For nearly a decade, Kaya Henderson has been a commanding presence in the D.C. Public Schools. In 2007, she became an influential deputy chancellor under the famous (some would say infamous) Michelle Rhee, and in 2010 Henderson succeeded Rhee as chancellor. She was praised by Arne Duncan when he was U.S. education secretary, and the school system became seen as a national example for corporate-modeled school reform, which emphasized high-stakes tests and private philanthropy. First Rhee and then Henderson had more power than any D.C. schools chief ever, and on Oct. 1, when Henderson steps down, she will be leaving behind a powerful legacy.
But what is that legacy? She certainly made some progress in improving the system, but was it enough for the time and money spent? What was her impact on academic improvement, student and educator assessment, teacher and principal recruitment and retention, and the overall teaching and learning culture? What does the system that she leaves look like — and is that what the city’s residents want?
When Rhee quit in a huff after her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), was defeated in the 2010 Democratic primary, Henderson took the reins amid a sigh of relief among many in the city who saw her as a less-divisive school reformer. Henderson said she wanted to collaborate with educators and the community. Nobody expected Henderson to be as vitriolic or as public a personality as Rhee — who famously appeared on the cover of Time magazine wielding a broom — and Henderson never did, proving far more likable and thoughtful.
Today, Henderson’s biography on the district website says that the D.C. system became the “the fastest-improving urban school district in the country” under her leadership. That depends on the metrics one chooses to consider.
It’s true that student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — sometimes called “the nation’s report card” — are higher than when she became chancellor and made the biggest jump of any participating urban school district. Scores published in 2015 found that fourth-grade scores had moved from the bottom of large urban districts in 2007 to the middle (though eighth-grade scores were still near the bottom.)
High school graduation rates moved up during her tenure, from 53 percent in 2001 to 64 percent in 2015, with significant gains for African American males. And student enrollment increased over four consecutive years after decades of decline — from 45,191 in 2011 to 48,439 in 2015.
Special-education services have improved somewhat, as has the identification of students who need them, in large part under pressure from the courts. And Henderson implemented the Common Core State Standards — for better or worse, depending on your view — without the contentious battle that occurred in other parts of the country.
Yet there’s another side to those metrics.
It is also true that in May 2015, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that the school system was still providing inadequate services to young children with special needs and that the “District’s lack of effective Child Find and transition policies is particularly troubling in light of the intense scrutiny and seemingly constant admonishment it has received over the last decade.”
A 2015 report by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies of Scienced, Engineering and Medicine, painted a troubling picture of the school system. It said that the District’s poor and minority students are still far less likely than their peers to have a quality teacher in their classrooms, perform at grade level and graduate from high school in four years. The achievement gaps between black students and white students as well as between children from low-income families and ones from middle- and higher-income families are huge — and years of corporate reform didn’t stop them from widening.
Meanwhile, some question the way graduation rates are calculated — and in any case, 64 percent is well below the national average of 82 percent. And while student enrollment in traditional public schools has increased, the city’s public charter schools, over which Henderson has no control, have outpaced that rate of growth, according to a recent report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. The city’s public charter schools now enroll 45 percent of all D.C.’s students; just 10 years ago, it was 25 percent.
The charters generally get higher student test scores than the high-poverty traditional public schools, but the populations are not really the same, with the school system still having more of the neediest. While Henderson has at times been critical of the way they operate, she has overall been a strong charter supporter. She co-located some charter schools in traditional public school buildings and even wanted authority to charter her own schools within the traditional system. Why she wouldn’t give the traditional schools more autonomy without chartering authority is unclear.
Then there is Henderson’s relationship with what the district calls “human capital” — the adults in the system. As vice chancellor under Rhee, Henderson spearheaded the creation of the employee assessment system known as IMPACT, which was designed to ensure that every classroom had an “effective” teacher and which was funded in part by private philanthropists, who gave tens of millions of dollars. (At its inception, IMPACT relied heavily on student standardized test scores, and in fact used them to evaluate every adult in the system, including custodians. Yes, custodians.) The assessment system has been repeatedly changed over the years after parts of it were found unworkable, and more change is coming next school year.
Also, teachers have been working under an expired contract for almost four years, and many haven’t had raises in several years.
If turnover of teachers and principals is any measure of how well the district attracts talent, the numbers are not comforting. Hundreds of teachers and principals leave every year, requiring the district to hire new ones. One in 4 D.C. schools had a new principal this past school year.
Aside from the numbers, Henderson’s theory on the high level of turnover of teachers and principals in the D.C. system is open to question. In October 2015, she was asked why D.C. schools had just hired 750 new teachers, including replacing 500 who had left. Henderson said:
A number of people have been promoted into different roles, or they left because we told them or they decided that DCPS is not the right fit for them. Sometimes they feel unsatisfied and unsupported. Everybody romanticizes what it means to teach in an under-resourced urban public school system. Sometimes the reality does not match up with their expectations.
No, actually, everybody doesn’t romanticize what it means to work in an under-resourced urban public school; many teachers know exactly what the challenge is but need more support.
Henderson also said this about the fallout of high turnover:
Churn or turnover in and of itself is not a bad thing. DCPS is a very different school district than it was. We are requiring people to do very different things, and the leadership profile has changed. I am pleased to say some principals have been with us the whole entire time.
The idea that churn is not a bad thing for students is itself a bad one, disputed by research. Social scientists say that one of the things that students who live in unstable family situations need is continuity in support from adults. A 2011 study of the effects of teacher turnover on the performance over five years of more than 600,000 fourth- and fifth-graders in New York City found that students who experienced higher teacher turnover scored lower in math and English on standardized tests — and this was “particularly strong in schools with more low-performing and black students.” It also noted that “even when leaving teachers are equally as effective as those who replace them, turnover can still impact students’ achievement.”
Henderson also said a few years ago that class size isn’t really all that important if students are taught by an effective teacher. She said:
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.
Research begs to differ. Class size does matter.
Principals and teachers are invariably afraid to talk to reporters and often parents, saying they fear repercussions from the administration. While such a climate of fear predates the Rhee-Henderson years, Henderson, for all her personal likability, did nothing to change it. If you can get them to talk off the record where nobody can see them, principals will invariably say that they have little autonomy in their jobs — except for the ability to refuse to hire a specific teacher — and that the school funding system needs to be reformed.
Years ago, a weighted student formula — in which money was given on a per-pupil basis depending on needs — was instituted in which a school principal and a local school team would decide staffing patterns. But that changed under Rhee to what is known as a “comprehensive staffing model.”
Principals are told what staff they must have and, in elementary schools, what the school schedule should look like. Meanwhile, schools are basically funded by bands of enrollment; a school with, say, 401 students will get more than a school for 399, but the school with 401 will get the same amount as one with 499 (though schools can get more per student for different reasons).
Ultimately, Henderson is leaving a city that now has a three-level public school system: traditional schools west of Rock Creek Park in middle-class and wealthy areas that work relatively well; traditional schools east of the park, which are dominated by students who live in poverty and which have poorer academic performance; and charter schools.
There is no question that running an urban school system is one of the most difficult jobs in the country — and Henderson has made some progress during her tenure.
But what got in her way of making more progress was her commitment to implementing corporate school reforms that have failed to work as supporters around the country have promised. For example, she heavily used standardized test scores for the evaluation of schools and educators, even though assessment experts said it was a bad idea. She said she wanted effective teachers in every classroom but supported Teach For America (of which she is an alumna), which famously gives newly graduated college students five weeks of summer training, and placed its graduates, alone, to run high-needs classrooms.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) promised Wednesday that these school reforms would continue under a yet-to-be-chosen permanent successor to Henderson. A lot of people in the district will be sorry to hear it.