By Lauren Anderson.
Just last week in Cincinnati, the NAACP voted in favor of a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools and a ramping up of regulation on existing charter schools.
A few days later in Philadelphia, the Relay Graduate School of Education proudly co-hosted its “Grit + Imagination” summer institute, right around the same time that sessions kicked off at some of its newest campuses nationwide.
On their surface these events might seem disconnected, and yet they couldn’t be more intertwined in ways the public should understand. How so?
First, civil rights groups are increasingly opposed to charter schools, given their uneven and troubling record and disproportionately negative impact on low income youth and youth of color. And yet, at the same moment that the NAACP and others, including the Movement for Black Lives Matter, are making historic statements cautioning against privately-managed charter schools, the same kind of privatization–what we might call “charterization”–of teacher education is rolling forward on seemingly greased rails.
In fact, while requirements placed on traditional teacher education programs have intensified over recent years, alternative non-university providers have benefitted from fewer constraints. Federal initiatives such as Race to the Top and now the Every Student Succeeds Act include incentives that to effectively increase regulation of traditional teacher education and ease the entry of entrepreneurs into the field.
These efforts to privatize and deregulate teacher education are being pushed in large part by charter school operators and their supporters, who have stood to benefit from the charterization of teacher education. For example, the first campus of the charter-school affiliated and charter-like Relay Graduate School was founded in New York City in 2007 by representatives from three of the most well known (and oft-critiqued) charter school chains (or as they tout themselves “public school networks”): KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First. In the years since, Relay has birthed 11 more campuses nationwide, backed by funding from the same bevy of philanthropists and corporations.
Second, in the same way that the expansion of charter schools has occurred despite limited evidence supporting their claims of effectiveness (whether in absolute terms or relative to their traditional public school counterparts), Relay’s expansion has occurred in the absence of any research base to suggest that it offers the type of preparation needed to teach in urban public schools. There are, to date, no peer-reviewed studies that address its claims about the diversity, performance, or retention of the teacher candidates that it attracts and enrolls. In fact, Relay’s tendency towards technocratic approaches and its legitimacy as an institution of higher education have been roundly critiqued by those with expertise in child development, curriculum and pedagogy, and the creation of humanizing classroom and school cultures.
Third, as with so many aspects of neo-liberal education reform, the insertion of Relay into local contexts has often occurred without public debate and scrutiny. Rather, reforms are rushed in under the cover of ‘urgent need’ or ‘crisis’. Only after the fact do we see the troubling ties among those entities that stand to profit most.
The opening of one of Relay’s newest “campuses” in New Haven, Connecticut provides an opportunity to take a closer local look at what should be a matter of significant national concern.
According to its own website, Relay’s outpost in New Haven, CT will be launching two alternative certification “pathways” by Fall 2016, “pending approval.” Approval for Relay’s new programs, if granted, will occur at a time when the Connecticut State Department of Education has placed a moratorium on new program development for other (mostly university-based) providers in the state. But because the state has sought Relay out, and in regards to addressing teacher shortage areas specifically (i.e., a kind of crisis), its approval is likely on those grounds.
As reported, New Haven Public Schools has moved forward in partnership with Relay, despite its still-unapproved status and the proximity of multiple nearby public and private higher education institutions with already-approved teacher preparation programs. To local staff and in school board materials, Relay has been framed casually and in much the same way its frames itself: as a “groundbreaking teacher-preparation program” that “emphasizes minority recruitment.” It is described as “a replication of a successful accreditation program from New York with impressive minority candidate statistics” with a residency that “offers a unique and powerful pathway for aspiring teachers to begin a long-term career in the classroom.”
That this has unfolded without much public discussion in the Elm City is notable, especially given pre-existing tensions between those affiliated with charter schools and those wary of them. Charters in New Haven are backed by major funders and political power players.Yale University’s School of Management, for example, routinely gathers together a who’s who of charter schools and their supporters, which include prominent national figures and state officials, as well as the city’s Mayor and Superintendent of Schools. That said, charter schools, of which there are relatively few in Connecticut (versus, say, California or New York) are also much debated. For example, Achievement First–which runs two elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school in New Haven–has been the subject of significant controversy state- and city-wide, concerning outsize influence, internal practices, siphoning of public funds, inadequate oversight, and general connection to the privatization movement.
Relay, whose new programs in Pennsylvania were just denied approval, has arrived in New Haven mostly under the radar, but with charter school ties far ‘thicker’ than its slim research base. Not surprising given its founders, Relay here is especially intertwined with Achievement First, which itself is so enmeshed in state power structures and major urban districts (e.g., Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven) that it has often been hard to tell them apart. In this case, for example, Relay New Haven’s founding dean was formerly the principal at one of the city’s two Achievement First middle schools, and its brick-and-mortar address was listed, until just recently, as that very same school’s.
Oddly, its campus is now the only one of 12 on Relay’s website without a street address (though there is a map that still drops a pin in the same location). And interestingly, that address disappeared (with no other apparent changes made to webpage content) sometime after students at Amistad Academy, the Achievement First high school just a few blocks away, walked out in protest of, among other things, the inadequate diversity of its teaching staff–the very thing that Relay claims it can and will provide.
This raises a confluence of events about which the public would be right to raise questions. Here’s a telling timeline:
- Relay targets Connecticut as a site for expansion and markets itself as a mechanism for increasing the number of teachers of color, specifically, in urban districts.
- Relay proposes programs in New Haven and sets up shop at the same address, 794 Dixwell Avenue, as Achievement First’s Amistad Elementary School and Elm City Middle School.
- While Relay’s program approvals remain pending, New Haven Public Schools moves forward with partnership.
- In late May, the New Haven Register writes an article, “New Haven schools see need to ‘accelerate and expand’ teacher diversity,” quoting the Superintendent among others.
- Three days later, students at Achievement First’s Amistad Academy walk out, naming a number of issues related to racial insensitivity and demanding, among other things, a more diverse teaching staff. This they do with at least some explicit support from Achievement First administrators.
- By 5:30pm that same day, the New Haven Independent runs a long feature on the “mass walkout” and ensuing meetings throughout the day between students and Achievement First administrators and higher-ups.
- The next day, the state-wide, pro-charter, education reform advocacy organization, ConnCan, releases a statement in support of the students and frames the walkout as “a terrific example of civics, democracy and student leadership in action!” and “a testament to the AF educators and leaders–that they encourage students to live what they learn and truly be leaders and advocates.” ConnCan states that, “the lack of teacher and leader diversity that the students raised is pervasive and often much worse in schools districts throughout Connecticut,” and mentions its support of new state laws that will “make it easier for schools and districts to hire great teachers and leaders,” including one “today, Gov. Malloy signed… that paves the way for Connecticut to better recruit and retain effective teachers and leaders of color into to our schools.” These are the very pieces of legislation that also help ‘pave the way’ for Relay’s own approval, by bolstering the same arguments it offers to rationalize its expansion into the region. (As an aside, google “ConnCan Achievement First Relay Graduate School” and the first few links just happen to show their co-membership among endorsers of the GREAT Act, aimed at deregulating teacher education, and their co-participation at a Yale School of Management Leadership Conference.)
- Articles pop up in national news outlets, almost all of which echo the need for greater teacher diversity in general, and in New Haven in particular (e.g., New Haven charter school students protest lack of teacher diversity (Fox); Connecticut Students Walk Out, Protest Lack of Teacher Diversity (Colorlines); and Students Stage Walkout, Want More Teachers of Color at Conn. Charter School (Education Writers Association)). In keeping with what some have called the “new normal” regarding media coverage of education reform, these mostly recycle the same surface details. (The next day’s coverage in the New Haven Independent, however, does offer a more detailed and accurate frame: “Following a mass walkout at Amistad High School, students are pushing to help rewrite discipline rules and train teachers about how to deal with black and brown teens. Officials said they’ve heard the students and are considering those ideas as well as others to improve the climate at the charter high school on Dixwell Avenue.”) (Italics my own.)
- Sometime after mid-June, Relay’s website removes the street address indicating its co-location with Achievement First, but seemingly changes nothing else on its ‘Details’ webpage, including start dates for its as-yet-unapproved Alternative Route Certification Program and Residency Pathway (i.e., “Summer 1 term runs in July and August”).
Is Relay trying to downplay its connection to Achievement First? It is worth asking given that Achievement First administrators enabled and praised their own students’ walkout in the name of teacher diversity, and that programs and people in their own network (even their own buildings) stand to profit from the resulting narrative (which arguably helps bolster the state’s rationale for approving Relay’s programs) and ensuing contracts (i.e., in New Haven and likely other urban districts, too).
To be clear, it is obvious that New Haven’s schools–like all urban districts–need a more diverse teaching force that better reflects the students they serve. And to its credit, the state is fast-tracking a minority teacher recruitment bill.
What is less obvious is how Relay has positioned itself to benefit from this initiative as a core ‘solution’ to this ‘problem.’ And it is worth noting, in light of all this, that New Haven’s Achievement First schools–those most linked to Relay–have no better minority recruitment or retention track record than the rest of the city’s schools, despite the fact that as charters they have had free rein over hiring for years. To the contrary, quotes from students and parents involved in the recent walkout suggest broader frustrations and concerns about racial insensitivity, draconian discipline, and the school’s inability to keep those teachers of color that it does attract.
In essence then, it should be concerning to the public that the Amistad Academy students’ walkout stands to benefit the very same network of folks implicated by their rightful frustration. It should worry us that students’ protest was picked up so quickly by the media and so promptly framed by ConnCan and others as centrally about the need to attract more diverse teachers; the timing, speed and coordination of that messaging is curious, indeed. And it should raise flags that this echoes the same messaging deployed, paradoxically, by another neoliberal reform entity, Teach for America, in its recent efforts to rebrand itself in the face of significant critique.
Focusing exclusively on the important issue of teacher diversity obscures the broader set of aforementioned concerns named by students and parents. And those broader concerns are, importantly, not ones that stand to recommend Relay, or those closely affiliated with Achievement First, for the work of minority teacher recruitment. To the contrary, those concerns find at least as much common ground with statements made recently by Black Lives Matter activists and by the NAACP in its resolution to slow and regulate more closely charterization. Simply put: while civil rights organizations are moving in one direction–toward racial justice–Relay and Achievement First are positioning themselves to profit off the public’s rightful frustration with enduring racial oppression.
Lauren Anderson is an associate professor of education at Connecticut College.