Their mumbo jumbo and smoke and mirrors game did not work however, in either CA or PA where the states ruled that Relay’s programs did not meet their state standards for teacher education programs.

One of the more shocking parts of the Relay story is the use of Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like A Champion (TLC) as an instructional bible for the Relay program. Can you explain who Doug Lemov is and why TLC is such a toxic approach to student instruction.

Doug LeMov is currently a “faculty member” at Relay and the managing director at Uncommon Schools, one of the charter networks that formed Relay. Lemov’s “Teaching like a Champion” is the basis for the Relay teacher education curriculum. These generic management strategies are highly controlling and are dangerous when they are the main part of what teachers receive in their preparation. Relay has argued that the choice is between theory or practice and that they focus on practice. This is a false choice, and while I agree that teacher education needs to focus on practice, and that some of these strategies are useful if they are used in the proper context, it matters what practices you focus on. Additionally, teacher preparation also has to provide teachers with theoretical background in learning, development, assessment, language, and so on. There is no attention to context, culture, or even subject matter content in LeMov’s strategies. There is also no credible research that supports their use with students.

Relay’s list of philanthropic investors reads like a who’s who of education reform. The Gates Foundation is on the list, along with the Walton Foundation, and The Learning Accelerator – which is all about blended learning and the development of human capital. What do you think these groups hope to gain by supporting Relay?

Yes, Relay has been heavily supported by philanthropists like the Gates and Schusterman Foundations and by venture philanthropists such as the New Schools Venture Fund as well as by individual hedge fund managers.(4) The funding of non-college and university programs that are linked to charter school networks helps these individuals and organizations further their goals of deregulating and privatizing public schools. As the charter networks continue to expand across the country and replace real public schools, there is more of a need for teachers who want to work in these schools that are often tightly regimented.  Many graduates of professional teacher preparation programs in colleges and university do not want to work in these charter schools. Foundations that want to expand the proportion of charter schools throughout the country must help create a parallel set of charter- teacher education programs to prepare teachers for charter schools.

The failing school narrative is one of the media’s go to frameworks when covering public schools. In contrast, reporters give Relay the hands-off approach. Hard questions about Relay’s questionable credentialing, focus on test scores, and the use of Teach Like A Champion don’t get asked.

I agree. The hard questions do not get asked about Relay. This is because Relay has done a very effective job of branding and marketing its programs and in getting the Education Department in the Obama administration to do the same. They have flooded the media with “puff pieces” that tout the alleged success of their programs in preparing high quality teachers. The fact is however, that there is a total lack of credible evidence that supports their claims. My recent policy brief published by the National Education Policy Center in September details the inadequacies of Relay’s claims.(5)

Can you explain Relay’s credentialing process and instructional focus? Also, why do you think reporters let Relay off the hook?

I think that the media has let Relay off the hook because they have been taken in by the slick “puff pieces” that keep rolling out about how great the program supposedly is. Most media outlets do not have the capacity to do a more in depth look at the program. Relay also has been very good in linking to currently popular issues such as teacher residency programs, diversifying the teaching force, and addressing teacher shortages. As I argue in my testimony to the CT State Board of Education, it makes no sense to accept Relay’s claims about being able to help districts and states address teacher shortages and diversify their teaching staff without examining retention data on Relay program graduates.(6)

Another media favorite is the “bad teacher” narrative. For instance, under NCLB Title 1 schools had to provide parents the opportunity to review the credentials of their kid’s teachers. The unspoken message being “bad teachers” have traditionally hidden out in Title 1 schools.

Under NCLB the U.S. Education Department violated an order of the 9th Circuit Court in CA that ruled against the Department’s waiver in administrative rule of the requirement that  “highly qualified teachers” have completed their certification programs.(7) They implemented this rule after being urged to do so by TFA and other fast-track programs that send underprepared teachers into public schools as teachers of record. The court had ruled that the certification status of teachers had to be made transparent to families and that only certified teachers could be called “highly qualified.” The court ruling would not have prevented TFA teachers from teaching in public schools, but it would only have required schools to be transparent with families about the certification status of teachers. After the court ruling, the Department inserted waivers to the court ruling three times (for one year at a time) as one of hundreds of amendments in general spending bills that were designed to keep the government operating. The real goal of the Department of Ed and programs like TFA and Relay was to get rid of the label highly qualified and focus on teachers’ effectiveness that was defined as teachers’ abilities to raise student test scores. In the new elementary and secondary education act, ESSA, the term highly qualified teacher has been eliminated.

Here’s the ironic twist, at least in Colorado. Relay – with all its questionable credentialing practices – is allowed by Colorado’s Department of Education to provide intervention services for public schools that fall under the turnaround school designation. How can this be?

This is the case because they were approved by the Colorado state education department to provide these services. Yes, their practices are very questionable, but because of their very strong branding and marketing they have managed to convince states (with the exception of PA and CA) to let them operate. Relay also has very influential supporters in CT including the governor, the state superintendent, and the director of Achievement First, one of its three founding charter school networks. In CO, they went through the approval process under the radar and the colleges and universities that operate teacher education programs did not find out about it until it was too late.

Relay operates schools in Baton Rouge, Chicago, Denver,Houston, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Newark, Philly/Camden, San Antonio and the state of Delaware.

Yes, Relay has programs operating in these places, but the schools in which they teach are not necessarily those in the original three charter networks. For example, in Chicago Relay partners with the Noble charter network. Also, because Relay was denied approval in PA their Camden/ Philly site can only operate in NJ. They were also recently approved to operate in CT and will be opening a program soon there. In addition to having their application to operate programs rejected in PA, their application was also rejected in CA. Last year they doubled the number of program sites and they plan to continue to expand.

Finally, can you speak to the recent controversial approval of Relay by the Connecticut Board of Education? Also, do you know of any plans to introduce the Relay Graduate Program in Washington State?

Relay’s application to operate a program in CT was strongly opposed by K-12 educators and teacher educators throughout the state because of the program’s performance elsewhere. I was asked to submit written testimony in opposition to their application and did so. (8)

Despite the lack of any evidence about the claims that that Relay makes about the performance of its teachers, and their failure to release any retention data on program graduates, their application was approved.  One of the arguments that they made to support their application was that they will bring more teachers of color into the state. Given the increased attention and funding available in the nation to teacher residency programs and recruiting and preparing more teachers of color. Relay has very influential supporters in CT including the governor, the state superintendent, and the director of Achievement First, one of its three founding charter school networks. I think that these connections made the difference between the outcome in CA and PA and the outcome in CT.

I do not believe that Relay would gain approval to operate a teacher education program in Washington. Our state standards for teacher education are too high and the standards board unlike states like TX and FL does not allow lower standards for alternative programs. All programs, including the TFA program at UW have to meet the same PESB standards to gain and maintain approval. A few years ago when they were only operating fast track teacher education programs, I learned that they were considering coming to Washington. It was my impression that the tremendous opposition to TFA in Seattle discouraged them from coming.