Why I miss Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor

Last week, former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson had an opinion piece published in the Washington Post. In the article she celebrates the recently released PARCC scores for traditional school students. Ms. Henderson wrote:

“Across the board, student achievement is up. Students in nearly every grade, every subgroup and every subject area are showing improvement. I was excited to see that the percentage of students who are college- and career-ready is going up, and I was thrilled to see that the percentage of students scoring at the lowest levels on the test is going down. All of our students are showing incredible growth.”

As Chancellor from 2010 to 2016, Ms. Henderson should be proud as she and her predecessor Michelle Rhee laid the groundwork for much of the gains students have been able to realize. But this is not the reason that I liked the column.

I learned years ago from the former Chancellor that there are two distinct ways that public school reform can be practiced. The first, and the one that I have supported for more than 20 years, is to provide competition to the traditional schools in the form of charters and private school vouchers. The theory here is that as money follows the children to alternative schools, the loss of funds will drive improvement to the regular classrooms. This is exactly what has taken place in the nation’s capital. Before there were charter schools in the District, parents who made the decision to keep their children at home rather then send them to the neighborhood schools were being logical in regard to the safety and well-being of their offspring.

But there is another way to go about reaching the same endpoint. DCPS could be fixed from within. This is the least likely to succeed approach to improving student academic results because in large urban school systems, the customer is most often the bureaucracy and not the parents and children that are being served. However, this is the philosophy that has driven Ms. Henderson’s career. Back to her editorial:

“There has been a trend over the past decade to decentralize education decisions, to create portfolio districts and to emphasize autonomy. I understand the impulse, and I agree that some decisions are best made at the school level. But I also believe that when we devolve responsibilities down to individual schools, we are abdicating the responsibility of the district to ensure rigor and equity. No individual school could have created the curriculum, the model lessons or the teacher evaluation system that DCPS built. No one school can ensure that students in every ward have the chance to enjoy art and music classes. No amount of autonomy can ensure that every high school has AP classes.”

In other words Ms. Henderson has taken the equity argument, so persuasive in public education circles these days, and applied it forcibly to her worldview. We need a top down approach, she argues, so that each and every student can take advantage of the same pedagogical tools.

The argument is not much different from one that DC Prep PCS, Friendship PCS, or KIPP DC PCS would offer. Once you believe that your organization is providing the absolute best path forward for your students then you believe passionately in your heart that every young person should be able to take advantage of what you have to offer.

Perhaps we have all now come full circle.

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