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Exclusive interview with Kaya Henderson, DCPS Chancellor

I had the thrilling opportunity recently to sit down for a conversation with Kaya Henderson, the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. She was in an exceedingly positive mood on this morning perhaps because later that day she and Mayor Vincent Gray were to announce that the 2013 Trial Urban Assessment would show that her school system boasted the highest amount of growth of any urban district in the country. From the December 18, 2013 press release:

“Overall, DCPS students grew by five points in 4th-grade reading, eight points in 8th-grade reading, seven points in 4th-grade math and five points in 8th-grade math. This growth represents the highest scores DCPS students have ever seen on this test."

With these results as a backdrop I asked the Chancellor how she would gauge traditional public schools in the nation’s capital. “We are growing extremely strong,” Ms. Henderson commented without even a millisecond of hesitation. The Chancellor continued, “Our children have significantly improved access to better educational opportunities. We still, however, have a long way to go. I am proud of where we are today. As the Trial Urban Assessment data illustrates we are the only large urban district to demonstrate academic gains on the NAEP examination across all grade levels in English and math. We are making really excellent progress.”

I then inquired as to what she believes has led to the advancement she describes. Ms. Henderson listed three initiatives.

First, she explained that DCPS has a relentless focus on recruiting and retaining quality teachers. The DCPS Chancellor stated emphatically that great teachers and great principals are the key to raising academic achievement. She credited the IMPACT evaluation system for allowing DCPS to identify those instructors that are performing at a high level.

Ms. Henderson also attributed the success of her schools to the implementation of the Common Core Curriculum. She revealed that her schools’ curriculum is now aligned with the new standards. The Chancellor commented that as a system we cannot really set the high expectations we have established without knowing exactly where we are trying to go.

The last critical ingredient for academic improvement the Chancellor identified as professional development. Ms. Henderson detailed that DCPS recognized early that supporting teachers was key to success. DCPS is now working on expanding their enlightened pedagogical support. “To complete the quality picture,” she commented, “we need to allow individuals to grow as teachers. Professional development is as important of a component of DCPS’ human capital strategies as recruitment and evaluation are.” The foundation of their program is the IMPACT evaluation. The tool allows her team to see where teachers need additional assistance.

Ms. Henderson explained that help can come in many forms. An instructional coach can work one-on-one with a teacher. In addition, a coach may provide a teacher with six week individual learning cycles which are focused, evidence based, and aligned to the Common Core Curriculum. Additionally, there are workshops offered on various topics. Moreover, Ms. Henderson stated, there may be a book that can provide value in enhancing a particular skill that we have already reserved at a local library for the instructor to check out. Ms. Henderson said that IMPACT can also shine a light on system-wide areas that are in need of improvement and these subjects are then covered on professional development days.

Ms. Henderson had some additional points she wanted to make on this topic. “I don’t know if people realize what a big shift it is going to the Common Core. It is radically different from the way we have done things in the past. It is imperative that we provide support to our teachers regarding this change. In the past, a Kindergarten through 12th grade education involved imparting a series of facts. But facts are not constant. Our students need to be able to take in information and employ it in different ways. They will need to be able to use knowledge beyond demonstrating basic skills. The task for teachers is urgent and we have to be careful in preparing them for their new roles. “

I brought up Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way [Simon & Schuster, 2013] that Ms. Henderson referenced in her recent State of the D.C. Public Schools address. In this work Ms. Ripley discusses the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) examination which attempts to measures students' cognitive ability. I asked Ms. Henderson if the education paradigm she was discussing was similar to the ones that some countries have adopted that have resulted in pupils scoring high on this assessment. The Chancellor enthusiastically nodded her head in agreement. “Philosophically, this is exactly how we are approaching the education of our kids. We now measure academic achievement using the DC CAS or NAEP standardized tests. We need to move beyond the DC CAS. I’m confident that the PARCC that is replacing the DC CAS is a good measure of student progress but I would love to additionally develop our own PISA-like examination.”

I asked Ms. Henderson if she was impatient at all about the pace of raising the academic achievement of her students. “I’m wildly impatient,” the Chancellor answered. “But this type of improvement doesn’t happen overnight. Look at Poland, whose kids now rank near the top of all countries taking the PISA examination. Thirteen years ago they were close to the bottom. It simply takes time to change expectations of all of our stakeholders.”

I then inquired of Ms. Henderson how she would know when her efforts had been successful. She pointed me to DCPS’ strategic plan entitled “A Capital Commitment” which contains five goals to be reached by the 2016 to 2017 term.

1. Improve achievement rates: at least 70 percent of students will be proficient in math and reading,
2. Invest in struggling schools: the 40 lowest performing schools will increase proficiency rates by 40 percentage points,
3. Improve satisfaction: 90 percent of students will say they like their school,
4. The number of advanced students will double to more than 3,800 in reading and more than 4,700 in math, and
5. At least 75 percent of entering 9th graders will graduate high school in four years.

The Chancellor has obviously set the bar high. In order to reach these objectives, one step Ms. Henderson related she took was to close 13 under-enrolled schools last year. She indicated that the move allowed her to greatly enhance her system’s investment in elementary schools by adding classes in foreign language, art, and music.

Ms. Henderson is keeping a close eye on meeting the strategic plan. The Chancellor stated that along with creating these expectations for her public schools each department has five year goals consistent with the overall mission “to ensure that every DCPS school provides a world-class education that prepares ALL of our students, regardless of background or circumstance, for success in college, career, and life.” Progress in assessed throughout the year with seven managers overseeing various aspects of the plan. Annual reports provide a measuring stick of advancement.

I concluded my time with Ms. Henderson by asking her about her proposal to charter her own schools. I questioned whether she would be emulating the model established by the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Here is where I felt the discussion became particularly intriguing.

Ms. Henderson explained that charter schools were established so that those involved in public education could learn from their successes. The Chancellor stated that she wants to be able to take advantage of the lessons they have amassed. But instead of having one structure for the way charters would be granted within DCPS she said that she is open to many different formulations. For example, she said that if Achievement Prep wanted to open a school and they are successful having a school leader reporting to a board of directors then she is not going to interfere with what is already working. Alternatively, other charter operators may have performed strongly by taking over a traditional facility operating according to established procedures. Ms. Henderson offered that she is trying to think outside the box and to have as her only criteria for her method of chartering that which results in strong academic performance for her students.

After listening to the words of Ms. Henderson and witnessing in person her intense passion for her work I am absolutely convinced that the Chancellor will reach her goals.