Saturday, January 16, 2016

Relay Graduate School of (Charter) Education

Kate Peterson has put together a look at the folks behind the Relay Graduate School of Education. If you're anywhere that these folks are sinking their claws into education, you'll want to read her full policy brief at the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools website. 

Relay GSE started out as Teacher U, a program begun by David Levin (co-founder of KIPP) and Norman Atkins (co-founder Uncommon Schools) in order to supply their charters with "high-quality" teachers. Or high quality "teachers." They brought in Dacia Toll (founder, Achievement First) to help create the program. Hedge fundie Larry Robbins kicked in $10 million, and the Robin Hood Foundation threw in another $20 mill. The very pro-charter Robin Hood Foundation is run by hedge fundie and venture philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones (you can read about him in this Forbes profile that asks if he can save American education).

Teacher U changed its name in 2011 and was chartered by the New York Regents and partnered with the NYC school system (fun nostalgia fact-- 2011 was the year that spectacularly under-qualified Cathie Black was in charge of NYC schools for three months). Relay soon spread to other cities, including New Orleans, Newark, Chicago, Houston, and Memphis. In other words, they have faithfully followed the Charter Industrial Complex players around the country.

Peterson breaks down the career arcs of the three current Relay honchos-- Atkins, Levin, and Toll-- and it is unsurprising.

Atkins holds degrees in history and educational administration. He worked as an independent journalist, then as a co-exec director at Robin Hood, then helped found and lead North Star Academy Charter of Newark in 1997, a school that has been very successful at carefully controlling who ends up in its student body. Then in 2005, apparently having figured out where the real money was, he started Uncommon Schools, a charter management company. He's also connected to Zearn, an online math program (that has also been funded by Robin Hood).

Levin started with TFA fresh out of Yale, then shortly after started KIPP. KIPP has gotten a ton of funding from the founders of Gap, Inc, and they also kick in for Relay. Levin also co-founded the Character Lab, and sits on the board of Zearn.

Toll is the head of Achievement First, a charter chain that also appears to owe its success to a carefully culled student body. Toll gathered an assortment of degrees in politics, economics and philosophy, and jumped into the charter school start-up biz after graduating from Yale (she did eventually acquire a teaching certification). She sits on the board of 50CAN, a national network of high-powered charter advocates.

In short, Relay is a teacher training school founded and operated by three people who have almost no teacher training, next to no classroom teaching experience, and who have spent their careers in the charter world.

It's a remarkable achievement. If some buddies and I got together and declared that we would open our own hospitals and train our own doctors, even though none of us have any medical training or experience, we could expect to be laughed out of the medical field. If I showed up at a law school and said, "I am ready to be a legal professor, training the lawyers of tomorrow, though I've done nothing my whole life but teach high school English," I don't think I'd be hired on the spot.

And yet Relay continues to spread like extra-stinky kudzu, in fairly astonishing ways. As Peterson notes, for example,

As outlined on Newark Public School’s website, according to its contract with Newark Teachers Union, district teachers can only receive raises for completing advanced degrees if they complete it through Relay. Although two other institutions submitted a proposal, Relay was deemed as the only institution that met the requirements established by a group of teachers, school and district administrators, and higher education representatives. The district will call for other proposals in the future, but for now, only teachers who choose to attend an organization that is unaffiliated with a college or university, that was created to supply charters with teachers trained to meet the needs of these specific charters, and that is based on the beliefs of teaching amateurs will receive raises

Peterson's piece is on a Philly-centric site because Philadelphia-Camden is the new Relay operation. Peterson digs down into the Relay "faculty," and just one "professor" will give you an idea of how this whole scam works. Zach Blattner is the "Assistant Professor of Practice." He has a BA in English Lit, spent some time temping with TFA, and he's a certified principal courtesy of Relay's Principal school. He worked as a principal at a charter school.

Reformsters have managed to build and fund an entire alternate education universe in which they make up their own credentials, their own schools, their own entire system built on a foundation of nothing but money, connections, and huge brass balls. There's never been anything like it since hucksters pitched medicinal snake oil off the back of a wagon, and it would be kind of awesomely amazing, like watching a python consume an entire elephant-- except that instead of an elephant, this parallel shadow system is gutting public education in the communities where it is most needed.  


  1. Peter, you are correct in your observation that there are efforts to build an 'alternate education universe". So now let's ask why so many are putting so much money into these types of efforts.

    Like water, they are seeking the path of least resistance. After decades of encountering entrenched interests willing to go to war to defend an ossified system, they are investing their energies to work around the status quo, to offer true alternatives, and to empower parents to decide which ones work best for their children.

    1. That's a pretty thought, but all the evidence suggests that mostly they're just looking for a way to make a lot of money in the ed biz. But even so, how exactly is someone with zero training and experience a "true alternative" to an actual professional teacher.

    2. You can dismiss others by impinging their motives, but that's not helping your readers. After all, there are plenty who view the main reason we should stop focusing on fixing traditional public schools is that, for the most part, they don’t want to be fixed. The people who make their living off of those schools have reasons for wanting schools to be as they are and have enormous political resources to fend off efforts to fundamentally change things.

    3. How about for-profit, online charter schools? Is that a "true alternative"? Seems more like a false one, especially after the CREDO report.

      Yet, parents are still enrolling their children in what is essentially a scam. Basically, as Mr. Greene has pointed out repeatedly, people fall prey to excellent marketing all the time. Unfortunately, many brick and mortar charters are also scams.

    4. Michael, I'm not sure that dismissing by impugning motives is any worse than arguing their ideas must be great because their motives are pure. But to say that charter operators are in it for the profit isn't really impugning anything-- wanting to make a profit is neither inherently evil or automatically wrong. It just doesn't work for a public resource like an education system (see a couple hundred posts on this blog)

      Keep schools as they are? Schools haven't been as they are for any great period of time. One of the great repeated errors in education discussions come from people who assume that schools today are just as schools were when those people attended, decades ago, which is about as true as saying that computers and television have remained unchanged for decades. Nor do I see evidence of this great political power of which you speak, since it has been largely unsuccessful in stopping any part of the reform movement. The irony is that for all the push back that teachers have tried to create, two of the biggest obstacles for the reformsters have been 1) the conservative grass roots folks that they thought wouldn't care and 2) the fact that none of their reform ideas actually work, and many (like charters) actually cause serious damage to the entire education system.

      In other words, it doesn't matter what their motives are-- their ideas don't work. They don't accomplish any of the stated goals, don't close the achievement gap, don't improve schools through competition, and as we've seen in places like New Orleans, don't even provide parents with a choice. The only thing they've done is funnel a lot of public tax dollars into private bank accounts.

    5. My middle son enrolled in a K-12 online class in order to get around a scheduling conflict (a neighboring public school district contracted with K-12, so this is how he was able to bring the credits in). He thought it a reasonable class, though in his case it was more about certification of what he knew than education.

      I think that in rural sparsely populated districts online education has an important role, though it is, of course, better suited for some classes and some students than for others.

    6. So, TE, you admit that your son's class was really "certification" not "education", yet you go on to say that online "education" has a role to play. How about if we just call it "online certification" since even you admit it's not education.

      Incidentally, what does your comment have to do with this comment exchange specifically or this post generally?

    7. TE,

      Taking one or a few courses online is vastly different from "attending" an all online, for-profit charter school. Even charter supporters are starting to criticize outfits like K12 Inc.

    8. Dienne,

      My comment was in reaction to Eric's comment about online, for profit charter schools. I have had a student take a class from on online for profit charter school, so thought actual experience with that kind of organization might be relevant.

      For my son it was certification for two reasons. First, having been raised by a political philosopher and an economist, this course is US government contained a lot of material that was his usual dinner table conversation. Second, and more importantly, he was required to get credit in the class in order to graduate from high school.

      I obviously talked to him about the class, and he thought the traditional live class would be certification, not education, as well. It was not about the mode of delivery, but that background of the student that made it certification.

      I have taught an online class that I designed each year for each of the last four years. My students and I think that they do get a lot out of the class. What is your experience taking or teaching on line?


      I think you are right that the future is not a totally online program, but a blend of traditional and online education. In my state the median sized high school has 250 students. There needs to be an organization that can provide the online classes to students who attend high schools to small to satisfy all the student's academic needs.

    9. TE, I took two online classes to renew my license. I did it in the summer and the only classes offered that would be appropriate were online. Even though it was somewhat convenient not to have to physically go to the class, I really missed being on campus and having in-class discussions; I think it's much more intellectually stimulating. And I didn't take the class I really wanted to, which was cognitive psychology, because I had helped my son with it when he took it and it was really hard, and I had so many questions I would want to ask the prof, but I thought it would be just too unwieldy and frustrating to try to do it through email.

      As I've said before, I taught at a small rural school that only had 500 students K-12, 30 in the graduating class, and no one had any problems getting all the classes they wanted and needed. And as I also said before, you could also do what was called a "quest" program when I was in high school, where you could get a textbook and do a class on your own, just meeting with a teacher every once in a while.

  2. Peter, you neglected to mention that the new ESSA blows kisses, big wet ones, at Relay and at our local variety here in Boston, Spozato:

  3. Robin Hood? Teacher U? Zearn? Relay? Reminds me of the corporate training center for Ruby Tuesday. They called it Wow U because they want to wow you, the customer.

    This would be funny if it were not so outrageous. It is not funny. It is truly scary.

  4. Dear Mr. Greene and Commentators:


    “Relay Graduate School of Education... was created as a teacher supply source for charters and remains just that.”

    The article has a list of the curriculum vitae of their faculty. Many if not most have “advanced” education backgrounds in “alternative” teacher programs.

    From: The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard, to the Scarecrow:
    “Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma.”

    The Historian William Irwin Thompson wrote, (about some other issue, but it applies to charter teacher schools set up to train people so that they can work as faculty in their own charter schools) “It's like the story of the successful crippled beggar who cripples his own son, so that the son, too, can become a successful beggar.” Only instead of begging these people started out with a great business degree or other fine degree and could have had successful careers in all sorts of other endeavors.

    Perhaps it's understandable due to the shipping of entire businesses to places overseas, or the economic downturn of the last several years... teaching now is an extractive industry, like coal or oil, yes?

    Just sayin'


  5. Also, @Dienne,

    Dunno, maybe I'm late to the party, but DID YOU SEE? It's Dienne, and not what he fuzzy thinks, y'know, that D-woman. something or other. Boy, I'd love to have a drink with you and toast this. But, y'know, distance.
    Clinking anyway,



    1. I'd love to have a drink with y'all, too! Cheers!

  6. Dear Mr. Greene and Commentators

    Also, this is from Utne, and it raises some good questions:

    The common point of understanding is that things learned in the classroom will be used to bludgeon the students later, on the tests.