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An Issue Of Equity

By Lynn Kalinauskas, GPHC Education Chair

Teacher Shortages Give Rise To Relay – But At What Cost?

There is a teacher shortage crisis in Colorado and the nation. Fewer are entering the profession and many are leaving. The teacher turnover rate for Denver Public Schools hovers above 20 percent.

The traditional pathway to becoming a teacher consists of completing a four-year degree, including an accredited teacher preparation program at a college or university. There are also alternative pathways to becoming a teacher for those who already have a four-year degree. Some accredited institutions, like Metropolitan State University of Denver offer such opportunities. Another example is the Denver Teacher Residency Program, a partnership between DPS and The University of Denver’s Morgrige College of Education.

Relay: an alternative pathway

Yet another route to the classroom is the Relay Graduate School of Education. The program was founded in New York by the leaders of three charter school networks and now has offices in 14 cities, including Denver.

Relay is authorized by the Colorado Department of Education to train future teachers, although it is not a “graduate school” in the traditional sense. The nonprofit organization is not affiliated with any Colorado university. Relay uses words typically associated with higher education to define itself and its staff. For example, it refers to its Denver space as a “campus” when it only rents a few classrooms from Trevista, a DPS school in northwest Denver. It gives its staff titles such as “dean” and “assistant professor” – but Relay’s faculty members generally lack the credentials one would usually associate with such titles.

Relay has presently partnered with the following DPS charter schools to train teachers in a two-year teacher residency program: DSST Public Schools, STRIVE Preparatory Schools, Rocky Mountain Prep, KIPP Colorado Schools, University Prep and Roots Elementary in northeast Park Hill. Relay has also partnered with Ashley Elementary, a non-charter school just east of Park Hill, and the Denver Math & Literacy Fellows program. The majority student populations in those schools are students of color.

The schools recruit participants who enroll in Relay while they also become resident teachers, who are certified at the conclusion of year one and receive a master’s degree at the end of year two. The schools pay the teacher residents a salary and benefits.

For a young – or not so young – adult seeking a career in education, this is an enticing program. Compared to the cost of attending a teacher education program at an accredited university, a resident in the Relay program earns a salary and obtains significant tuition rebates. For example, as DSST’s website notes, typically a two-year Relay degree is $35,000. However, in the 2016-2017 school year, apprentice teachers paid $3,250 per year.

Command and comply

One of the Relay residents spoke to me recently about her experience. She asked to remain anonymous and not have her affiliated school revealed. She is clearly not a fan of the program, which she describes as “practice-based” and “very formulaic.”

Relay focuses on repeated exercises that promote muscle memory. A cheat sheet even explains how teachers should stand in class: “Posture! Stand up straight with your feet shoulder length apart – be symmetrical. [Put] your hands at your side, behind your back.”

In the section about how to give directions to students, the Relay guidelines specify “giving directions with confidence – energetic commands, not suggestions.” The guidelines do say one can smile, at some point.

The approach is learnable with enough practice. And that is part of the allure of Relay: with the right training almost anyone can be a good teacher. But with words like “compliance” and “commands” peppered into its curriculum, the message is also one of power vs. powerlessness.

“I feel like I am running a prison instead of a classroom, especially as a white adult saying this to all brown kids,” said the teacher resident.

DPS has used Relay to train teachers and to train its principals and instructional superintendents, ensuring not only a bottoms-up approach but also a top-down implementation of the Relay tactics.

“No-excuses” schools

The method used by Relay is often labeled as “no-excuses,” and is typically used by some charter organizations.

“The programs are founded on the notion that there can be “no excuses” for the achievement gap between poor minorities and their more affluent, white counterparts,” noted Julia Fisher, who taught in an Achievement First charter and wrote about her experience in the Washington Post. “To bridge that gap, they set high expectations and strict behavioral codes. School days are long. Not a moment is to be wasted.

“Classes even rehearse passing out papers quickly so they can save every second for drilling academic content. Instruction is streamlined with methods that data says lead to strong performances on standardized tests, which lead to college acceptances.”

What are the implications of this new teacher certification program embraced by DPS?

Proponents say Relay methods provide teachers hands-on techniques that can be immediately applied in the classroom. Indeed, Jon Hanover, the executive director of Roots Elementary, a new charter school at 3350 Hudson St. in Park Hill, says, “We like the skills Relay teaches as a core toolkit.”

No-excuses methods rely on compliance that is enforced in different ways. For example, students are required to silently walk along colored pathways throughout the school. Teachers employ “behavior poles” – multicolored sticks with individual pegs that identify each student and rate their behavior from blue (excellent) to green, orange, yellow and red (not good).

Some educators liken the “behavior poles” as effective, but critics liken them to public shaming. The “behavior poles” and color-coded pathways, are used at Ashley Elementary (as detailed in a piece on that school in the June, 2014 Greater Park Hill News) and are also being used at Roots Elementary.

During a recent school visit, Hanover said that Roots is different from your typical no-excuses charter. The “behavior poles,” he said, helps provide structure and teaches kids that choices (good or bad) lead to consequences. He also noted that Roots spends time teaching to social and emotional learning.

“We balance between high expectations and letting kids be kids,” he said.

Praising and shaming students

Other means of enforcing student compliance were observed during a recent tour of the Strive Rise school in Green Valley Ranch northeast of Park Hill. There, a restorative justice display board showed a photo of a man in ankle and wrist shackles in a submissive position facing a man in authority. Restorative justice is a program favored for eliminating the practice of suspending students. This image, in a school setting, was disturbing. Staff members leading the tour could not clearly explain its purpose.

The school also posted students’ individual grade point averages by classroom entrances for everyone to see. Although the scores are listed by school ID numbers, many students know each other’s numbers. This functions in the same way as a “behavior pole” – publicly praising, or shaming, students.

Relay also emphasizes students “tracking” the teacher with their eyes. Indeed, while visiting Stride Rise, I witnessed a Relay teacher standing firmly and instructing, “Put pencils down and track me please.” But this can be difficult, even threatening, for a student with traumatic experiences or disabilities.

On March 16, Lynn Roberts, a bilingual behavioral health specialist, addressed the DPS board and decried the use of such methods.

“The children describe color labels displayed for all their communities to see, which serve as ongoing behavioral modification,” she said. “Children and their parents describe school-based anxiety… The children say they are told, by school staff, that if they miss more than 10 days of school, their parents might go to jail…

“Public labels, behavior modifications, belt checking, standing in single files, blind submission to authority via tests and punishments and threats of jail time. These practices build neither brains nor communities.“

Equity hits a roadblock

Critics of Relay state that there is no peer-reviewed data to support claims that the no-excuses model reaps better achievements.

The National Education Policy Center, based in Boulder, Colo., cites a September 2016 paper by Ken Zeichner, Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Washington.

“[Relay prepares] teachers to use highly controlling pedagogical and classroom management techniques that are primarily used in schools serving students of color whose communities are severely impacted by poverty. In doing so, they contribute to the inequitable distribution of professionally prepared teachers and to the stratification of schools according to the social class and racial composition of the student body.”

And this is where equity – one of DPS’ stated core values – hits a roadblock. The schools that most heavily utilize Relay-trained teachers have high percentages of students who qualify for the Free or Reduced Lunch program and high minority populations.

Using figures obtained via a Colorado Open Records Act, an estimated 65 Relay residents/teachers are currently working in low-income high minority DPS schools, with more to be trained in the coming year. Only three of the 35 schools served by the program have minority populations lower than 50 percent (DSST Byers Middle School and High School and Merrill Middle School).

Of the 35 schools, 23 have populations of students of color above 90 percent.

Studies show that, nationwide, students of color are served by less qualified teachers, impacting their achievement.

“Students of color in low-income schools are 3 to 10 times more likely to have unqualified teachers than students in predominantly white schools,” according to a 2011 study by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. “These disparities in teacher distribution matter greatly: Research consistently shows that teacher quality is one of the most important variables for student success and that teachers with stronger qualifications produce higher student achievement.”

Unchartered territory

Although there is no data that state Relay trained teachers are less qualified, there is also no data stating they are equally or better qualified. This is unchartered territory.

In experimenting with this new teacher preparation program, why are most of the Relay-trained teachers placed in schools with high percentages of poor, minority students? If DPS believes Relay is a strong teacher education program, then we should see its interns in all our schools.

During the March 16 DPS Board Public Comment session, Courtney Torres, a facilitator with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, highlighted the need to carefully vet new teacher hires for their academic preparation, as well as connections to the communities that they serve.

“It is important for us to consider, address and revise hiring processes to ensure that the people in the classrooms are not only trained to engage learners and improve behavior outcomes through active supports, interventions, and alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, but that the people being trained are the right people for the job,” she said.

Torres’ words came on the heels of a report released last August by former DPS board member Sharon Bailey describing continuing institutional racism within the district. Although DPS has taken some steps to address the problem, there will be no equity for black and brown children until they are served by equally well-trained educators.

At a May 15 DPS Board working session, staff recommended 18 new schools for approval by the board. Fifteen of those were charters – including three each for University Prep, Rocky Mountain Prep and Strive Prep, which all use Relay interns.

Will cloning existing programs give more choice to Denver’s families? And will those choices give students equitable access to highly trained teachers? Relay training may be a short-term solution to the teacher shortage problem, but is it a long term, sustainable model? Or is it increasing inequities that already exist?

Lynn Kalinauskas is education chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

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