Without question, Connecticut needs more teachers who see themselves in their students (and vice versa), who have roots in the communities where they teach, and who are well positioned to instruct in ways that are academically challenging and culturally, linguistically, and community responsive.
The pipeline into the profession for teachers of color is too often obstructed and unwelcoming, and change is imperative. We know, for example, that professional learning experiences, whether pre-service or in-service, situated in colleges and universities or K-12, are too often laced with micro-aggressions —repeated racialized slights —that are neither micro nor slight on their own or in accumulation.
We know, as well, that working conditions for teachers of color are too often more stressful than supportive, and that robust mentoring remains too rare. And then of course there is the challenge of staying afloat financially on a teacher’s salary, particularly in an era of rising housing costs and student loans.
Confirming the complexity of the challenge at hand, a recent Central Connecticut State University dissertation study that engaged more than 200 black teachers state-wide found that, “Black teachers perceive salary, inadequate teacher support (particularly minority teacher support), unfair human resource recruiting and hiring practices, and poor perceptions of teaching to be the primary obstacles to becoming and remaining a teacher.”
It is clear that there is no easy or quick fix to the enduring demographic divides between the state’s public school students and their teachers. Ensuring accessible and sustainable career trajectories for teachers of color is a complex challenge and will require a systemic solution all along the pipeline.
This understanding, in part, informs opposition to Relay Graduate School of Education’s expansion into our state, where it is being framed as a solution to minority teacher recruitment and an engine for ameliorating educational inequities. In fact, Relay is no panacea for our pipeline problems, and instead represents the tip of an approaching iceberg that threatens the education of the state’s most under-served students and sells short the very teachers to whom we owe the best preparation, support, working conditions, and compensation available.
What is Relay Graduate School of Education?
First, it is not a graduate school in any recognizable sense. It is a charter-style network of independent teacher preparation programs created by the leaders of three prominent charter school chains (Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First), primarily as a means to bypass traditional teacher education. Relay has recently set up shop in New Haven, where it has reportedly enrolled a cohort of candidates who will finish its one-year program this academic year, despite the fact that it has not received approval as a preparation provider.
Its “campus” address is a PO Box; its offices are co-located in a partner charter school; its faculty are unnamed and not required to hold degrees comparable to teacher educators elsewhere; and its nationwide curriculum has been critiqued for emphasizing methods that are reductive and control-oriented, rather than research-based and conducive to critical thinking.
In short, Relay would lower the bar for teacher preparation in Connecticut, increasing the likelihood that students in districts such as Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven would receive teachers who have not met the same standards of preparation as those in more affluent districts.
What is the harm in approving Relay?
For candidates in targeted districts, the harm would come from providing a program that doesn’t honor their potential as professionals and would not be deemed acceptable preparation for those certified and employed elsewhere in the state.
For students in targeted districts, the harm would come from providing their teachers with preparation that is based on a reductive, behaviorist view of teaching and learning, and that emphasizes the kind of techniques shown to narrow the curriculum and adversely affect students’ socio-emotional development. For targeted districts and the communities they serve, the harm would come from partnering with a provider that has no credible research base to support its claims to effectiveness or to indicate that it will improve minority teachers’ retention in urban schools. For the public, the harm would come from establishing a pathway into teaching that is not accountable to the profession or state in ways that most other programs are.
Shouldn’t these matters concern us all?
Why denying Relay is ‘right’ right now.
There’s no wrong time to make hard, equity-minded decisions. And, at this particular moment, other entities and events are also helping to reveal what Relay represents and why it should not receive approval. Other states—Pennsylvania a few months ago and California a few days ago—have decided against approving Relay’s proposals for reasons related to program quality. The NAACP’s recent vote in favor of a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charter schools also signals pertinent concerns.
A quick glance at the list of “partners and philanthropic investors” on Relay’s website confirms its tight linkages to the privatization movement. Although that movement often deploys the rhetoric of equity and diversity to rationalize itself and enlists compelling, community-based representatives to promote its agenda, that agenda has typically worked against community interests and exacerbated inequities —draining resources from struggling districts, deepening segregation, diverting attention from systemic change to individual choice, and so on. Why then would we endorse an unproven model of teacher preparation that is based on the same approaches being called into question in K-12? Why would we rush to approve a provider that is facing scrutiny and rejection elsewhere? Simply put: we shouldn’t.
What might we consider instead?
Yes, we have a problem; but it’s a complex, systemic problem, worthy of a complex, systemic solution. There are viable, research-based alternatives for improvement all along the pipeline. Genuine residency and “grow your own” programs are one option, whereby established programs partner with districts to create locally-responsive pathways into teaching that are research-based and actively seek to enroll community members, minority candidates especially.
Another is to expand investments in minority teacher incentive grants and loan-forgiveness for those who go through approved programs and commit to working in shortage areas and high-needs districts. A third is to establish induction programs that are community- and culturally-responsive and that extend over multiple years so that the newest members of the profession receive the supports they need in order to survive and thrive during their critical first years on the job and beyond. Under the new federal education law, ESSA, there are opportunities for states to invest in any or all of these options.
In sum, there’s no question that we all have to do better for teacher candidates of color and teachers of color. This will require us to resist quick-but-compromising fixes like Relay and instead insist that minority teacher candidates receive the best preparation and support the field and the state have to offer.
Lauren Anderson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Education Department at Connecticut College, and a member of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, Connecticut.