Hiring scandals have spoiled Vince Gray’s start as District mayor this year, but give him credit for this: Gray has delivered pretty much what he promised on his main campaign pledge. So far, he has continued Michelle Rhee’s education reforms without the former chancellor’s heartburn-inducing leadership style.
That’s no small achievement given that improving the school system is critical to instilling hope among the city’s poorer families and keeping more affluent ones from fleeing to the suburbs.
The individual most responsible for this success is Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who goes before the D.C. Council on Thursday for a hearing universally expected to lead to her quick confirmation.
Henderson has mostly stuck to the policies introduced by Rhee, her longtime mentor. In particular, she’s kept the evaluation system introduced by Rhee to identify incompetent teachers so they can be either retrained or shown the door.
“The evaluation system is taking care of ineffective teachers,” said Pete Cahall, principal of Wilson High School in Northwest Washington. “It’s not personal. Some people are meant to teach, and some are not.”
But Henderson has made one enormous change. She hasn’t gone out of her way to publicly denigrate the people who work for her to make a splash nationally and build a reputation for toughness.
“Kaya has a softer, gentler way about her that gets things done, but in a more palatable manner,” Cahall said.
Rhee became a celebrity in large part by courting confrontation and especially by bad-mouthing the District’s teachers. It backfired when her approach enraged much of the city and contributed to the defeat at the polls of her patron, former mayor Adrian Fenty. Rhee quickly resigned rather than work for Gray.
Henderson has maintained a low profile, sounded conciliatory and intentionally avoided giving interviews to the national news media. Rhee notoriously shunned dealing with local reporters who covered her regularly in favor of speaking to out-of-town reporters who reliably produced one-time, adulatory profiles.
“I feel like we’ve gotten enough national attention,” Henderson said.
She readily acknowledged that she was trying to balance the ambition to raise teachers’ performance with the equally important goal of not damaging their morale. She said her objective was to “keep the ideal of the revolution going without destroying people’s spirit.”
Henderson said she’s seen progress in her twice-weekly “listening meetings” with teachers regarding their attitudes about the controversial evaluation system, known as IMPACT. Previously, about 90 percent of the complaints there were about IMPACT, compared with about 10 percent now, Henderson said.
Even Henderson’s most implacable adversary, Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders, credits her with having a healthier attitude than Rhee.
“Kaya Henderson can be as strong-willed as Michelle Rhee. However, in my dealings with her, I don’t get the impression that she seeks to make that her calling card,” Saunders said.
Assuming Henderson continues to press forward, the District’s schools will become an important test of whether Rhee-style reforms can improve test scores and graduation rates even in neighborhoods struggling with crime, unemployment and broken families. Skeptics have said that even the best teachers can’t overcome those obstacles.
In one recent example of the challenge, a Spingarn High School female math teacher was hospitalized May 5 after being severely beaten by a 16-year-old female student.
The biggest high school in a poor neighborhood is Ballou in Southeast, second in size only to Wilson. Its principal, Rahman Branch, has been impressed with Henderson’s first months in office. He said she even bested Rhee in one category by giving principals next year’s academic programs in June rather than August.
“We now have all summer to build up our lesson plans,” Branch said.
Still, he’s annoyed that the schedule for renovating his 50-year-old building has been put off until 2014 or later. He showed me numerous patched walls and lockers without doors.
Ballou was originally supposed to be rebuilt on the same timetable as Wilson, he said, but the latter is moving into a new building this autumn.
“The way their building looks, that’s how every school should look, and not just the school in the richest part of the city,” Branch said. “It’s not a kid’s fault he was born over here, so don’t penalize him for it.”
If Kaya Henderson can fulfill that goal, she’ll get and deserve more applause even than Michelle Rhee.
I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).