Mediocrity Be Gone

The Relay Graduate School of Education is revolutionizing teacher training

"Is this some kind of This Is Your Life thing?” chuckles Larry Robbins. “My involvement with the Relay Graduate School of Education goes back to the early 1990s, when I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania. I was friends with Mike Feinberg.” It would prove to be a fortuitous alliance.

Feinberg majored in international relations, while Robbins finished Penn’s prestigious five-year dual-degree program in economics and engineering. Neither, however, was the traditional Ivy Leaguer. In high school, Robbins spent his summers pouring concrete foundations in the Chicago suburbs for a construction crew. Feinberg was a popular college bartender, who sometimes jokes that he went into teaching because the LSAT law aptitude test was given during Mardi Gras. More importantly, both men were naturally impatient, eager to strike out on their own.

After graduation, they went separate ways. In 1991, Feinberg became one of the first corps members of Teach for America. He was sent to Houston and worked closely with fellow TFA corps member David Levin. In 1994, Feinberg and Levin started KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, at a public middle school in inner-city Houston. Feinberg and Levin had big plans. They wanted to take the KIPP model and use it to create a network of high-performing charter schools. Feinberg stayed in Houston. Levin moved to the South Bronx.

Robbins, meanwhile, went to work on Wall Street in 1992. Three years later, he was hired by Leon Cooperman’s Omega Advisors as an analyst and, eventually, partner. “In 1996, I earned my first real paycheck,” says Robbins. “I sent $25,000 to Mike for KIPP Houston. Every student in the entire school sent me a perfectly written thank-you letter—each of them with the kid’s name, when they were going to college, and what their favorite subjects were. Right then, I became a loyal KIPP supporter. I had a feeling that KIPP was going to do big things, and I knew that it was going to be driven by Mike and Dave.”

Crafting the prototype

“Dave Levin,” says Norman Atkins, “is Teacher Zero in the movement to create high-performing schools that serve low-income students.” It’s high praise coming from Atkins, who ranks among the nation’s most accomplished education reformers. In 1997, Atkins co-founded Uncommon Schools, a charter-school network ranked as one of the highest performing in the nation, with 32 branches operating in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

In late 2005, Dave Levin and Norm Atkins met at Olive’s Restaurant on Union Square. They talked shop over dinner and drinks. The conversation kept circling back to a shared complaint: Neither KIPP nor Uncommon Schools could ever seem to find enough great teachers to staff their schools. It was a major obstacle to growth. These programs relied on smart, persistent instructors willing to put in long hours to reach some of America’s most at-risk young people.

The conversation went round after round, as it often had, with Levin and Atkins trying to square the circle. Gradually they realized there simply weren’t enough top-level educators to meet their demands. All of the high-performing charter networks needed great teachers, but it seemed like the only way to get them was by cannibalizing each other’s programs.

It looked like an intractable problem—one that called for some fresh thinking. What if, they wondered, we started making the kinds of teachers we need? What if we stopped relying on existing pipelines and started drilling for talent ourselves? It was a daunting task. They had their hands full running fast-growing school chains. Developing a teacher-training program to suit the needs of their students was an additional burden.

One thing was immediately clear. If they were going to do this, they wanted a dramatically different kind of training than the programs offered at traditional teacher colleges. The curriculum at almost all education schools was far too theoretical, especially for instructors facing a room filled with disadvantaged kids. The intellectual fulfillment to be found in the works of Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Erik Erikson wouldn’t be much help for a new teacher struggling to teach math to a roomful of rowdy seventh graders. “I can study Vygotsky later,” Tayo Adeeko, a 24-year-old third-grade charter school teacher, told the New York Times, “but right now, my kids need to learn how to read.” (Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet theorist of cognitive development. He died in 1934.)

Atkins and Levin reached out to Dacia Toll, a former Rhodes Scholar who founded Achievement First, another New York-based high-performing charter network. Together, Atkins, Levin, and Toll decided to develop their own teacher-training program—a program that would focus on practical strategies that could be used in the classroom immediately. They started with a blank sheet of paper. “What qualities do we need in a teacher?” they wondered. Once they had sketched them out, they started reverse-engineering a curriculum that would produce those qualities.

During the next few weeks, the three educators refined their idea for a new teacher-training institute. The project was starting to look more and more like a business plan—and what the idea needed next was investors.

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By Aaron Soffin, Relay Graduate School of Education;  Courtesy of Achievement First.

Finding the investors

In late 2000, Robbins left Omega Advisors and founded his own hedge fund, Glenview Capital Management. Robbins named the business for the suburban hockey league he joined as a kindergartner. It was in the hockey rink, he has since explained, that he learned the virtues of consistency and teamwork. “I grew up in the Midwest as a student and a hockey player,” he says. “Playing hockey, you quickly learn that it is a team sport where everybody is good and that you need to work hard, and you need to work hard throughout the whole game.”

That ethos of steady consistency has brought Glenview some very impressive returns. Robbins keeps a low profile, personally and professionally. He is reluctant to talk much about his hedge fund’s strategy or performance, noting only that it manages roughly $5 billion. Still, aspects of his investment philosophy can be deduced from public sources. New York magazine once placed Glenview among the industry’s leading “singles hitters”—not power sluggers, but contact hitters who rack up winning seasons like Joe Torre’s Yankees. The New York Post recently reported that Glenview has seen an average annual return since inception of about 13.2 percent. (Throughout the same period, the S&P has posted a 1 percent average annual return.) “Any hedge fund that’s been around for 12 years is obviously one that has had some success,” he avers. “That success is what allows us to be responsible philanthropists.”

In 2000—four years after cutting his first check to the organization—Robbins joined the board of KIPP New York, and has since served as its chairman. As a major supporter of one of New York City’s leading charter networks, he soon was familiar with the difficulties of finding and training great teachers. “One can’t be involved with the administration of charter schools without realizing that what makes the great ones special isn’t bricks and mortar,” explains Robbins. “It’s the human capital. We needed more teachers and better teachers.” The proposal developed by Atkins, Levin, and Toll struck Robbins as a sound philanthropic investment. He quietly pledged $10 million.

At the same time, another major player in New York philanthropy had taken notice of the proposed new teacher-training program. Hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones established the Robin Hood Foundation in 1988 with a simple mandate: Reduce poverty in New York City. Central to that mission has been a commitment to fund innovative educational reform efforts. Impressed by Robbins’s $10 million commitment, Robin Hood took a major step in helping move the teacher-training program forward, agreeing to feature the program at its fundraising benefit every year in Manhattan.

Robin Hood’s annual fundraiser is a major event in the Manhattan social scene, with many of the city’s most generous donors attending and many of its most promising nonprofits showcased. When Robin Hood first highlighted the new teacher-training program in 2007, the benefit shattered records, raising $72 million in one night. Amazingly, within the first three minutes of fundraising, the master of ceremonies secured 23 separate commitments of $1 million apiece.

Donors were clearly enthusiastic about the experiment in improving K-12 human capital: About $20 million of the funds raised by Robin Hood that night were directed toward the program being developed by Atkins, Levin, and Toll. David Saltzman, executive director of Robin Hood, thought it was a relatively easy sell: “This is one of the most exciting projects we’ve ever been involved in.”

Disrupting the market

What made the teacher-training institute such an easy sell was its intense focus on practicality. Atkins, Levin, and Toll began by figuring out what a new teacher needed to know how to do, and then devised a two-year master’s program (required for New York public school teachers) that would drill those skills into their graduates. Underlying the whole enterprise was the conviction that great teaching isn’t an innate, mysterious talent. It is rather a craft that can be studied, broken down, and taught.

What is now known as the Relay Graduate School of Education opened its doors in 2008. Initially known as Teacher U, the program was housed at Hunter College, where the dean of the education school, David Steiner, was an enthusiastic patron of the experiment. Its founders, explains Atkins, saw three distinctive competencies in the new model. First, it would be relentlessly pragmatic. Second, video and online instruction would be deeply integrated into the curriculum. And third, in order to graduate, students would have to deliver measurable results in the classroom. To get a master’s degree in education from Relay, you must demonstrate that your students have made a minimum of one year’s worth of academic growth in one year’s time.

First and foremost, Teacher U was intended to offer practical instruction. “We are teaching how to teach,” explains Atkins. “We teach very specific techniques and strategies that help teachers to be effective in leading their classrooms on Monday morning.” How does a master teacher keep a roomful of fifth graders engaged with a math lesson after 30 minutes? What do you do when you ask an easy question and only two eighth graders raise their hands? How do you handle the social needs of second graders who are already deeply familiar with violence, addiction, and poverty? Any material that can’t immediately be put into practice in K-12 classrooms is shelved.

Relay makes creative use of technology to expand access to the most useful pedagogical strategies. “If I could wave a magic wand, I’d love to bring the best teachers in the country to our school so we could watch them work,” says Atkins. “Well, that’s not going to happen. So we do the next best thing.” Relay is assembling a library of video case studies, real-life episodes that can be watched, paused, repeated, and discussed. Relay students observe great teaching in action. They discuss what works, and what doesn’t, in a given situation. “Often, the video will run right up to a critical moment,” says Atkins. “Then we pause it and ask the class: ‘So, what would you do next?’”

Video confers additional benefits. For one thing, the case studies can be viewed after work or on weekends. They can be transmitted online relatively easily, where about 40 percent of Relay classes take place. Relay also extensively tapes its master’s students to help them see their strengths and weaknesses in action. This watch-and-analyze method is results-focused, allowing graduate students to monitor their own progress, with support and feedback from experienced faculty. (Another unexpected benefit: The K-12 students behave better when they know they are being taped.) This regular feedback provides new teachers with the mentorship they need to help ensure their success—and the success of their students.

Which gets to the program’s third distinctive feature: In order to earn a master’s degree from Relay, candidates must demonstrate that their students have achieved a minimum of a full year’s academic growth during their teaching year. Research on American education schools largely finds no statistically significant correlation between earning a master’s in education and improving student performance. Relay, by contrast, ties half of its total graduation credits to measurable student outcomes. If a master’s candidate cannot empirically prove the value he adds to the classroom, he won’t get a degree.

Expansion mode

“We wanted a name that would convey the team spirit of the work,” is how Atkins explains the college moniker. “It’s not about any one individual teacher—but a relay of teachers.” He points to research which finds that if a student has three great teachers in a row, there is a significant effect on his academic success; conversely, three ineffective teachers in direct succession can place an average student well behind, greatly diminishing the odds he will ever catch up. “We want to create a relay of great teachers for more children.”

In 2011, Relay became the first new independent graduate school of education in more than 80 years to receive credentials from the State of New York. It’s too early to know Relay’s full potential, but Robbins and Atkins are encouraged about the program’s opportunities for expansion. Relay partners with the New York City Department of Education to train district public school teachers and recently launched two pilots to train public school principals. Relay already is working with master’s candidates at campuses in Newark and New Orleans, and aiming to grow further. “We hope that in a decade we are able to serve thousands of teachers in cities across the country,” says Atkins.

Funder Robbins agrees that the goal is attainable. He has always seen Relay as a safe bet. On the tenth anniversary of his fund he reflected that “My father worked at a horse racetrack and taught me how to handicap horses when I was young. I have met several skilled handicappers over time, but none of them has made the Forbes 400 list, and for good reason.” Investing, he pointed out, is different from gambling. Investors draw on a much larger pool of data, enjoy much lower transaction costs, and benefit from much greater predictability. All of which tends to make investing “much more useful and productive.”

Robbins sees his charitable giving in that same light. In philanthropy as in investing, he looks to minimize risk and maximize return. “What I’ve been privileged to do is actually the lowest-risk philanthropy out there,” he explains. “While it’s true that I agreed to be an early funder of Relay, the overall concept was as risk-free and foolproof a business plan as one can design. This is not a drug discovery, it’s not medical research, both of which have phenomenal benefits but also carry huge risks of failure. In our judgment, the odds of success were exceedingly high, and it was incumbent upon us to find a way to ensure its success. Relay was the rare philanthropic investment that offered a proven track record of effectiveness and achievement and the opportunity to back incredible social entrepreneurs, to address educational quality—the largest issue facing our country—and to have an impact on a national scale. It has been, and continues to be, a wonderful investment.”

Former Philanthropy associate editor Kari Barbic was once a high-school English teacher and is now a writer in Washington, D.C.