Alternative Grad School Raises Concerns About Who’s Teaching NJ’s Teachers

Founded by three charter school networks, Relay stresses skills-based modules over academic theory

The Christie administration has conditionally approved New Jersey’s first graduate education program not affiliated with an in-state college or university, stirring up the state’s teacher education establishment in the process.

The pushback is more than normal grousing. The administration’s decision puts New Jersey at the center of a nationwide debate over teacher preparation: Just how academic must graduate-level teacher education be to be successful?

State Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks last month informed the New York City-based Relay Graduate School of Education that it can open a master’s degree program in Newark next fall.

Launched in New York in 2011, the program has made news — and waves — since its start. It was created by leaders of three prominent charter school networks and aims specifically at teachers who work in low-income districts and charter schools.

Relay already runs an alternate certification program out of Newark’s North Star Academy Charter School, serving about 75 students a year mostly from charters in that city. North Star is part of the Uncommon Schools charter network, one of the three organizations behind Relay. The others are KIPP and Achievement First.

As Relay did when it launched a master’s program in New York, the application for a Newark campus has drawn opposition from the state’s teacher colleges. Understandably so: Its approach replaces graduate-level coursework based on academic theory and research with skills-based workshops and “modules” on topics like classroom management, planning, and assessment.

“Fundamentally, it’s about what defines a graduate degree, with the distinction between what is basically a training program and one that represents a broader education,” said Christopher Campisano, director of Princeton University’s teacher preparation program.

Princeton was part of a consortium of 24 programs that opposed Relay’s application in a position statement sent in September, saying Relay “did not meet the standard” of a degree-granting program.

“While the results of a good education are ultimately vocational in nature, the belief that the primary purpose of education is the development of professional competence is not only misguided, it is extremely dangerous,” read the position statement.

It’s an issue that Hendricks faced in making the final call on Relay, and she ended up focusing specifically on the academic credentials of its faculty.

In her letter to the school, she set a condition that it meet state requirements that faculty members hold doctorates or “an equivalent qualification in the field in which they are appointed,” which can include proof of academic scholarship or research.

Even with the opposition of their deans and directors, the state’s Presidents Council — made up of the heads of the state’s colleges and universities — recommended Hendricks approve the plan, with the condition of the faculty credentials as well.

Despite repeated requests, neither Hendricks nor her spokesman would comment beyond the secretary’s letter in June. Relay also would not comment on how it would meet the requirement until it had resolved the matter with the state and won final approval. Hendricks has asked the school to submit documentation of its faculty roster and schedule.

But the school said that it could show equivalency in a number of ways, including through classroom experience, participation in “cutting-edge scholarship,” and demonstrated experience in teaching teachers.

It added that the Relay faculty member would be “the equivalent of the leading entrepreneur teaching in MBA programs or the leading writers and artists teaching in MFA programs.”

This weekend, the school’s president and founder, Norman Atkins, said in an emailed statement that Relay has proven itself through its “alternate route” certification program, and looks forward to extending it to a master’s degree program.

“In the past two years, more than 130 New Jersey district and charter public school teachers have developed their practice and earned their state certification through a cutting-edge training program at Relay in Newark,” said the statement from Atkins, who was founder of Uncommon Schools as well.

“With the state’s approval, we can launch a small Relay campus establishing a rigorous, results-oriented, accredited master’s degree program in Newark this fall,” Atkins said. “Eventually, Relay aims to develop several thousand effective New Jersey district and charter school teachers over the next decade to better prepare our state’s low-income children for success in college and life.”

Relay’s application process has been a lengthy one, starting almost two years ago and drawing close scrutiny of university deans and directors.

It also comes at a time when debate over teacher preparation has escalated, with traditional education programs drawing criticism for being too academic and not providing enough hands-on skills.

Hendricks’ office employed an outside consultant to review the application, Antonio Cantu, the chair of the Department of Teacher Education at Bradley University in Illinois.

Cantu’s six-page report issued in April recommended approval, saying that the school met the required criteria. Cantu also sought to address some of the concerns of others, agreeing that Relay did not fit the traditional model of teacher education but nonetheless could offer an equivalent quality program.

For instance, the school would not use credit hours, but individual modules that require a relatively equivalent level and amount of work. “The resulting credit values for the modules and terms are consistent with the traditional three-credit course requirement,” Cantu wrote.

He commended Relay’s administration and accreditation, its commitment to academic freedom, and its research arm based in New York City, which includes a library of 2,000 self-produced videos about teaching “best practices.”

However, Cantu did have some strong reservations about the faculty, and while he did not consider them a disqualifier, he said they needed to be addressed.

“Even through Relay GSE has articulated the characteristics used to define ‘equivalent qualification,’ there is still a need to address the absence of faculty with a doctorate at the proposed branch campus in Newark,” he wrote.

“As a result, my recommendation is that Relay GSE make every attempt to fill the full-time faculty positions — particularly those planned for the second year of implementation — with candidates that possess the characteristics listed [by the school] and have earned a doctorate.”

But Campisano, the Princeton director, said the issue of faculty credentials reflected the larger concern about a program that appears geared to “a specific curriculum in specific schools using a specific approach” made popular in some of the state’s higher-achieving charter schools, including North Star and KIPP.

“You can call it a [certification] program, but for the state to sanction it as a degree granting program is beyond belief,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to add further detail and correct an error in the first version. The initial version said that the Relay graduate school would only serve charter school teachers, when it has teachers from local districts as well. The application was also backed with conditions by the state’s Presidents Council, a detail that was not in the initial version.