There’s a disturbing side to Kaya Henderson’s legacy of progress in D.C. Public Schools
For nearly a decade, Kaya Henderson has been a commanding presence in the D.C. Public Schools system. 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, then Mayor Adrian 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 who 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.)