Four reasons it would be shocking if Kaya Henderson becomes NYC schools chief

Kaya Henderson (Marvin Joseph - WASHINGTON POST)
Kaya Henderson (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Articles about the possibility that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will pick D.C. Schools Superintendent Kaya Henderson as New York City’s new schools chancellor are popping up in the New York press, apparently fueled by a recent phone conversation that de Blasio initiated with Henderson. Nobody’s reported definitely what the discussion was about, but that hasn’t stopped speculation. If, however,  de Blasio meant the things he has said about education reform, there are key areas in which the two profoundly conflict — and it is likely that selecting Henderson would be seen as a betrayal by  those who supported de Blasio because of his criticism of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s school reform policies.

Henderson was deputy to Michelle Rhee, the most prominent practitioner of corporate-influenced school reform, when Rhee was D.C. Schools chancellor, and she has stayed the reform course since succeeding her former boss after Rhee quit in 2010. Views on education reform espoused by de Blasio when he was New York City’s public advocate and when he was running for mayor this year made clear that Rhee and Henderson’s brand of reform was not to his liking.

Here are four key points about Henderson that speak either to views she holds that are very different from or directly opposed to de Blasio’s or that put in context her role as D.C. schools chief. Thanks go to the GothamSchools blog for its list of de Blasio quotes on education:

1.  Charter schools

Kaya Henderson supports the growth of charter schools and has said she wants the authority in Washington, D.C., to charter schools within the traditional school system; she has also co-located charter schools in traditional public schools. She recently said at a D.C. Council hearing that the traditional school system has failed to attract families to its middle schools, and my colleague Emma Brown reported that she suggested the city might consider working with charters to send children there for the middle grades because “they know how to do middle school really well.”

De Blasio has spoken out against co-location and expanding the number of charters in New York City. As to whether charter schools should get space in traditional school buildings, he told GothamSchools on Jan. 23:

“It’s clear that the lights are out and no one is listening in the Tweed building or at City Hall. The only solution now is a moratorium.”

He said at a May 2 parents’ forum:

“We don’t need new charters.”

And when asked at a New York City parents’ mayoral forum on June 14 whether charter schools should pay rent to be located in public schools, he said:

There is no way in hell that [Success Academy Charter Schools founder] Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, okay? There are charters that are much, much better endowed in terms of resources than the public sector ever hoped to be. It is insult to injury to give them free rent. They should have to pay rent. They have the money.

 

2. Standardized testing

Henderson has embraced the use of high-stakes standardized testing as the chief accountability metric for schools. As a deputy “for human capital”  to former chancellor Michelle Rhee, she was instrumental in the shaping of the evaluation system called IMPACT, which is used in D.C. schools to assess employees. For several years, even custodians were evaluated in part by standardized test scores.

De Blasio, on the other hand, has spoken negatively about the high-stakes testing obsession that is at the heart of current school reform. He said last May 2 at a parents’ forum:

I would put the standardized-testing machine in reverse. It is poisoning our system.

 

3. Labor negotiations

Henderson has been cited in no less a media vehicle than The New York Times as being considered “an agile negotiator with the teachers’ union.” This is presumably because she was the lead negotiator on a contract reached in 2010 between D.C. schools and the Washington Teachers’ Union that was termed “ground-breaking” by the school system in part because it included a merit pay system Rhee was determined to implement. Difficult as it may have been to get the contract, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the head of the union left the position to work with Rhee at her StudentsFirst advocacy organization. It is worth noting that a spokesman for de Blasio told GothamSchools this about accepting money from StudentsFirst in 2012:

Given the honest policy disagreements he has with StudentsFirst, he would respectfully decline contributions from the [StudentsFirstNY's] PAC.

 

4. Class size

Henderson has not been a big proponent of keeping classes small and has said that an excellent teacher can handle 40 kids.

In 2011, she said the following in an interview with my colleague Bill Turque:

KH: …  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.

BT:  So its fair to say that class sizes will increase in some instances to try to effect savings?

KH:  Oh, yeah.

 

De Blasio said at a Feb. 26 candidates’ forum:

As mayor, I would want to be held accountable for reducing class size. If in four years we don’t decrease class size, we’re making a huge mistake… You can’t have class size at the level it is now and expect to change graduation rates.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 7, 2013