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In 2007, the Relay Graduate School of Education launched as the brainchild of three charter school networks. Originally part of Hunter College and named Teacher U, the program largely attracted and provided training to teachers from charter schools and programs like Teach For America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, which has led to criticism from supporters of traditional teacher preparation programs. In 2011, the newly renamed program, the Relay Graduate School of Education, spun off from Hunter College and became the first graduate program not affiliated with a university to open in New York in more than 80 years. The program quickly expanded, launching master’s degree programs for teachers, fellowship programs for principals, and graduate programs in eight locations across the country.
Four years later, Relay is expanding again and is also calling for policy changes to hold teacher preparation programs more accountable for the performance of graduates. The Hechinger Report spoke to Mayme Hostetter, dean of the Relay Graduate School of Education
Q: How has Relay changed since its inception?
I would say there have been four big changes, from  until our current format as Relay 2015. One is that we’re now a hybrid program. Forty percent of courses that [candidates] take are online…in that online work precedes an in person class. So you do a little online and a little in person. All of our grad students are full time teachers of record so it is hard for them to get to a physical location in a way that’s not hard for students who are full time graduate students to get to a location.
Another change, structurally more than programmatically, is having an advisor that follows them through the entire year. Before…the set up was you would have this professor for this class and that professor for that class. Over the course of three years you may have half a dozen people, but no one person who is your lighthouse or Sherpa or whatever metaphor you want to use. Now at Relay, you have one professor with you the majority of coursework for year one, and another for the majority of coursework for year two. We found that to be hugely important for both professors and students…it brings a relational aspect that I don’t think was there before.
The other two [changes] are that [in the past] Common Core wasn’t a thing. Nobody was talking about it. Now that is very much a focus for our [English language arts] and math teachers in New York public schools, as well as at other campuses. The fourth big difference is programmatically, more of an emphasis on practice. We do more of getting teachers to stand up in front of a group of colleagues and practice a portion of a lesson…and getting feedback from their professors and colleagues so they have several opportunities to get it right when the stakes are low.
Q: According to recent data from Relay, the diversity of your teacher candidates has increased. Are there any specific strategies that you are using to achieve this?
I think it’s a few different ways. One, we’ve benefited from the strong work of our partners, so Teach For America and New York City Teaching Fellows are our two biggest partners here in New York, and they have done a lot at their organizations respectively to recruit teachers of color.
In some ways we’ve been the recipients of their good work. I think the thing that we have done more proactively is our residency program…which is really geared at folks who are from New York, who want to teach in the neighborhood, community, or in many cases the very schools that they grew up going to.
Our residents are disproportionately teachers of color.
Q: Relay is also now enrolling more teachers who work in a traditional district settings rather than a charter network. What is sparking that shift?
A: One of the reasons that I took this job eight years ago was that from the very start, we had a vision that Relay would be a place where people working in charters and districts and, maybe one day independent schools, would all come to learn what it means to be a great teacher.
Personally, I’m a big supporter of charter schools. I taught at KIPP for several years. I think if you’re going to really improve public education for all kids you can’t just focus on charters. I was really inspired and motivated by the original mission to make sure it was a grad program for all teachers… [Our] initial work with [New York Teaching Fellows’] special education fellows made us think we need to be doing more with district teachers and we need to be getting better at how to develop support for folks in the district environment….
I think it’s really just this year that we’re starting to really get it right with our district school teachers. For New York City Teaching Fellows, four to five years ago they would probably say ‘there’s some helpful stuff, but I don’t know if they really get my environment.’ Now they would say ‘they really get it, they’re super supportive.’ It’s just taken us a while to get there.
Q: What’s next for Relay?
A: I’m part of a group called Deans for Impact and we’ve come together around a few key principles [for improving teacher preparation]. One is that teacher prep should be more evidence-based. While the evidence base is small, we should be leaning on it more heavily… and pushing to expand the evidence base. [Recently] we made our first programmatic move to publish this set, basically a cheat sheet, of what science tells us about teaching and learning, and what teachers should know about teaching and learning, and how that translates into classroom practice…We’re part of a couple of the schools that are going to pilot what it looks like to use some of these principles in coursework.
Another is that we, as teacher preparation programs, should hold ourselves accountable for our graduates’ K-12 student outcomes. We should be part of the group organizing policy and data practices to allow for tracking teachers by teacher preparation program and linking that K-12 data back to the preparation programs that they attended. That data should be really accessible and really transparent and something that teacher preparation programs are evaluated on…This is a big focus of our research team this year, is getting our hands on state test data associated with the kids who have had Relay grads as their teachers. It’s an easy thing for Deans for Impact to say that teacher prep programs should be held accountable for graduates’ K-12 student achievement. It is very hard to get those data, to organize those data, to then tag those data back to the teacher preparation programs. So we’re trying to do it for just our Relay grads so we have a sense of how they’re doing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.