This is the second part of last week’s Q-and-A with D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson. The highlights: why she wants DCPS to be a charter authorizer, possible changes for the IMPACT teacher evaluation system, and her reasons for rebuffing a proposal from food service director Jeff Mills to take all meal preparation in-house--a plan supported by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), author of the D.C. Healthy Schools Act.
The interview was edited for clarity and length.
BT: When you raised the idea of D.C. regaining chartering authority, it reminded people of the so-so record the District had the last time. What makes you think that it would be better?
KH: When the Board of Education had chartering authority, it was in the beginning of the charter movement here. I don’t think the infrastructure was built out to appropriately support that work. And I don’t believe everybody was on board with this really working. Now we have 10 or 15 years of experience in this city. We’ve seen what it takes to be a good authorizer [the D.C. Public Charter School Board is currently the sole authorizer] and what it takes to be a good oversight body. I think we are committed to schools that have a different level of autonomy.
Here’s the thing. A charter operator is not the key difference. But it’s the conditions under which you do your business. If some of my principals sitting right here in DCPS buildings had those same kinds of autonomies, they would do just as well.
Why is it that we believe the only place smart, good school leaders can do the work is outside of the school district? I want to turn that notion on its head. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all model around managing schools. Hire good people and trust them to meet the expectations you set. You have to allow them to do their thing. If the only place they can do their thing is outside the system, then the system is going to continue to produce....
BT Sounds like you have specific principals in mind...
KH: I just know I need every tool in my tool kit to produce a district that is going to be successful. If one of them is providing leaders with autonomy, then I need that. If one of them is attracting high-performing [charter] schools and leaders back into the district, then I need that. I don't know what it’s going to look like just yet. But I believe I’ve got to have the flexibility the same way that principals have the flexibility to determine who is on their staff.
BT: You told the D.C. Council that you anticipated some significant changes to IMPACT next year. Can you tell me a little about them?
KH: Not yet. One of the questions that has come up for both teachers and principals is workload and frequency of observations. To shift the culture from where principals were going into a classroom once a year, maybe, to going in three times a year, we needed to mandate that. Now that it’s becoming practice, we have to ask ourselves whether or not that’s the right number of observations and whether the write-up time [time it takes principals to write reports on their classroom visits] is appropriate.
[Another issue is] what we’ve heard a lot from teachers is that the effective teachers don’t get anything, don't get recognized. So are there things we should be doing for our effective teachers?
BT: So like the Standing Ovation for the highly effective teachers, you have something like a Hearty Handshake for the effective teachers?
KH: Tom Friedman talks about Standing Ovation in his new book, which I think is shocking to people. But he talks about how that ceremony values teachers in a way that we ought to be doing nationally. People have said it’s too much and blah blah and all of that jazz. But I don’t believe that. And I believe we are making an important statement to the teachers that we value most by celebrating them. And we won’t back off of that or cheapen that. The effective teachers, we can figure out what else to do for them. But Standing Ovation is really a key piece of our strategy.
BT: [Questions about the performance of food service contractor Chartwells, the recently issued RFP looking for new vendors, and the Mills proposal, which made its way to Cheh’s desk before it was withdrawn by Henderson]
KH: I think people have disparaged Chartwells in a way that they don’t deserve to be disparaged.We signed a contract with Chartwells and we agreed to a fee structure that doesn’t work for us. If Chartwells prepares 100 meals and only two get eaten, we pay for 100 meals. Two years ago we piloted a different structure with multiple vendors [Revolution Foods and D.C. Central Kitchen]. If only two meals get eaten, we pay for two. That’s a model that works better for us. The RFP is looking for multiple vendors with that model. And Chartwells should absolutely apply.
BT: You haven’t discarded the idea of going totally in-house with food service?
KH: No. My people have gone and done best-practice research. I think it is something we should absolutely look to doing. The problem is you can’t do that overnight. For me jumping in with two feet, at the same time that we’re rolling out a completely new math curriculum, at the same time that we are focusing on our 40 lowest-performing schools and expanding a hybrid learning model across the district, and take on all the responsibilities of test integrity you want me to...Is this worth taking on right now? For me the answer is no. I don’t have all the stuff I need to know and so I can’t guarantee I’m going to deliver in August. And if I don’t deliver, you know and I know that Mary Cheh will be busting my head.
BT: Do you feel that Mills tried to go around you [in making his pitch to Cheh]
KH: You’d have to ask him that.
BT: I’m asking you if you feel like you were circumvented.
KH: I don’t know how it ended up with Mary Cheh. I don’t know it if was a mistake or whether it was intentional. So I can’t say what peoples’ motives are. But I can say this. At the end of the day I’m the person who is responsible, right? And I get all kinds of ideas from my staff. We all sit down together and figure out what we can do and can’t do. And that’s how we roll.