Coming to Camden: reformy professional development from Relay GSE

Regardless of whether or not parents and community members approve of them, Mastery and Uncommon charters are coming to Camden.

And what’s the best way to prepare teachers for the charterization of the city? Provide them with charterized professional development workshops, of course!

Last week, Camden educators got a letter from state superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard telling them about “a new series of professional development opportunities intended to build on the skills of teachers and school leaders.” Here’s the kicker: “The new training series includes support from the Relay Graduate School of Education, which is one of the best principal training programs in the country.”


For anyone unfamiliar with Relay Graduate School of Education, here’s a quick review. From the Relay GSE website (emphasis mine):

Our education system has failed to keep pace as society has moved forward—creating an achievement gap that has grown from decade to decade. At the center of this education crisis are low income youths living in urban communities across America. Fueling the crisis has been a nationwide failure by most university-based teacher education programs to prepare teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom.

As leaders of educational reform, the founders of Relay GSE recognized the need for teachers who can close the achievement gap and give our youth a promising future. So they were inspired to create a new graduate school that immediately and effectively addresses the demand for great teachers in urban communities.

Who are these founders of Relay GSE, you ask?  Surprise! They’re none other than Norman Atkins, founder and Board Chair at Uncommon Schools, and David Levin, who Taught for America for three years and then co-founded KIPP. (Fun fact: in 2012, the six (6) members of the Relay GSE “leadership team” made a combined $1.1 million, with Norman Atkins bringing in a salary of $247,000.)

When asked for input in 2012 regarding Relay GSE’s petition to begin business in NJ, the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Teacher Education–a coalition of 24 higher education institutions–released a scathing position statement detailing the many reasons the Relay program, which is “largely video-based,” should not be allowed to operate in the state.  In addition to concerns about the program’s lack of accreditation, weak curriculum, and lack of appropriate faculty oversight, the statement notes that “there is a lack of evidence, vis-a-vis publications in refereed journals, that the RSE program provides sufficient training to novice teachers to be effective.” (And what happens when districts allow charters to proliferate?  You guessed it: they staff lots of novice teachers!)

Another particularly troubling component of the Relay GSE program–one that sets it apart from more traditional, well-rounded teacher-education programs–is that it centers around the very narrow (and flawed, and easily-manipulated, and curriculum-narrowing, and characteristically-charter, etc.) goal of “achievement gains” for students in urban areas:

Our program is the first ever to require graduate students to demonstrate proficiency and achievement in their K-12 classrooms while teaching in order to earn a degree. Graduate students who complete the two-year program must demonstrate that their students have made a minimum of a year’s worth of academic growth in a year’s time.

In other words, raise your students’ test scores and we’ll give you a degree! (How’s that for pedagogy?)

Despite numerous and valid concerns about Relay GSE, the Christie administration granted approval to the program in 2013. It didn’t take long, though, for Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker to explain what Relay is all about.  Baker makes the connection between Relay and Newark’s North Star Academy, the Uncommon school that also serves as Relay’s NJ headquarters, and–as he often does–proves that charters don’t have a “secret sauce” when it comes to educating children in urban areas. Instead, many of the practices North Star Academy–and by extension, Relay GSE–promotes are very troubling. (This is a long but important excerpt. Read the whole post, as well as this Baker piece about Arne Duncan’s reformy praise of Relay.)

Put simply, Relay GSE uses relatively inexperienced teachers to grant degrees to their own new colleagues, where those colleagues may be required by the school to gain those credentials in order to retain employment. No conflict of interest here? But I digress. Back to the point.

Their modules, as shown on the Relay website, are in their best light, little more than mindless professional development for classroom management, and reading inspirational books by school founders, discussed with “champion” teachers. Hardly the stuff of legitimate graduate work, in any field. But again, I digress.

Relay GSE will likely place a significant number of its graduates in its own school (or in network).

North Star Academy has pretty good growth scores, by the (bogus) New Jersey growth metric.

Therefore, not only is North Star Academy totally awesome, but Relay GSE must be an outstanding teacher preparation institution! It’s just that simple. They must be offering that secret sauce of teaching pedagogy which we should all be looking to as a model. Right?

Setting aside that the New Jersey growth scores themselves are suspect, and that the endeavor of linking teacher preparation program effectiveness to such measures is completely invalid, what the current approach fails to recognize is that North Star Academy actually retains less than 50% of any given 5th grade cohort through 12th grade in any given year, and far fewer than that for black boys. The school loses the vast majority of black boys, and for the few who remain behind, their growth scores – likely as influenced by dwindling peer group composition among those left as by “teacher” effects – are pretty good.

But is a school really successful if 50 enter 5th grade, 1/3 are gone by 8th grade and only a handful ever graduate?

Is this any indication of the quality of teaching, or pedagogy involved? I won’t go so far as to suggest that what I personally might perceive as offensive, demeaning pedagogy is driving these attrition rates (okay… maybe I just did).

But, at the very least, I might argue that a school that loses over half its kids from grade 5 to 12 is a failing school, not an outstanding one. Whether that has any implications for labeling their teachers as “failing” and their preparation programs as “failing” is another question entirely.

And there you have it: attrition + segregation + test prep = “success!” (I wonder if Relay GSE has a course that focuses exclusively on this phenomenon–or if it’s more of an unwritten-practice-type-thing.)

So let’s connect the dots to summarize:

  • Uncommon schools and Relay Graduate School of Education are inextricably connected.
  • Uncommon schools, as evidenced by Newark’s North Star Academy, have a record of high attrition (60% of the students who left the school between 5th and 12th grade in 2002-2008 were black boys), serve lower special education populations, and have high suspension rates.
  • Uncommon’s founder, along with the founder of the KIPP charter chain, determined that traditional teacher preparation programs are insufficient–so the two created a graduate program that centers around the (reformy) “proven practices of high-performing schools.” (See above bullet for “proven practices of high-performing schools.”)
  • Uncommon and Mastery schools will join KIPP in Camden, and by 2019-2020, charters will educate over 12,000 of Camden’s 14,000 public school children. (Don’t worry–there will still be a couple district schools left to take the kids who are “counseled out” of the charters.)
  • To prepare educators for this charter takeover, Camden district officials have decided to provide professional development through Relay Graduate School of Education.

And that’s that. Nobody should be surprised.

Camden parents and taxpayers: are you okay with this?



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2 responses to “Coming to Camden: reformy professional development from Relay GSE

  1. Pingback: Camden Schools Remade in the Image of “No Excuses” Charters | Stephen Danley – Local Knowledge Blog ← NPE News Briefs

  2. Pingback: #ShakiraEdChat: more evidence of what’s wrong with the USDOE | teacherbiz

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