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Education Opinion

‘Kinder, Gentler’ Kaya Henderson

By Rick Hess — October 18, 2010 2 min read
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In D.C., the inevitable post-Rhee lust for consensus and buy-in is in full gear. I said my piece on the lessons of the Fenty-Rhee effort in the Daily News on Friday, so let’s turn the page.

The standard narrative dictates that Rhee’s successor be touted by Mayor-to-be Vincent Gray and heralded by the community as a conciliator. So, news accounts and columnists are prattling about how Rhee’s successor and former deputy Kaya Henderson is so much nicer and more reasonable than Michelle and how, as a black woman with deep D.C. roots, she understands the community. George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, has said that he “respects” Henderson and that she’s “more collaborative” and “humanistic” than Rhee in her dealings with the union.

I’ve just three things to say here. First, I’ve known Kaya for a long time; not intimately, but reasonably well. Anybody who thinks she’s softer, cuddlier, or less hard-core than Michelle doesn’t know her or hasn’t been paying attention. The two worked together for a decade hand-in-glove. But, Kaya’s black and she’s replacing Rhee—so we’re treated to an amusing spectacle in which a tough-as-nails reformer is feted as a sweetheart. Given how smart and savvy Kaya is, it’ll be interesting to see how much she can accomplish before the naysayers dig in and the media decide she’s miraculously lost her people skills.

Second, Kaya was able to be “collaborative” and “humanistic” (if she actually was, and if Parker wasn’t just spewing random compliments to celebrate Rhee’s departure) precisely because Michelle was playing the bad cop. It’ll be interesting to see how those who liked Rhee’s agenda but bemoaned her aggressive persona react when they eventually realize that Kaya is just as tough as Rhee. And, given that Kaya had very mixed feelings about taking the position, it’ll be intriguing to see what kind of commitments she was able to extract from Gray before agreeing to take the helm.

Third, three years of progress in DCPS mean that Kaya will have to spend less time cleaning up the system than Michelle did. Having already overhauled the teachers’ contract, special education, human resources, data, and the rest means that Kaya will have crucial tools and will need to spend less time and political capital on brownfield reclamation. This will allow her to focus more time and energy on what’s happening in schools.

A final thought on this whole “nice/mean” thing. My pal Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham nailed it on Friday in discussing the Baltimore teachers’ contract situation. He wrote:

Baltimore teachers voted down the proposed contract there last night. Turns out they didn't like the promissory note nature of it either. So make sure I have this straight: Baltimore Superintendent Andres Alonso, who according to the narrative—parroted by Washington Post columnists—is apparently sweet, sensitive, loving, gentle, kind to old ladies, small children, and furry animals, and consequently an embodiment of collaborative-driven change has his contract go down even though it didn't have many teeth to being with. Meanwhile, in D.C. the mean and treacherous Michelle Rhee, who according to her detractors is constantly at-risk of having a house fall on her she's so villainous, gets a genuinely pathbreaking contract passed with the support of 80 percent of teachers in D.C."

Bingo. This is the problem with fetishizing personalities and this whole junior high school game of who’s “nice” and who’s not. By the way, for what it’s worth, Kaya is actually very nice. Of course, so is Michelle.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.