There will be no courses at the Relay Graduate School of Education, the first standalone college of teacher preparation to open in New York State for nearly 100 years. Instead, there will be some 60 modules, each focused on a different teaching technique. There will be no campus, because it is old-think to believe a building makes a school. Instead, the graduate students will be mentored primarily at the schools where they teach. And there will be no lectures. Direct instruction, as such experiences will be called, should not take place for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. After that, students should discuss ideas with one another or reflect on their own.
If it all sounds revolutionary, it’s supposed to. In its promotional materials, Relay uses fiery terms to describe its mission, promising to train schoolteachers in a way that “explodes the traditional, course-based paradigm that has been adopted by traditional schools of education over the past century.” Norman Atkins, the founder of a network of charter schools and the president of Relay, talks about his program as being beyond ideology, a word he believes has a negative connotation.
“The messiah is not going to come in the blink of an eye,” Mr. Atkins said recently. But he hopes, he said, to help bring about a future in which teachers and schools use instructional techniques that are known to work and are held accountable for student performance, two core tenets of Relay.
Mr. Atkins’s goal of upending teacher training stems from a broader diagnosis shared by many who work in public education: that it is failing millions of American children, leaving them without the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Vastly improving teacher education, they believe, is critical in fixing that picture.
There are wide concerns that too many teachers are unprepared for the classroom, though they may have more educational credentials than ever before. Master’s degrees are required for permanent certification in only a few states, including New York and Kentucky. But data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics show that 52 percent of kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers have a master’s degree or higher — which often qualifies them for a pay bump. And so graduate school in education is big business. In the 2008-9 school year, the 178,564 master’s degrees in education that were awarded across the country accounted for 27 percent of all the master’s degrees awarded.
Over the years, some of the toughest critics of education schools have been educators themselves. In 1986, the Holmes Group, a collection of deans from education schools, warned that too many schools were indifferent to the importance of hands-on teacher preparation. Their curriculums were outmoded, and their standards for admission and graduation were lax. Major research universities accorded them a low priority. Twenty years later, Arthur Levine, the former dean of Teachers College at Columbia University, argued in a scathing report called “Educating School Teachers” that most of those problems still held true.
“While there are some wonderful teaching schools,” he told me recently, “there are some that place students at failing schools with failing teachers to learn how to teach. There are some in which the professors are really far behind the times. There is enough bad practice to justify getting rid of the bottom of the field.”
But even those calling for reform face a problem, Dr. Levine said: There is little research into what kind of training is most likely to produce a successful teacher, a fact that social scientists are now working to remedy through long-term study.
In the meantime, states, which set the rules for certifying educators, are taking an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to reform, raising the standards for existing schools while opening the door to new kinds of organizations, from online schools to charter school networks to museums, to train their teachers.
For example, New York invited nonacademic institutions to apply for $12.5 million in grants to develop and offer “clinically rich” master’s degree programs in teacher preparation. Among the 11 winning proposals, which were announced earlier this month, are the American Museum of Natural History, which already has a doctoral program in biology, along with Fordham University, Mercy College and two campuses of the City University of New York.
These changes come as large numbers of teachers already bypass traditional education degrees, entering classrooms with temporary licenses after as little as several weeks or months of pre-service training.
Today, about 500,000 of the nation’s 3.6 million teachers have entered the field through these alternative routes, such as Teach for America, mostly to work in public schools in high-poverty areas.
Even Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, has joined in questioning traditional teacher education, advising districts in a speech last year to rethink the practice of rewarding teachers with a raise for a master’s degree, because “there is little evidence teachers with master’s degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers.”
Education schools, particularly those that offer top-notch training, might be excused for feeling they are under attack.
“The rhetoric is enormously heated,” Dr. Levine said, speaking from his office at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, where as president he helps universities restructure their teaching programs. “We have a group of education schools that are perplexed at why they are being so criticized,” he said. “We have states saying they are going to create alternate routes to becoming a teacher, and they are going to increase standards for the existing education schools.
“We are simultaneously trying to reform and replace the enterprise.”
It was a Saturday in May, and a full-day session of Teacher U was convening in a windowless high school classroom on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Class started at 9 a.m., and at 9:45 a.m., the master’s students were still trickling in.
They were mostly young — the average age is 25 — and dressed in weekend attire: sneakers, jeans or khakis, T-shirts and baseball caps. They nursed iced coffees and nibbled chocolate croissants and yogurt parfaits. Full-time teachers, almost all at charter schools, they work grueling hours, and they were tired. There were no books out, though one young man consulted “The 10-Day M.B.A.” during breaks. Instead, the students followed along on what the school calls “interactive handouts,” worksheets that provide exercises to accompany their teacher’s PowerPoint presentation.
The morning’s subject was “Right Is Right,” a technique in which teachers learn to hold out until their students give them answers that are 100 percent accurate. It is the second of 49 strategies cataloged in “Teach Like a Champion,” a 2010 book by Doug Lemov, a teacher and principal who founded the Uncommon Schools charter school with Mr. Atkins. Mr. Lemov’s work is such a backbone of instruction at Teacher U, students say, that he has near-guru status there, as does Dave Levin, a founder of the KIPP charter schools, and Julie Jackson, former principal of North Star Academy in Newark.
“I am a believer,” said Zach Mack, 31, a Teacher U student whom I watched one day in June deliver a dynamic social studies lesson to his fourth-grade class at Public School 139 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He schedules each day down to the minute, and posts daily goals on the board so students can see them. “As Doug would say,” he added, “if you don’t have a plan for them, they have a plan for you.”
Teacher U opened three years ago as a program within Hunter College School of Education, part of the City University of New York. Its monthly daylong lessons take place at Hunter College High School, the college’s laboratory public school. The program has already gained attention with its nearly single-minded focus on practical teaching techniques. And this summer, when it transforms into the Relay School of Education, independent of Hunter, it will move even further away from a traditional education school model of classroom instruction and theory, sometimes above practice.
Some education theory will be integrated at Relay, Mr. Atkins insisted, but not “37 1/2 hours’ worth” — the length of the traditional three-credit course that the new school eschews. Forty percent of its coursework will be online. When students do gather, it will be mostly in small groups, mostly for discussion — expanding on a core practice at Teacher U.
Teacher U was founded by leaders from three prominent charter school chains — Achievement First, Uncommon Schools and KIPP — in part to provide a setting where their own teachers could receive master’s-level training that was tightly focused “on stuff that will help you be a better teacher on Monday,” said Brent Maddin, the program’s senior manager of teaching and learning, and Relay’s future provost.
It is one of a few examples around the country of charter organizations developing degree programs to train their own and other teachers. High Tech High in San Diego has a master’s program with training in project-based learning techniques. Such models, in turn, are part of a national movement emphasizing practical instruction for teachers already in the classroom full time.
“To make a crude analogy, if I am learning to become a blacksmith, I also don’t learn how to be a pipefitter,” Mr. Maddin said of Teacher U’s focus on pedagogical technique. “I also don’t read a ton of books about how to shoe a horse. What I do is I show up and shoe horses.”
On that Saturday, the teacher, Mayme Hostetter, a former teacher at a KIPP charter school, started off by playing part of a Nelly Furtado pop song called “Say It Right,” to hook students into the lesson. Her co-teacher, Romina Piersanti, then showed a series of video examples from real classrooms explaining dos and don’ts of Doug Lemov’s “Right Is Right” strategy.
One clip showed an expert teacher making an error. Stephanie Ely, at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School in Brooklyn, asked a classroom full of uniformed sixth graders for the perimeter of a rectangle that is 4 by 8 feet. She cold called a girl in a yellow headband named Takira, who responded, “24 units.” Ms. Ely corrected her: she should have said feet, not units. Takira grimaced.
“Let’s just do a quick share out,” Ms. Piersanti said, replaying that part of the scene. Takira looked crestfallen. She seemed mad at herself and disappointed. Ms. Ely should have encouraged Takira to get to the right answer herself, instead of correcting her, the graduate students agreed. “You can praise what she did to get to that 80 percent answer, so that there is more clarity about going to the 100 percent,” Ms. Piersanti said, offering the kind of tip that is Teacher U’s specialty. “This goes back to the bigger picture idea that everything a teacher does or doesn’t do, says or doesn’t say, sends some message to the student and has an impact.”
Later that morning, the graduate students experimented with teaching technique No. 46 — “J-Factor,” as in joy. While many of the Lemov techniques are geared toward setting a disciplined classroom tone of high expectations, some are about fun. The students split up into three relay teams and sprinted down the hallway toward a pile of numbered cards, racing to be the first team to collect all the ones that match a certain criterion, such as even numbers or multiples of 10. After sharing out how to use the exercise with their students, Ms. Ely herself led them through a discussion about different ways to help middle school students solve an algebra problem.
There was no mention of John Dewey, Howard Gardner or Paulo Freire, the canon of intellectuals that tend to take up an outsize portion of the theory taught at traditional education graduate schools. But that seemed fine with the students, who chatted avidly about their own experiences. After class, they told me about the improvements they saw in how they managed their classes.
“I can study Vygotsky later,” said Tayo Adeeko, a 24-year-old third-grade teacher at Empower Charter School in Crown Heights. She was referring to another education school staple — Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet theorist of cognitive development who died in 1934. “Right now,” she added, “my kids need to learn how to read.”
The progress of Ms. Adeeko’s students is not optional. Another core component of Teacher U/Relay is that, before they can earn their master’s degrees, they must submit a portfolio showing that their own students made at least one year of academic progress in a subject.
To that end, each of the 280 Teacher U students has a Flip video camera to document their lessons, and they must track their students’ test scores and other work. It’s a technique that Hunter College also uses with its traditional education students. (The camera can be a useful teacher’s aide; Mr. Mack, for example, said he found his students behave better when they know they are on a video that could be shown to their parents.)
As practice-focused as Teacher U is, its founders still felt constrained by the three-credit course structure mandated by Hunter. So last year, they applied to create the standalone graduate school. Relay will start with 200 part-time students, and hopes to expand to 800 in five years. The goal, Mr. Atkins said, is to reach beyond the charter school world, and for half of its students to be traditional public school teachers. “The techniques and strategies that you are learning here are applicable to all settings and to all types of kids,” he said. “However,” he allowed, “if you believe that children shouldn’t have homework, or you believe that testing is evil, this probably isn’t the best program for you.”
A $30 million initial investment from the Robin Hood Foundation to start Teacher U will help finance Relay, and it is estimated that other revenue sources (such as AmeriCorp stipends for Teach for America teachers) will reduce the cost of the two-year program for most students from $35,000 to as low as $4,250. That is well below the roughly $40,000 fee at Teachers College, its most storied private competitor.
Relay has not had an easy go of it, though. Eight of the 13 graduate schools around New York City objected to the idea. A key concern was that the school would add extra competition to an already crowded field during an era of budget cuts and potential teacher layoffs. Another was that its tight focus on pedagogical technique would mean less intellectual rigor.
The office of CUNY’s chancellor, for example, wrote in a formal objection to the state that Relay “is essentially a similar educational model as the existing Teacher U/Hunter College partnership program, except that it would lack the depth of educational and other resources that a university brings to the partnership.”
Even the state-appointed team of university educators that reviewed Relay’s charter expressed concerns, though it ultimately recommended approval. “The institution must recognize the importance of scholarly activity in a graduate school,” it warned. “It must specify how it plans to support ongoing (rather than episodic) scholarly work by full-time faculty.” Relay has since agreed to hire a director to oversee faculty research into effective teaching practices.
The debate mirrors a larger concern nationally, which is that by treating teaching as a trade instead of an art, and permitting new teachers to run their own classrooms from the first day, alternative education programs will, in the long term, reduce the quality of America’s teaching force. A great teacher, critics of the new approach argue, should also be trained in advanced work in his or her field, as well as be versed in child psychology, cognitive theory and educational philosophy, so he or she can work in any setting.
Lin Goodwin, the associate dean at Teachers College, describes Relay thusly: “What they are doing is teacher training, to follow a protocol, to be able to perform in a particular context, to know how to work in this way. And I think that what that does is it dumbs down teaching, and takes us back a few steps, in terms of our struggle in the profession for teachers to be seen as professionals.” At Teachers College, she added, graduate students commonly spend three and a half days a week in student teaching, in addition to a full evening course load in theory, pedagogy and advanced subject-area content.
Jerrold Ross, the dean of St. John’s School of Education in Queens, said he had expressed his concerns about Relay to David M. Steiner, the state education commissioner. “The thrust to improve practice is one to which we subscribe, but any path which further separates content from practice in my view is not the best way to go,” he said. “The answer lies in better monitoring and supervision of existing graduate schools, more than it is ‘Let’s just toss to the side and create something different.’ ”
Yet Relay and programs like it are already having a broader impact.
Dr. Steiner, who had recused himself from the Regents vote on Relay, helped start Teacher U when he was the dean of the Hunter College School of Education. As commissioner, he led the rewriting of state policy on teacher education as part of New York’s successful Race to the Top federal grant application, and those regulations share some similarities with Teacher U policies.
By 2013, New York will begin holding all graduate students in education accountable for student learning in their classrooms before they can get their degrees, as at Teacher U and Relay. It is one of 22 states to experiment with accountability standards through a pilot being conducted out of Stanford University. And New York and eight other states are piloting a program supported by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education to reorganize teacher education around clinical practice rather than academic study.
One rising model is residencies, in which students will teach full time but get intensive mentoring and coursework. Programs are already under way in Boston and Denver.
“We don’t think that all the wisdom is lodged in the education schools,” Dr. Steiner told me. “The fundamental point is that we need people to think outside of the box, to shake things up a little bit.”
Experts hope that out of this sea of experimentation comes a consensus on what teacher training should look like. In some programs, it takes a semester to train a teacher, in others five years. Some require a year of mentored student teaching, others almost no teaching at all.
But as new approaches are tried, there are also potential dangers, said Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher education at Stanford University.
“As with anything else, we should have a high standard for it to be done responsibly,” she said. Just as doctors must have extensive training before they can work independently, so should teachers, she said. “Otherwise, we risk learning on other people’s kids.”
Sharon Otterman covers New York City public education for The Times.