Hanseul Kang, the District’s new state superintendent of education, faces a daunting challenge as she attempts to transform one of the city’s most troubled agencies.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education was formed in 2007, when the city’s schools were placed under mayoral control, and it has struggled with management problems and high turnover. Kang is the eighth head of the agency.
After four months on the job, Kang said in an interview with The Washington Post that she aims to bring consistency, stability and high standards to the position.
“From my experience, the state education agency can make a difference,” Kang said. “I’m excited to be part of the administration and be here and work hard and see results for our students.”
Kang, a 33-year-old former Teach for America corps and staff member who graduated from Harvard Law School, most recently worked as the chief of staff for the Tennessee Department of Education, where she helped implement one of the nation’s first Race to the Top grants. When Kang’s appointment was announced in February, Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer C. Niles said that Kang came highly recommended as a hard worker who is “smart and capable and a problem solver.”
In the District, Kang has taken charge of a far less traditional department, with both state and local responsibilities. In addition to overseeing standardized tests, federal grants and compliance with federal laws, the superintendent also manages many local services, including the transportation of special-education students via a fleet of 700 buses and the city’s summer meals program.
Politically, she must contend with a powerful public school chancellor and an assortment of charter-school leaders, many of whom resist efforts to establish citywide policies because charters are allowed to operate independently.
The National Research Council released a report this year that documented progress in the city’s major reform efforts but painted OSSE as a weak link. It described the agency as a “large and complicated bureaucracy” that has “struggled to gain its footing and earn the trust of D.C. government officials who must rely on” it.
The agency has made strides in improving its compliance with federal laws, notably shedding its designation as a “high risk” grant recipient by the U.S. Education Department last summer and emerging from court oversight of its special-education services. But significant problems remain with monitoring and the outcomes for special-education students.
Many have high hopes that Kang, who is paid $160,000 a year, will steer the organization in a new direction.
“I’d like to see her stick around,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee. “I hope she can hunker down and really focus on the operations of that agency and make sure the staffing is as high quality as possible and make sure the staff she has is supported.”
He also said he hopes she will continue to build a central database that can help education reform efforts, a slow-moving undertaking that the National Research Council report highlighted as a major deficiency and that Kang has said is a priority.
In her first months in office, Kang launched a strategic planning process that is expected to wrap up this fall, and she led an overhaul of the agency’s process for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests after OSSE inadvertently released personal student information in response to a media request in March.
She also created a “communications review team” to examine many types of outgoing correspondence, a move that has drawn scrutiny for its top-down approach. Kang said the move emerges from a widely held view that OSSE needs to improve the quality and consistency of its reports and other documents.
In a recent interview with The Post, Kang reflected on why she came to the new job and what she hopes to accomplish. The following questions and answers are from that interview:
Why did you take this job?
I think there has been incredible progress happening in the District in student outcomes and enrollment growth in both traditional and charter schools. I think that a state education agency can play an important role in sustaining and accelerating that progress if it can perform at a consistently high level. When the state education agency can do that work well, it can support all schools in making those kinds of gains.
What have been your priorities since you arrived?
In my first few months, the goal has been to learn about the work of the agency and to help deal with some of the things that were backlogged, like reports and regulations, things that were waiting for decisions to be made. I also want to put us on a path for stronger coordination with other divisions.
The National Research Council’s report questioned the size of OSSE, which last year had a staff of 382 to serve about 83,000 students, compared with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which employed 570 people to serve nearly 1 million students. Why the imbalance? Is OSSE the right size?
OSSE covers much more than the 83,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grades. It coordinates subsidized child care and pre-K3 and 4 classrooms, and that is a function that most state education agencies don’t have. It also oversees adult education. We also do work around charter-school financing and help charter schools secure facilities. It’s a function that is not always the case in most state education agencies. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
What are the biggest challenges in the next year for OSSE?
Because of all the transition and turnover, both internal and external stakeholders need to know we can live up to our commitments. When we say we are going to do something, we are going to do it and see it through.