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Her Own Brand of Education Reform

Unlike predecessor Michelle Rhee, Chancellor Kaya Henderson of the District of Columbia Public Schools works to balance accountability with collegiality.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson helps a student at Langley Education Campus, a K8 facility, during a visit. She is known for continuing reforms, started by Michelle Rhee, but being more diplomatic.

Kaya Henderson’s childhood in one of New York’s most affluent areas, Westchester County, could not have been more different from that of the middle school students she taught at Lola Rodriguez No. 162 in the South Bronx.

“I taught about four miles from where I grew up, but it might as well have been on the other side of the globe,” Henderson says. “It was amazing how four miles could be the chasm between such wealth and such poverty. I went to high-performing public schools. I got to go on field trips and took dance lessons and was in Girl Scouts. But most of my students had never been beyond the 10-block radius of where they grew up. The kids were as smart and as motivated as my colleagues and I were growing up—they just didn’t have the same resources. They didn’t have people setting high expectations for them.”

That life lesson—that public schools must raise the expectations for all children, no matter their background—guides Henderson in her role as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, where most of the 47,000 students are black and Hispanic and hail from poor families.

Henderson, now 41, took charge of the high-profile school system as interim chancellor in October 2010 after the resignation of her friend and mentor, Michelle Rhee, a lightening rod for her unapologetic zeal to fire teachers who didn’t boost student achievement. The D.C. Council confirmed Henderson as the official schools’ chancellor in June 2011, after Mayor Vincent Gray appointed her.

Standing on Her Own

Henderson, who was Rhee’s deputy chancellor, shares her former boss’ educational philosophy—that teachers are key to reforming schools and must be held accountable. But Henderson’s success and survival in the politically charged school district may hinge on her ability to differentiate herself from her predecessor, at least in personality. In December 2008, Rhee solidified her national image as a hard-charging reformer, posing for the cover of Time magazine holding a broom, a symbol for cleaning house in the teaching ranks.

If Rhee played the role of the bad cop, Henderson is more like the strict but respected teacher. Henderson still talks tough—refusing, for example, to consider removing student test scores from the teacher evaluation system that she helped Rhee launch in 2009. But Henderson, with her youthful smile and reticence to embrace the limelight, has earned a reputation for being more collegial and inclusive with teachers and business leaders. Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington (D.C.) Teachers’ Union, which had a contentious relationship with Rhee, says he has warmed up to Henderson, though he still opposes parts of the teacher evaluation system.

“Our very first conversation pertained to respect for rank-and-file teachers and personnel,” Saunders recalls. “I explained to her that it was very important that she not show disregard or disrespect for our members. I believe in many regards she has been respectful.”

Henderson, for her part, has not tried to distance herself from Rhee, who recruited her to the D.C. district in 2007. “I definitely see myself as continuing the work that we started five years go,” Henderson says, vowing to continue focusing on teacher quality as she did with Rhee. “I don’t think about dialing back. We created a culture here where we are driven by data and are incredibly innovative.”

Staying Closer to Home

As a college student, Henderson never planned to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who was a teacher, a principal by age 30, and later a central office administrator in several New York school districts. Instead, Henderson was on track to become an international lawyer or a foreign aid worker. She even attended the prestigious Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

After graduating in 1992, Henderson watched as her classmates jetted off to Latin America and Africa. But she stayed behind. Henderson decided she wanted to fix problems closer to home, so she applied to Teach for America and started as a middle school Spanish teacher in the South Bronx. Her since-deceased mother, Kathleen Henderson, took some time to embrace her daughter’s career switch, which she knew from experience came with long hours and low pay. “She literally said, ‘I didn’t pay $80,000 for you to be a teacher,’” Henderson recalls. “Ultimately, she got to a point where she recognized that this was a good career choice for me.”

Henderson later joined the staff of Teach for America, serving as a recruiter and as the national director of admissions. In 1997, she became executive director of the organization’s D.C. operation, overseeing 170 teachers.

Three years later, Henderson joined The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that Rhee had founded. As vice president for strategic partnerships, Henderson worked with school districts nationwide, including D.C., to improve teacher hiring—for example, by pushing earlier hire dates to snatch up the best candidates and by embracing alternative certification.

In 2007, when D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty assumed control of the troubled school system and wanted Rhee in charge, Rhee turned to Henderson for advice. “She said to me, ‘Should we do this?’” Henderson recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, we should.’ We had just come off 10 years of working with districts around the country trying to get them to prioritize human capital. What DCPS presented was an opportunity not to try to get somebody else to do it, but to show what could happen in an urban school district when you prioritize human capital as your main theory of change.”

A Chancellor in the Making

As Rhee’s deputy chancellor, Henderson led one of the administration’s most significant reforms: creating a new, more rigorous teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT, and negotiating a teachers’ contract that tied pay to performance. The most controversial component involves the use of value-added data, a statistical analysis that measures whether a teacher’s students performed better or worse than expected on standardized exams. For teachers in grades 4-8, the value-added score counts for 50 percent of their final evaluation rating—a percentage the teachers union argues is too high.

The system also requires five classroom observations a year, three by a principal or other administrator and two by external evaluators considered content experts. Under a landmark contract with the teachers union, with Henderson as the chief negotiator, teachers rated “highly effective” can receive annual bonuses ranging from $3,000 to $25,000. Teachers who earn the highest rating for two years are eligible for base salary increases from $5,000 to $27,000, according to Anna Gregory, chief of staff in the school district’s office of human capital. When questioned on a local radio show in December 2011, Henderson explained her continued devotion to the controversial evaluation tool.

“When we got here in 2007, some 80 percent of teachers rated ‘meets’ or ‘exceeds’ expectations [under the district’s former job evaluation system], and only 8 percent of our kids were reading on grade level,” Henderson stated. “There’s a significant disconnect. You can’t say somebody is effective if they aren’t moving their students.”

One of the Best Jobs in the City

When Rhee resigned in 2010 after Fenty lost a bitter reelection battle, Henderson did not begin vying for the chancellor job. But Rhee urged Henderson to stay on board. Although the two women are similar in their educational philosophies, with Rhee aggressively campaigning on Fenty’s behalf, the political climate essentially demanded that Rhee step down, even if her No. 2 stepped into her place.

“[Rhee] said, ‘Somebody needs to be here to keep the work going.’ I said, ‘That may be true, but it’s not me,” recalls Henderson, who is more accustomed to being behind the scenes but eventually accepted the top job from the new mayor, Vincent C. Gray. “It’s a decision that I am thankful that I made every single day. I feel like I have one of the best jobs in the city.”

It may also be the hardest. The district’s four-year graduation rate for the class of 2011, calculated for the first time using tougher federal methodology, was 53 percent. The rate dropped about 21 percentage points from 2010 with the new calculation, which reflects a cohort of ninth-graders who earned a regular diploma in four years. The former method looked at only one year of students and did not penalize the district for those who took longer than four years to graduate.

Student test scores generally trended upward during Rhee’s tenure, but they remain low. Fewer than half of elementary, middle and high school students (those tested are in grades 3-8 and 10) scored proficient or advanced in the 2010-2011 school year on reading and math exams that are part of the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System.

Despite the poor test results, the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Department of Education are investigating possible cheating, following a USA Today report in March 2011 that questioned the gains at some schools. “I feel strongly that our principals, teachers and students can produce superior student achievement results—I want to ensure public confidence in those results,” Henderson stated.

Over the last four years, D.C. students mostly have made gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress, which is considered less susceptible to cheating. In 2011, 23 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the math test, an improvement from 14 percent in 2007. In reading, fourth-graders improved from 14 percent proficient or advanced to 20 percent. Eighth-graders improved from at least 8 percent proficient in math in 2007 to 14 percent last year, while reading scores remained relatively flat.

To boost achievement, Henderson says she’s confident that a new, more challenging curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards will help. The district rolled out a new literacy curriculum in June 2011, and other subjects will follow.

Henderson also is trying to empower principals by offering them the chance to apply for part of a $10 million district grant program, called Proving What’s Possible, to fund reform ideas. Preference will be shown to those principals that extend the school day, use innovative technology, or focus on improving staff talent. Principals can apply for major grants ($250,000 to $400,000) and targeted grants ($50,000 to $100,000); the money previously was spent on programs mandated by the central office.

“Principals are always approaching me with inspiring ideas and telling me what they would do ‘if only’ this or that was possible,” Henderson wrote in a memo to all of the school principals about the grant. “Here’s your chance.”

Impressive Progress

Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, says that business leaders were impressed with Henderson’s broad ideas for expanding online course offerings and internship opportunities to help engage students. “Kaya was incredibly inclusive in trying to make sure she pulled us in with her and was very clear she could not do this alone,” Lang says. “That’s a very different style and approach than Michelle Rhee’s.” That collaborative style, Lang says, will encourage business leaders to partner with the district to offer internships to students and to provide support for Henderson in the politically dicey job.

In announcing her five-year strategic plan in April, Henderson emphasized a continued focus on technology to better engage students. Four elementary schools, for example, piloted an iPad/iPod touch program that allowed students to listen to stories and then record them in their own voices and practice reading aloud, reinforcing that they understood what they heard, according to Brian Pick, deputy chief for curriculum and instruction. Now, the program is in 22 schools. And middle schools have used an online program, Apangea Math, to help tutor students outside of normal school hours.

Suzanne Wells, founder of the Capitol Hill Public School Parents Organization, says she’s pleased with the progress in the district. That attitude is reflected in rising numbers, with about 47,000 students enrolled this year, up from 45,631 in 2010-2011, according to district spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz.

But Wells says she’s troubled by Mayor Gray’s budget proposal that would eliminate funding for librarians at small schools and possibly close an undetermined number of campuses in future years. The district is planning to spend $488 million to directly fund schools in the coming year. However, Henderson and Gray have stated publicly that the district needs to downsize from 123 schools to increase efficiency. “I think it’s really important for people to be able to go to school in their neighborhood,” says Wells.

With her predecessor a victim of politics, Henderson is undaunted by the challenges ahead. “I’ve lived here for 15 years. I don’t plan on going anywhere,” Henderson concludes. “This is my city, my home. And so I plan on working in or with D.C. Public Schools for a very long time, whether it’s sitting in the chancellor seat or in some other capacity.”

Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.