Norman Atkins
Ashoka Fellow since 2012   |   United States

Norman Atkins

Relay Graduate School of Education
Norman Atkins seeks to reinvent teacher education through a “nurse practitioner” model of teacher training that focuses on practice above theory, and that links teacher certification to demonstrated…
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This description of Norman Atkins's work was prepared when Norman Atkins was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Norman Atkins seeks to reinvent teacher education through a “nurse practitioner” model of teacher training that focuses on practice above theory, and that links teacher certification to demonstrated results in the classroom.

The New Idea

Norman founded the Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE) to revolutionize teacher training, delivered by professors who themselves are champion teachers with proven track records in their own classrooms. RGSE utilizes a path-breaking curriculum with concrete instructional practices that teachers can employ the next morning, treating education as a discipline that is parallel to medicine, with a definable set of skills, strategies, and methods that take time and support to master. The idea is not that there will ever be one model of effective teaching, but rather that the language of effective teaching will gather around common themes and concepts.

Unlike other graduate schools and certification programs, students at Relay take most of their courses while teaching so that what they learn is instantly applicable, and their own classroom experiences help shape their learning environment. Video lessons, a rich variety of online content, and peer critique of student teachers in the classroom are among the components that make Relay unique. The entire curriculum is designed around a central question: What do new teachers need in the classroom to be immediately effective, to guarantee their students are engaged and learning, and ultimately, to be happy in their profession? And importantly, Relay builds in accountability for results: In order to earn a degree, RGSE students must demonstrate that their students have made a minimum of a year’s worth of academic growth in a year’s time. This is a radical departure from the status quo.

Founded in 2008, and chartered by the New York State Board of Regents in February 2011, RGSE is the first independent graduate school of education to open in New York in over eighty years. In the short-term, Norman will build a set of Relay campuses in strategic cities around the country. But he sees this network as a mechanism for driving more systemic-level change. Ultimately, by designing a “better mousetrap”, Norman will generate demand for a new kind of trained teacher, with demonstrably better results in the classroom, in a way that changes the approach to teacher preparation within higher education across the United States.

The Problem

Public schools and their teachers represent our most precious public resources in ensuring equality of opportunity in America. And yet our shared failure is palpable: poor children lag nearly four years behind their well-to-do peers. In urban centers, it’s a coin toss whether less privileged children will graduate from high school and there’s less than a one in ten chance that they’ll graduate from college. As we collectively address these inequities, one factor has become more and more apparent: without great teachers, little else matters. Research confirms that teacher quality is the single most important determinant of student achievement. In fact, three highly effective teachers in a row puts students—no matter their background or socioeconomic status—on a path toward college, while three consecutive years of poor quality teachers sets them back significantly when compared to their peers. (Hence the name “Relay”—to ensure students pass through strong teachers year after year in order to erase the average educational disadvantage of low-income children.)

There are a number of reasons why teacher quality has remained uneven. For decades our most talented college graduates rarely considered going into teaching, in part because of low pay and prestige. Organizations like Teach For America have begun reversing this trend. Meanwhile, school environments have not always been supportive—particularly of novice teachers with new and innovative approaches—and so retention has been dismal, with nearly half of new teachers leaving the profession within five years. Organizations like Ashoka Fellow Ellen Moir’s New Teacher Center have developed strong teacher mentorship programs to support new teachers in particular.

But teacher training is also essential, and this country’s primary mechanism for doing so—teacher preparation programs nested in colleges and graduate schools of education—is broken. Our schools of education remain mired in theory and do a poor job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom. As a result, the majority of the 150,000 new people coming into the profession each year are not equipped to reach their full potential. This has been widely recognized for some time—even the current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said, “the current system that prepares our nation’s teachers offers no guarantees of quality for anyone”—and the nation is starved for a better way. For Norman, a better approach is one of the most highly leveraged ways to guarantee a quality education for all our children.

The Strategy

Norman likes to say that great teachers are made, not born. But our system for “making” great teachers is deeply flawed, and not serving our children the way it could. Relay is a new, better model—one that more closely resembles nurse practitioner training with lots of hands-on practice in both real world and simulated settings. The short-term strategy is thus to build, refine, and demonstrate the effectiveness of this model, and then to use what resembles a market-based strategy to disrupt current practices and stimulate widespread reform within a system that has been reluctant to change for decades.

Effectively disrupting the status quo begins with designing a new and better way of training teachers, with proven results in the classroom. This is precisely what Relay set out to do, essentially starting from scratch and asking: What would a training curriculum look like that would enable teachers to be effective from day one—and remain effective—even in the most challenging school environments? With this in mind, Relay designed itself around five core principles: (1) data matters (2) great instruction matters, and practitioners should be teacher (3) incorporate lots of video and technology (4) be cost effective and flexible and (5) be accountable for results.

The first three principles underscore Relay’s focus on methods and practice, which distinguishes it from existing graduate education programs. Everything begins and ends with relevance in the classroom in mind. Courses and modules range from how to make effective transitions to how to keep students engaged during the full 50-minute class, or even how to quickly resolve personal conflicts and get a lesson back on track. But to make a focus on methods work, Relay had to structure and staff itself differently. First, its professors are all former or current practitioners, most of whom have spent years teaching in urban school environments with extraordinary results. Second, a heavy reliance on video lessons and demonstrations keeps all theory and instruction grounded in reality. (Students are also required to submit videos of themselves in action as well—part of a series of structured peer critiques that highlight both strengths and room for improvement.) Simulations of various kinds are also frequent, with students at Relay teaching in front of each other, and doing what they can to model a real classroom complete with its many distractions and challenges.

Perhaps the most important factor to keep Relay closely grounded in practice is that its students are simultaneously teachers in their own K-12 classrooms. Courses begin intensively during the summer, and then continue on a more moderate pace during the school year, with evening classes focused on pedagogy—how to teach—and Saturday classes on subject matter—what to teach. This allows for a nice blend: For example, a tip about the usefulness of pneumonic devices might then be applied in the context of a trigonometry lesson. It also means that students at Relay can apply what they learn immediately in their own classrooms, and importantly, report back on how effective it may or may not have been. In this way, Relay has built-in a feedback loop that ensures the curriculum is constantly relevant to today’s classroom environment. In fact, every lesson begins and ends with a quick survey: was the lesson helpful, how could it be improved? Norman likes to think of Relay’s students as co-developers of quality content, again a major departure from existing higher-ed institutions with a reputation of being out of touch.

Relay was also designed to be flexible and modular so that students get out of it exactly what they need. It is competency-based so that students can accelerate through curriculum they have already mastered and focus more in areas where they need the most support—again, always with an eye toward what will help them help their students learn best. Already 40 percent of Relay’s content is online, and the goal is to get to 100 percent. As it grows, more and more modules will be tailored toward specific types of classes and students— for example special education, where targeted training is especially valuable.

Finally, Relay wanted to make sure that it and its students were accountable for their K-12 students’ progress, and so from day one it incorporated a one-of-a-kind accountability mechanism: For any Relay student to receive his/her degree, that student must be able to demonstrate that his/her children have learned a year’s worth of material in a year’s time. The accountability is tied somewhat imperfectly to state math and language tests—not to meet some arbitrary standard but rather simply to gauge progress. Relay settled on the 70 percent average mastery minimum after looking at the New York math and language tests, where proficiency generally is defined as a score of 70 percent correct answers. 95 percent of the 2010 graduates and 98 percent of its 2011 graduates met the 70 percent targets. Again, the idea is not whether K-12 students achieved a certain arbitrary number, but rather to understand whether Relay’s teachers are being effective, and to encourage all new teachers to both cover material and regularly check for understanding among their students. It is a first step toward building accountability into our teacher training process, and as Norman importantly reminds us, it is as much for his students as anyone else: Teachers want to be effective, and they’ll be much happier and stay longer in their jobs if they are.

Relay began as Teacher U based out of Hunter College in 2008, and its first class of official Relay graduates graduated in 2013. This year Norman expects to enroll over 500 students in New York and New Jersey. Norman’s goal is to develop six campuses in five years, and ten or more in ten years, with 10,000 graduate students enrolled. Those 10,000 students would represent 20 percent of new teachers entering low-income schools—enough, Norman believes, to make a dent and disrupt the market. As far as costs, he expects Relay to be fully supported by tuition and client-school fees in three to four years. For now, philanthropies are subsidizing about $13,000 of the $35,000 two-year tuition bill. Students pay about $4,500, with charter schools and federal grants and subsidies making up the rest. Relay’s FY2012 operating budget was $8.5 million. It currently receives funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NewSchools Venture Fund, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, among others.

Of course, Norman’s ambitions with Relay lie well beyond his schools and his students alone. What motivates him every day is the tragic circumstance of urban education, and he sees Relay as a conduit for systemic-level change and a new approach to teacher education nationwide. Doing so is no easy task, but he felt the only realistic chance was to develop a model that was so much more effective and accountable that others in the education landscape would have no choice but to change to keep up. He sees his strategy, therefore, as of collection of three interdependent steps: (1) getting a collection of best practices out there (2) changing the conversation about teacher training—or better yet, channeling the growing conversation about teacher accountability into something real and demonstrable and (3) generating demand for a new kind of graduate student. Relay’s heavy reliance on online content will facilitate scaling, and will enable Relay to embed itself and partner with existing institutions and school districts. Though the majority of its students are currently working in charter schools, the goal has always been to reach a minimum 50/50 mix, and Norman is already thinking about how Relay could be applicable to existing teachers as well and help stimulate systems-change one urban school district at a time.

Norman is confident that the landscape is ripe for new thinking, and the more Relay acts as a lab of innovation, the more federal funding will begin to shift as an incentive to encourage a different approach. In time, he imagines the National Council on Teacher Quality will create an accountability mechanism where programs are rated based on how well graduates do as teachers (measured in teacher performance) versus how many people at the institution have doctorates. Meanwhile, everyone from Teach for America to district schools will begin demanding programs like Relay, and top universities will begin incorporating its methods out of inspiration, necessity, and out of a desire to compete. His work has already attracted international attention as well, as school districts from Brazil to South Africa seek new solutions to improve their teachers and their education systems.

The Person

Norman is a social entrepreneur who has been working to improve urban education for nearly two decades. As a child in Evanston, IL, he traveled across town by bus every morning from a predominately white neighborhood to a predominantly black neighborhood and had the privilege of attending a racially and socioeconomically integrated school. From a very early age, he could see the formative power education could have in a post-Brown vs. Board of Education society. Later in life, he co-founded the Robin Hood Foundation of New York to fund solutions to problems caused by poverty. Through this work, he visited hundreds of organizations serving poor people across New York City—soup kitchens, homeless shelters, substance abuse programs, teen pregnancy prevention programs, geriatric programs, etc.—and kept returning to the idea that education was the lever that had the greatest potential to break the cycle of poverty for the next generation.

During this time—the late 1980s and early 1990s—most anti-poverty education philanthropy was allocated to after-school programs. Fundamentally, it struck him as inefficient and unproductive to invest in programs that helped children from 4:00 to 6:00 PM to mop up for the unfortunate education experiences they were having from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. This led him to found one of the earliest and most successful charter schools in New Jersey, the North Star Academy. Later, when the philanthropic community began supporting charter expansion across the United States, Norman seized the opportunity and expanded his work of opening great schools in New York City, upstate New York, and Boston. Uncommon Schools—a network of high-performing public charter schools—now has 28 schools and serves over 6,000 students.

Over time, however, Norman came to recognize that no matter how many schools he helped open, without a strong pipeline of great teachers, change in education would never be transformative. In fact, he and Ashoka Fellow David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter schools, saw that they were often competing for the same teachers for their schools. This was his “aha” moment: Rather than fight over a shallow pool of talent, he became interested in what it would take to build a generation of great teachers. This, he believed, could change education, and the idea for Relay was born.

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