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Answer Sheet
Posted at 03:01 PM ET, 03/09/2011

The problem with Rhee’s successor in D.C.

The new permanent chancellor of D.C. schools is going to be Kaya Henderson, to no one’s surprise, and this, to her supporters, is a great thing because she is, as they say, Michelle Rhee without Michelle Rhee.

That means that Henderson, who was Rhee’s deputy and is interim chancellor, will carry on Rhee’s controversial reforms but will do it without the I-know-everything-so-don’t-question-me management style with which Rhee ran the city for 3 1/2 years before she resigned last October.

Therein lies the problem.

Critics of Rhee were not just concerned that she was arrogant and failed to reach out to the public. Their chief concern was that her reform program unfairly focused on standardized tests as the key way to judge students, schools and teachers. This resulted in a multimillion-dollar teacher assessment model called IMPACT that emerged from a department which Henderson oversaw, but which is riddled with problems.

Mayor Vincent Gray named Henderson today as his choice to succeed Rhee; the D.C. Council under law has to vet and approve her, but that is considered a done deal. Though many in the District had expected Gray to launch a national search, or even a regional one, he wound up considering just one candidate, and what do you know, she got the job. Gray had long indicated his preference for Henderson, of course, and so did Education Secretary Arne Duncan, thus creating unstoppable momentum and ensuring that anybody else who might have been interested never raised his/her voice.

Henderson had given some critics of Rhee hope that she might be different when she took some steps this year to back away from some of the former chancellor’s decisions, including replacing the Rhee-selected leadership of two schools.

But increasingly, Henderson sounds and acts like Rhee in terms of substance.

Last November, Henderson gave an interview to a local radio station in which she said: “I think that we have to help people understand that tests are a benchmark, not the goal. The goal is to educate children. And I think the swing of the pendulum from absolutely no accountability to what I might call data craziness is starting to hurt.”

That sounded good, but my colleague Bill Turque wrote an article this week saying that D.C. elementary schools are intensifying student preparation for this year’s administration of the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, or DC CAS, after scores last year went down. He reported that schools received an annual “operational blueprint” listing of which of the District’s academic standards — the specific areas of skill and knowledge students are expected to master — will be on next month’s test.

So much for viewing the tests as a benchmark rather than a goal.

Meanwhile, longtime education advocates in the District report that the Henderson administration is less forthcoming with budget information than even Rhee had been, and Rhee didn’t give them much at all. Activist Mary Levy said: “I used to describe the budget as being opaque. Well, now it simply is blank. They will not give us any budget information.”

Henderson has also displayed a lack of understanding of budgetary issues, as did Rhee. At a meeting several months ago with community advocates, Henderson said she didn’t know “squat” about this area and didn’t really want to, according to people at the meeting.

Nobody says the schools chancellor has to be a budget expert, but you’d think they want to know something.

Meanwhile, Henderson recently said something in an interview with Turque about class size that raised concerns:

Turque: There’s a point of view that class size is overblown as a determinant of success. Do you agree?

Henderson: So I’m not exactly sure where I come out on the class size issue. I get that if you have a smaller group of students, especially students who are behind where they should be performing, it’s much easier to serve those students if you don’t have 30 of them. At the same time, I know for sure when you have an excellent teacher in a classroom — and I’ve seen this — that principals will put additional kids in a classroom, up to 40. And if the teacher can handle those 40 kids, they are better served by that one highly effective teacher than splitting that class into two classes of 20 [where] you can’t guarantee both are highly effective teachers.

Is she kidding? She has really seen a classroom with 40 kids that works great with an excellent teacher? She really believes any teacher, even the greatest, has enough time to establish relationships and make sure that not one of the 40 get lost in the shuffle?

Meanwhile, Gray, when he was running for mayor, talked about the obvious connection between the effects of poverty on children and student achievement, though Rhee liked to say that citing the former was just an excuse for bad teachers who couldn’t get their students to improve on standardized test scores.

And shortly after he was elected, Gray offered explicit criticism of IMPACT, saying that it has “a long way to go” before it is fair, because it disadvantages teachers with a lot of students dealing with the effects of poverty and other social conditions. Henderson told Turque in the same interview: “Poverty matters. However, I can’t control poverty. And I have a budget that allows me to deal with kids from sometime in the morning to sometime in the evening. So within the realm of my control, I can only do what I’m going do.”

Can we expect the mayor to insist that Henderson understand that school systems can in fact do more than nothing to help students living in poverty?

I had hoped that Henderson would emerge from Rhee’s shadow and be a different sort of chancellor. I’m still hoping.

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By  |  03:01 PM ET, 03/09/2011

 
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