Intensive Program Promotes Strict Routines, Teacher Oversight, Focus on Test Scores
While Denver kids were on break enjoying summer camps and vacation, 75 Denver Public Schools’ principals, assistant principals and staff were participating in a camp of their own. They followed a cohort of seven in 2013 and 40 in 2014 who took part in a two-week intensive program: the National Principals Academy Fellowship run by the Relay Graduate School of Education.
Founded in New York by the leaders of three charter school networks, KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools, Relay was first established to train teachers who would be funneled into charter schools. A few years ago, Relay expanded its offerings to include professional development for principals.
Relay is not accredited by an institution of higher education.
Participants in the Relay program first attend a two-week intensive program that is then followed by four three-day weekends during the school year.
During the first two years of the program DPS staff attended all sessions in New York City. This summer, most participants did the intensive program in Denver while only some attended in New York. All follow-up weekend sessions, however, will be done in New York.
According to Relay’s website, the focus of the program is “data-driven instruction; positive student culture of high expectations; observation and feedback; adult professional development; instructional planning; an aligned staff culture; and strategic leadership.”
In an interview with Greater Park Hill News at Cake Crumbs on August 7, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, Chief of Innovation and Reform for DPS, said that for its purposes, DPS was focused on data-driven instruction, school culture, and teacher observation and feedback.
Campuses in New York City, Houston and beyond
In addition to its initial location in New York City, Relay now has campuses in Chicago, Delaware, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, Newark, NJ, and Philadelphia and Camden. Whitehead-Bust said a Denver campus is planned in the coming year.
DPS has contracted to send 75 more principals and staff next year. Other districts and the Colorado Department of Education are also using Relay to train principals.
Senate Bill 14-124, signed a year ago, allocates $2 million annually to the Colorado Department of Education to create a School Turnaround Leaders Program. Peter Sherman, Executive Director of District and School Performance at the CDE explained that Relay is one of five providers of professional development for principals and staff. DPS received $615,150 of those funds this year for staff to attend Relay and a program run by the University of Denver.
The philosophy of Relay
The educational philosophy behind the program is that with increased and purposeful observation and practice in certain teaching and management techniques, teachers and principals can help their students’ focus, learn better, and subsequently perform better on tests. The data, as measured by test scores, are then analyzed to determine a student’s, a teacher’s and a school’s success.
The program promotes tightly controlled school environments where students follow strict routines.
For example, the Relay 2014 curriculum proposed a 13-step process to describe how students should walk inside their schools, including the following:
• “Scholars enter the building and walk down the steps (holding on to the railing) with lips zipped
• Scholars then walk in HALL [Hands by your side; All eyes forward; Lips zipped; Legs walking safely] position to their table and greet the lead teacher
• Scholars sits (sic) down and begin to eat their breakfast with lips zipped
• After eating breakfast the scholar gives the non-verbal signal (hand on top of head) to signal he/she is finished eating and ready for clean up.”
Terms such as “grit,” “no-nonsense nurturing,” “sweat the small stuff,” and “no excuses” are often used to qualify this type of approach.
The program emphasizes increased observation of teachers in the classroom followed by feedback for improving teaching skills. It insists on repeated practice of techniques.
The curriculum states, “We can take the teachers as they come… or we can make them better.” (Emphasis not mine)
Indeed Whitehead-Bust notes that teacher observations have increased by up to five or six per year per teacher.
Kurt Dennis, principal at McAuliffe International School, was one of the first Denver principals to participate in the program in 2013. He liked the program, noting, “It helps principals trying to distill how to run a successful school and helps prioritize what drives student success.”
Dennis said he appreciated the supporting Relay materials, including videos. “Principals have to look at implementation and what’s going to be the best model for their school community. It shouldn’t be implemented as a one-size-fits-all,” he added.
Some examples of implementation at McAuliffe are:
• School wide systems for student arrival, passing periods, morning meeting, lunch supervision, celebrations and dismissal.
• Regular observation and feedback for teachers using video and with a focus on one area of strength and one area for growth with each session.
• Professional development for teachers with video examples of teachers implementing model strategies in their classrooms. Professional development is based on the instructional strategies identified in the book Teach Like a Champion.
Jason Sanders, principal at Hallett, attended the program this summer.
“RELAY has really pushed the idea of observation and feedback to teachers as similar to coaching in sports,” he says. “Making small tweaks (action steps) in the teacher’s ‘game’ and then following up to see if those tweaks have been successful. It feels much more manageable, realistic and supportive to be in teachers’ rooms on many brief occasions throughout the year rather than just one or two full scale observations.”
Dennis adds that, “The underlying theme for all of these areas is that there is a lot of intentionality around everything that you do at school. They really promote well-thought, detailed planning and execution for the most important aspects of leading a school.”
Asked how to determine whether the program is successful, Whitehead-Bust said that, “It’s very hard, in education, to show causality. We are getting a sense of qualitative and quantitative data from principals who have been through the program.”
Although no one can learn in a chaotic, disorderly environment, the approach has its critics. Some educational activists note that a punitive environment and the push for increased test scores diminish students’ love of learning. In the same way, the pressure for teachers to constantly “perform” and outperform themselves strains their enthusiasm for teaching to the point where some leave the profession.
Others push the criticism further, declaring that such an approach endangers the fabric of our democracy, quashing creativity, innovation, critical voices and public engagement.
“Relay is dehumanizing schools,” says Peggy Robertson, teacher and co-founder of United Opt-Out National. “It creates compliance via punitive behavior and teaching models. It places an intense focus on data collection techniques that dumb down learning. It creates an environment void of thinking – for teachers and for students.”
The program recommends that principals or school leaders greet every student in the morning. Although this seems to function as a friendly gesture, it is also a control method to check uniforms, check who is walking according to HALL position, etc.
Such a greeting, repeated day after day, eventually loses its authenticity and becomes robotic.
The two schools of thought have been part of a national conversation that will be repeated in the upcoming DPS school board elections. They are at odds with each other in what seems to be irreconcilable differences between the corporate reform movement of which Relay is an active part, and more grassroots actors who demand that educators be recognized as trained professionals and not under constant fire from administrators.
The latter feel their voices have been eradicated from the larger political conversation about education.
No pencil left unsharpened
Relay’s program is top-down, with administrators observing teachers, making them practice and re-practice certain techniques.
The curriculum portrays teachers as needing to be re-trained by principals in classroom management. From furniture arrangement, placement of tissue boxes, taking attendance, processing student misbehaviors, no pencil is left unsharpened. The goal is for the entire school to implement the same practices in all classrooms to make sure students know what to expect.
This does not leave much room for the quirky teacher with a unique style.
“We don’t want to create Uncommon Schools as the norm in DPS,” Whitehead-Bust says, noting that principals have taken different takes on it. She adds, “What makes classrooms joyful is really important.” She admits, however, that not all principals have liked the program.
Students in the curriculum are also portrayed as needing a strict, organized school culture in order to succeed. The photos in the curriculum binders are almost exclusively of black children obediently following directives. Whitehead-Bust says, “Students often thrive with very explicit expectations. They need to feel safe.”
To the question, “What are the long-term repercussions of portraying children of color in this way?” Whitehead-Bust had no clear answer, but admitted the question was interesting.
One question begs to be asked: Are DPS principals not prepared to manage the comings and goings of students without this training given DPS’ investment in both funds and human capital into the program?
Cost of Relay: $2 million and rising
The tuition cost per participant for Relay was $17,000 in 2014 and $15,000 in 2015. This included accommodations in New York but not travel expenses. DPS estimates the outlay for travel at $4,040 per participant.
The pricetag that covers two weeks and four weekends is significantly higher than the yearly tuition and fees at CU Boulder ($11,454) for a full-time undergraduate.
Individual schools cover $5,000 of the tuition cost plus travel expenses. The total spent in tuition alone nears $2 million. Although some funds have come from grants, most of the money comes from school budgets and DPS’ central budget.
Whitehead-Bust and Sherman say the cost is not expensive by professional development standards. Sherman said, “It’s a fairly economical deal.”
Asking tough questions
As Denver residents consider how their tax funds are spent, they need to consider some tough questions.
In the July issue of 5280 Magazine, Kelly Bastone wrote: “Testing identifies the gap,” says CEA spokesperson Mike Wetzel, “but resources close the gap.”
Therein lies the problem. If we are putting all our eggs in the data basket, there are not enough funds left to put resources into the classrooms.
By de-funding classroom resources, we also put more pressure on teachers who must do more with less. Less curriculum materials, less in-school support from librarians, tech-specialists, psychologists, counselors, etc. Scores go down. Then more training is outsourced to groups such as Relay, which paid its nine top executives between $105,777 and $267,740, according to their 2014 tax filings.
Would Denver classrooms benefits more from smaller class sizes and having more paraprofessionals in each classrooms, especially in the early years when literary is fundamental to future success? How do we find the right balance?
Perhaps we need a test to answer that question!
Lynn Kalinauskas is chair of the education committee for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.