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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Straight-Up Conversation: DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson

By Rick Hess — December 07, 2015 10 min read
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D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has just finished her fifth year in the role, making her one of the nation’s longer-serving big city chiefs. Taking over from the high-profile Michelle Rhee after serving as Rhee’s deputy, Henderson has built on Rhee’s success while taking on new challenges. Henderson’s tenure has seen steady growth in DCPS as well as remarkable improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. I recently had the chance to chat with Kaya about some of the highlights of her tenure, how things look to her five years in, and about the evolution of school reform.

Rick Hess: It’s been five years since you became chancellor. Did you ever think you’d be in this job or that you’d still be doing it after five years?

Kaya Henderson: No. And no. I never aspired to be a superintendent. When I took over as chancellor from Michelle, I initially took it as an interim until they found the person they wanted. Then it morphed into something more permanent. Even then, I thought I’d do it for two to three years, just because that was the shelf life of a superintendent. But I’ve realized that, to make a deep and lasting organizational change in school districts, you can’t do it in two years. In two years, you can clean some things up, you can set up a vision. But to make real change you need time to understand what’s going on and then put strategies in place and in the right sequence so you begin to see some results.

When I committed to do it initially, then-Mayor Gray asked me to sign a four-year contract. I told him, “No,” but that I would sign a one-year contract. I thought it would be healthy for us after a year to look at each other and decide if we still wanted to continue. At the end of the first year, he asked me to sign a three-year contract, and I said, “Nope.” Since then, I’ve been on annual contracts, and I like that. The work isn’t finished and here I am five years later, still having fun.

RH: Most superintendents don’t last five years, and even fewer can say they’re still having fun after that much time. What explains your successful run?

KH: Having a great team is really important. We’ve worked hard to have the best team, from the central office staff to the people in schools. Second, having the political will to do this work has been critical. We’ve been fortunate to have three mayors in a row who have committed to education and willing to allocate resources to this work. Turning around a school district is an investment. We’ve had three mayors and city councils that have had the political courage to invest in DCPS, to provide us with the cover, the legislation, and the climate to make tough changes. Third, I really have a heart for this community and believe that these families deserve better than DCPS has been giving them. We work really hard to surprise and delight our constituents, and they in turn have given us a lot of trust and latitude.

RH: If you have to point to one or two most important successes to date, what would they be?

KH: I’d count the 2010 teachers union contract. Another big success was the development of our curriculum, from 2010 to 2013, where we developed the Common Core-aligned curriculum and raised the bar for what we were teaching our young people. Another thing is the way we’ve engaged the community on big problems like feeder patterns and school closures. Those big things put us on the path to success where we see the gains in student achievement.

RH: If you could name one thing where you’d like a do-over, what would it be?

KH: I think that there are a few things that I wish I’d gone faster on, but I also know that if we had gone faster—from a change management perspective— it wouldn’t have landed. So I’m back and forth. If I had to do it all over again, I would have gotten to high school a little more quickly. We thought critically about elementary school and middle school improvement, but this is the first year we’ve really been able to think about high school. Beyond that, I think we’ve been thoughtful about the sequencing of the work that we’ve done and how much change people can take at any one particular time. I’d love to say it was all by design, but some of it was dumb luck. But it has worked out.

RH: How do you think about the role of school choice and the DC charter school community?

KH: Choice is important, especially for a system that is only just now starting to be responsive to parents. I think that it was really important for parents to have options when the school district was non-responsive. I think we are now at a point where the citizens in the city are saying, “How do these two systems work together, because it doesn’t make sense to us?” I think that there are so many schools between [DCPS and the charter system] that we should have good options covering the entire city. But we don’t. Part of the reason is that we haven’t had any coordination. How do we create a series of schools across the city that ensures that as many students as possible have a great education?

One of the emerging opportunities where we’re seeing synergy is a burgeoning set of adult charters across the city. It’s filling a real need. We have many adults who need to get their high school diplomas. That’s not DCPS’s core competency but it is complementary to what we do. We can work together and incentivize new schools to fill holes that aren’t currently covered, as opposed to putting two STEMs elementary schools together in one neighborhood when there are lots of areas that don’t have any.

RH: What is something that people get wrong when they think about the gains DC has made over the past five or ten years?

KH: One thing people get wrong is that they think this is all demographic changes. That’s just wrong. The vast majority of demographic change has occurred at the pre-K level, and hasn’t hit our testing cohort yet. We also see significant growth across lots of different groups. For the people who say that the only reason DCPS is improving is because the demographics are changing—well, that is not the reason for our success.

Another thing people get wrong is that they think, “If we just get the right leader, things will work out.” Leadership matters a lot, but it’s a constellation of political leadership and school district leadership and a city that’s had money to spend and is able to make investments. If we didn’t have money to invest, or the political will, or the support of certain communities, we wouldn’t have been able to do this. People want a hero, to be able to say “Kaya did all this,” but that’s just not the real story. It’s about putting the conditions in place for success, not just finding the right superintendent.

RH: Are there lessons that get overlooked when it comes to what DCPS has done?

KH: I’m a firm believer that our communities are assets. We need to partner with them to do this work. I think that one of the things we do differently is trying to fight this notion that our children are broken and our communities bereft—that kind of deficit model thinking. We think to ourselves, “What do we want for our own children?” We wouldn’t say to our own children that, if they were struggling readers, they couldn’t go on vacation with us. We’d ask how we can help them, but they’d still go to France with us. We need to inspire people to greatness. That’s not just academics but also art and music and PE, and international trips and technology, and building a well-rounded child.

I feel like we’ve been a lone voice on this in an education reform community where most people care about reading and math scores. My goal is for ninety-five percent of our young people to love our schools. When I say that, people laugh. But we want our young people to not only master the academic work but to develop their passion and talents too. We say that it’s about rigor and joy. We don’t have a lot of conversations about that in this line of work.

RH: Why don’t we?

KH: I think part of it is because we think about the children as we serve as other people’s children. They’re behind and so they need a double block for reading or math. Now, if I put my child in a double block of anything, it’s pandemonium. I wouldn’t do that. In 2013, when we were looking at eight million dollars we’d saved by closing 13 schools, we wondered what do we do with it. Some people said double block reading and math. I said, “Well, what do you want for your child?” They said, “Speak a foreign language, play an instrument play a sport . . .” Well, if that’s what you’d want for your child, let’s put the money into that. That changed the conversation. I think we do to other people’s children things that we wouldn’t do to our own.

RH: You know, hearing you talk about schooling with this kind of breadth takes me back to world of education reform that we started out in back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Why does it seem like such a radical proposition today?

KH: I think that education reform has gone through a reductionist phase. The definition of education reform has become teacher evaluation, charter schools, testing and accountability . . . and the thinking was that, if you just put those things in place, you could reform schools and districts. The reason it became reductionist is because education reform is complex and has a lot of ground to cover, so people thought they’d focus on a few things and get that moving and then figure out the rest later. That’s great, but we’ve forgotten the rest, have become obsessed with the few things, and are doing the few things in crazy ways. Now, if you say anything about needing something more or different beyond testing and accountability, teacher evaluation, or whatever, people say that you’re not a real reformer. One of the things I’m super clear about is that we’ve done a lot of these things, and that they’re necessary but not sufficient.

The development of curriculum is critical, because we’ve got these great teachers who don’t have the tools they need to be successful. No one wants to talk about curriculum and take on the textbook companies. Nobody wants to talk about the substance of what we’re doing. People want to do it the easy way. They think, “If I just put an evaluation system in place, then it will be good,” or, “If I put charter schools in place, it’ll be good.” We want a silver bullet, and there is no silver bullet.

Now, we’re all up in arms because communities are starting to reject this stuff. We say we need more people of color in leadership and education reform. But we shouldn’t just need people of color in these positons because these people are revolting, we should do it because it’s the right thing to do. If reformers have an ear to the ground in the community, we have a better chance of getting our work done and partnering with the community and not forcing our beliefs on them. We need to know what’s interesting to them and their kids. A lot of us are not willing to entertain that.

RH: What’s your take on situations where it seems that a community may not want what reformers are offering?

KH: My question is, “What are they offering?” I don’t think there’s any community that doesn’t want great schools for their kids. I read The Prize and seeing how the community experienced the reforms was eye-opening. If you hear on Oprah that a couple of people are going to change your world, and you feel like you don’t get to weigh in, then you understand why Newark got that way. Do I think people in Newark want something different? Absolutely. But the “how” was wrong. The “how” seems to matter as much as “what.” A lot of people in education reform world are linear thinkers. They feel that if they can make the logical case for something, people will be okay with it. They think the end justifies the means. They think that if test scores go up, it’ll be okay. That is not how everyone thinks. You have got to figure out how to appeal to people who are not linear thinkers. And lots of people don’t care about test scores. Talking about test scores to people who don’t think test scores are important is not a winning strategy.

RH: All right, then, last question. What do you think is a winning strategy for communicating with parents and the community?

KH: When I talk to parents, they want their kids to go to college or get a job and be economically stable. Not a lot of reformers are talking about jobs, but that’s what these parents are concerned about. So we’re tracking where our young people go when they graduate. Because if we’re graduating them and they’re not getting anywhere, then it doesn’t matter what their test scores are. The four-year grad rate is important, but what’s more important is what they’re doing afterwards. We’ve put ourselves on the hook for ensuring that every one of our kids ends up with a job, in the military, or in college when they leave us. Our parents care way more about that than PARCC or NAEP or any other test score.

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.