Can Relay Graduate School of Education produce quality educators after a one-year teaching residency in one of Memphis’ charter schools?
The University of Memphis is reconsidering this question after faculty senate members have asked university president David M. Rudd to reevaluate the potential impact of a proposed partnership between the university, Relay, and Shelby County Schools/ Achievement School District.
The proposed program is drawing concern from faculty members and people in the community, where charter schools already use young teachers who obtain teaching certification from other non-traditional programs such as Teach for America or Memphis Teacher Residency.
The faculty senate unanimously voted to independently investigate any risks that Relay might pose to current university programs. Additionally, a task force likely to include Provost Karen Weddle-West, College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences Dean Ernest Rakow, and Professor of Educational Leadership Reginald Green will be established to offer recommendations for a university partnership with SCS/ASD.
Relay is a one-year teaching residency program available to undergraduates from any major, and while their training period is substantially longer than other alternative certification programs, some feel that it is still inadequate.
“With what they are doing, it is impossible to become a good teacher — especially if you do not have an educational background in areas like the psychology of education,” said Mate Wierdl, a U of M professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and a faculty senate member.
Relay’s official website outlines of their curriculum, that includes reviewing recorded classroom footage of student’s teaching interactions, as well as online tutorials. Wierdl, however, is perturbed by other concerns.
“We don’t exactly know what Relay is doing. We know that Relay is a company based in New York. We know that it is four years old. Otherwise, it has no track record whatsoever,” said Wierdl. “It’s just the strangest thing — that somehow charter school teachers can train other charter school teachers, and in New York and now in Tennessee, they can give out master’s degrees.”
The funding of the residency program has prompted other questions. The program is said to have a total cost of $5 million per year, which is roughly the per-year cost of the most expensive departments at the university, such as the Cecil C. Humphreys Law School. Some are a worried that the University is footing the bill – a claim University president David M. Rudd calls “absolutely untrue.”
“The University of Memphis is not funding Relay,” Rudd said in an email. “As mentioned, they are an independent institution. Philanthropists have offered to fund U of M students participating in the program. The $5 million figure is simply untrue. The University has expended no funds on this effort. If students did chose to participate and there was any portion of their costs unfunded by philanthropy, they would have to cover the difference with their own tuition payments.”
Still for Wierdl and other community members, the concerns around the potential three-way partnership go beyond a price tag or a certification. They find the broader matter of the privatization of public education to be the central threat.
"With what they are doing, it is impossible to become a good teacher — especially if you do not have an educational background in areas like the psychology of education,” Mate Wierdl
In the time since the first charter school opened its doors in Minnesota, 23 years ago, major cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. have adopted charter schools into their public education systems. Numerous charter school studies have been published, and the divide over whether charter schools are a viable and sustainable educational system has deepened.
In Memphis, the first four charter schools opened in 2003. Now, 12 years later, Memphis is in the top 50 school districts in the nation for charter school development. For non-proponents of charter school systems in Memphis and elsewhere, a primary concern stems from charter school contracts with non-traditional teaching certification entities like Teach for America Memphis or Memphis Teacher Residency.
Mischa Nyberg from Put the People First, a community action group that addresses social justice issues in Tennessee, runs community meetings of parents, teachers, and students. They discuss the current issue of the U of M partnership in informative meetings, so that they may participate in community discussions with U of M officials.
“The Relay Graduate School is part of a much longer, much more complicated narrative of the corporatization of public schools than it seemingly projects, as is the recently announced partnership with ASD,” said Nyberg. The ASD is Tennessee’s state-run school district that takes over schools that perform in the bottom five percent state-wide.
A primary concern for many are the alternatively certified teachers that populate charter schools who, in turn, often replace traditionally certified teachers with more experience. In addition, the retention rate for large entities like TFA is low, with an average of 80 percent of teachers leaving after three years.
“The Relay Graduate School is part of a much longer, much more complicated narrative of the corporatization of public schools than it seemingly projects, as is the recently announced partnership with ASD.” Mischa Nyberg
For Nyberg and Wierdl, this alone is cause enough for concern.
“Relay is not only a threat to the profession of teaching, but it is a threat to a good, quality public education, which we believe is a human right,” said Nyberg.
Wierdl sees the high turnover rate of less-experienced teachers brought into the schools from the alternative certification programs as more than a threat.
“The Relay program is part of a cruel human experiment on the most disadvantaged children of Memphis,” said Wierdl. “It needs to be stopped.”
Put the People First plans to continuously monitor the potential partnership, as well as keep community members abreast of the latest developments.
The newly formed task-force will be holding meetings over the next few months. “This will allow for as much time as needed to identify and discuss all concerns,” said Rudd.
Nevertheless, through its website, Relay has announced that Memphis will be its sixth satellite location. The announcement alarmed those hoping to publicly discuss the university partnership.
However, Rudd says Relay’s announcement does not signal a solidified partnership.
“Relay is authorized as an independent educational provider in Tennessee,” said Rudd. “They do not need University of Memphis approval to operate in Memphis any more than any other institution, such as CBU, Rhodes, etc…”