The problem(s) with Rhee's successor

Valerie Strauss
Monday, March 14, 2011; B02

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 31/2 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 the seriously flawed teacher assessment model called IMPACT that emerged from a department overseen by Henderson.

Mayor Vincent Gray last week named Henderson as his choice to succeed Rhee; the D.C. Council has to vet and approve her, but that is a done deal.

Henderson had signaled that she might be different when she replaced the Rhee-selected leadership of two schools. But increasingly, Henderson sounds and acts like Rhee in substance.

Last November, Henderson told a local radio station: "I think that we have to help people understand that tests are a benchmark, not the goal. The goal is to educate children."

Yet my colleague Bill Turque just wrote an article saying that D.C. elementary schools are intensifying student preparation for this year's administration of the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, after scores last year went down. 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 recently said this: "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 even the best teacher has enough time to ensure that not one of the 40 gets lost in the shuffle?

I had hoped that Henderson would be a different sort of chancellor. I'm still hoping.

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