We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Kaya Henderson became interim schools chancellor for the District after the controversial tenure of Michelle Rhee ended this fall. Henderson now leads a local school system at the center of the nationwide debate over education reform. We talk to Henderson about her vision for the D.C. schools and where the reforms implemented by Rhee are likely to go under new leadership and a new mayor.
- Kaya Henderson Interim Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools
The Kojo Nnamdi Show Extra
Interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson discusses the contentious issue of teachers evaluation:
Henderson responds to a listener call about arts education in city schools:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, it's your turn to share your views on everything from the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell to the return of Republican rule to Capitol Hill or the tensions in the Ivory Coast, but, first, turning a new page in the D.C. Public Schools system. For the past several years, the District has been a local battleground in the nationwide debate over education reform. That battle is still going strong, but the players are different. Gone are the chancellor and the mayor, who spearheaded a wave of rapid changes, from closing schools to firing principles to overhauling labor contracts.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're joined this hour by Kaya Henderson, the new interim chancellor for D.C. schools. She's here to discuss her vision for students and the teaching core and how the education reforms initiated by her predecessor are likely to proceed under a new mayor. Kaya Henderson, as we said, is the interim chancellor for District of Columbia Public Schools. Welcome. Good to have you here.
MS. KAYA HENDERSONThank you.
NNAMDIA lot of people do not know your history, but it was interesting to see Washington Post reporter Bill Turque write, quoting here, "What's clear is that the message Gray" -- meaning Vincent Gray -- "wants to send is really Henderson herself, a gracious but resolute African-American woman with deep roots in both the education reform movement and in the District." For those people who don't know of your deep roots in the District, tell us a little bit about your history here from your college days.
HENDERSONSure. I first came to the District in 1988 to attend Georgetown University, where I graduated in 1992. I went off to -- or back to New York City to teach for America. I taught middle school Spanish in the South Bronx and then worked for the organization as a recruiter and as their national director of admissions before I was asked to come back to D.C.
NNAMDIIt was in 1992 that you met a certain Michelle Rhee, as I understand it.
HENDERSONI did meet a certain Michelle Rhee in 1992.
HENDERSONI came back here in 1997 as the executive director of Teach For America D.C., where I built relationships with the school district, with principals and ran an advisory board here of a lot of local supporters who helped us bring great teachers into D.C. Public Schools. And that is when I came back here. That was about 13 years ago. I left there in 2000 to work for Michelle Rhee at The New Teacher Project. She was starting a consulting firm to help superintendents rethink how they prioritize teacher quality, and I jumped on board with that. And while I was there for seven years, I was based here. And my first two contracts were with D.C. Public Schools, one, to create the D.C. teaching fellows program.
HENDERSONAnd then, secondly, because of the success of that recruitment effort, we told Dr. Vance that we'd bring in 100 mid-career professionals to teach in D.C. Public Schools. And he said, I don't think that can happen. We had 1,200 applicants for those 100 positions. And he said, why don't you take over all of our teacher recruitment efforts because those are the kinds of numbers that we'd like to see district-wide. And so for six years, before I became the deputy chancellor, I worked in human resources in D.C. Public Schools. I had a team there, and we worked on bringing great teachers to the District. So when Michelle asked me to come as her deputy in 2007, it was a natural continuation of the work that I had done here.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Dr. Vance. That would be Paul Vance, who used to be the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County and then later in the District of Columbia. We're talking with Kaya Henderson. She is the interim chancellor for District of Columbia Public Schools. Inviting your calls, if you have questions or comments about the future of D.C. Public Schools, 800-433-8850. Are you a parent with children in the D.C. Public Schools system? What questions do you have for the interim chancellor about her vision for the schools? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIAnother quotation from an article in Fast Company this past October about Kaya Henderson from Kaya Henderson. "I think that one of the things we have to think about differently is community engagement. We have actually done more community engagement and public outreach than in the past. But because it's been Michelle and me doing living rooms around the city, it's been viewed differently. It's not the way previous administrations did it, but we need to figure out how to do more highly visible community engagement." What constitutes more highly visible community engagement?
HENDERSONWell, I think it's not just about being highly visible. We've done town hall meetings and chancellor's forums and all kinds of forays out into the community. When I think about doing community engagement differently, I think about it twofold. One, I think that we have not really sent a clear message that this reform does not belong to the people who work in my building or on my team. This reform belongs to all of us, to parents and families, to community members and to people who work with DCPS. And so I think that we have to shift our messaging around community engagement to help people understand how they are part of this reform.
HENDERSONWe can't do this unless everybody in this city is bought in and invested and understands how they contribute to making DCPS great. The second thing, I think, is we have done a lot of information disseminating. And I don't think that we have helped people understand how intent we are on listening to what they have to say. And so we're exploring different venues to ensure that two-way communication is happening so that people's voices are heard, that their suggestions are taken into consideration in a very different way, I think, than we have previously.
NNAMDIIt's one thing for people's voices to be heard. It's another -- the same thing for their views to be taken into consideration. It's another thing, completely, to simply go along with them. One of the impressions I get about the controversies we have had in D.C. Public Schools is people seem to feel that when they are heard and listened to, then whatever they say is what you should be doing. Apparently, that's going to be a very difficult road to hold for our Mayor-elect Vincent Gray. And I suspect it's going to be a fairly difficult road to work for you also.
HENDERSONWell, I think there are some people who feel like listening equals taking their suggestions. But I actually feel like the parents and community members who I've engaged with have a very sophisticated view of what their input means, and they understand that we're balancing multiple perspectives and multiple priorities. And so I feel like when you actually just listen, you -- sometimes you take suggestions, and sometimes you don't. But the point is that people need to feel like you genuinely are concerned and value their opinion.
HENDERSONAnd I think that there are lots of folks here who have been working on school reform, who have been trying to improve DCPS over the years. I know 'cause I've worked with them in a number of organizations in my previous life. And those folks know a lot, and I think we haven't tapped into their skills and expertise as much as we need to.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Kaya Henderson. She is the interim chancellor for District of Columbia Public Schools. What changes would make you more comfortable sending your children to public schools in Washington, D.C.? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or by asking a question or making a comment at our website, kojoshow.org. We have a mutual friend, Michele Booth Cole, who called me before this broadcast and asked me to be nice to you, and I said, "Yes, I would, at first." Well, Michele, that part is over.
NNAMDILet's plunge into the controversy. You've been receiving a lot of headlines for the changes you've put in place at Dunbar High School, which include removing the private operator that Michelle Rhee hired a few years ago to turn that school around. What ultimately convinced you to make these changes at Dunbar? And what do these changes say? What can -- what insight can these changes give us into your philosophy for running the school system or turning around a school that's undergoing difficulty?
HENDERSONWell, I think that at Dunbar we reached a critical point where the issues of safety and security were outweighing issues of teaching and learning. You can't teach, and -- you can't teach children if they're not in classrooms. You can't teach children if they're outside and in the hallway and if the school climate and culture has gotten to a point where things are out of control. And I felt from the feedback that I was hearing from students, first and foremost, teachers, parents and community members and then on multiple visits by my staff and myself, that Dunbar had reached a crisis point and that the best thing to do would be to ensure that the school culture and climate and safety and security issues were addressed so that we could get to teaching and learning.
NNAMDILet me tell you why I find that both ironic and strange...
NNAMDI...because when we interviewed the Friends of Bedford when they first got contracts for Coolidge and for Dunbar, the first thing they said they noticed is precisely what you just pointed out was not happening at Dunbar. No security. Kids were being irresponsible. They said, first, the first thing we have to do is teach these kids that there is a teacher and there are students, that there are bosses and there are others, and that we are going to be in charge. Have they been able to accomplish that at Coolidge and not at Dunbar, and if so, why or why not?
HENDERSONWell, I don't know, actually, why they were able to accomplish it at one or -- versus the other. But I do know that last year under Friends of Bedford, Dunbar seemed to be in really good shape. And I think that it was a combination of a strong school culture and great teaching and learning happening. And over the course of this school year, that combination didn't seem to be in place. The culture deteriorated fairly quickly. And you can't get to teaching and learning if the culture and the climate is not right.
NNAMDIExplain exactly what it is you have done and how you expect that to improve the culture at Dunbar.
HENDERSONWell, I think that bringing Stephen Jackson back as the principal was a huge step for us. He seemed to be key to the kinds of policies and procedures that ensure the appropriate kinds of culture. In fact, I met with the teachers at Dunbar just last Friday -- Thursday or Friday afternoon.
NNAMDIIt gets confusing when you have that many meetings.
HENDERSONAnd they all remarked that the hallways are now under control, that children are in their classroom, that things just feel differently. And so, I think, leadership is a key issue. And one of the things that Friends of Bedford struggled with was finding a permanent leader. They had an interim leader in place. We've also put a team in to support Dunbar short-term. We've changed the breakfast program. We have looked at the safety and security issues and shut down parts of the building where -- that are not in use.
HENDERSONWe've looked at security cameras to make sure that they're all working. But beyond those sort of nuts and bolts operational things, the real deal around what is different at Dunbar is teachers and students feel like there is order and feel like they can now focus on the things that they are supposed to do, which is teaching, because the climate is under control.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. If you put those headphones -- they're laying around there somewhere -- on. We'll go to our first caller who is James in Washington, D.C. James, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood afternoon, James.
JAMESYes. I've been a part-time music teacher in DCPS for the last five years. And I just have one comment that I'd like to make, and I'll get off the phone and listen to your reaction off the air. And that is the way I see the system approaching literacy. I don't see any use of drama. I don't see classes putting on plays. I don't see classes memorizing poems and reciting stuff out loud. I see a fair bit of teaching to the (word?) and children working on VCRs -- and for that acronym to even be in the system, I -- strikes kind of a warning bell. So tell me what you think of that.
JAMESAnd thank you.
NNAMDIJames wants to hear Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. Such men are dangerous. Let me have men around me that are fat. Anyway, go ahead.
HENDERSONSo I actually think that arts and music are a significant part of the curriculum. And under the Rhee administration, we started by ensuring that there is an art and/or music teacher at every single school building. Since then, I've actually had the opportunity to partner with the Washington Performing Arts Society. They came to me about a year-and-a-half ago and said, we think music education and arts education are sorely lacking in the District. And I said, great, put together a comprehensive music plan that would address how we ensure that our children get instruction in both music and then the arts, pre-K through 12.
HENDERSONAnd they've actually just completed the music plan and are currently working on the arts plan. And we're going to go out and raise money to ensure that we can provide the arts, vocal music, choral music, instrumental music across the continuum, and we're working on the arts plan. So we share your concern, James, and are working diligently to address it.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Kaya Henderson, interim chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850. What do you think is the most important lesson the District needs to take from the Fenty administration's efforts to reform the city school system? 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIBack to our conversation with Kaya Henderson. She is interim chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Let's go to the issue of teacher evaluation because it seems to me that whether we are talking Geoffrey Canada in New York or Kaya Henderson in Washington, D.C., teachers have now taken a central role in the movement of school reform, and the evaluation of those teachers is what is leading to a great deal of controversy here. Earlier this month, we spoke with the new president of the Washington Teachers Union, Nathan Saunders. He told us that his priority for the union is changing IMPACT, the system Michelle Rhee put in place to evaluate teacher effectiveness. What conversations have you had with him about the IMPACT system? And what, if anything, would you consider changing?
HENDERSONFirst of all, let me be very clear that my team developed the IMPACT evaluation system. And the reason we developed it is because we are clear that a highly-effective teacher in every single classroom is the -- our biggest leverage point to ensure that students have the education that they deserve. And so part of the challenge was, when we got here in 2007, some 80-something percent of the teaching force was rated, meets or exceeds expectations. And only 8 percent of our children were reading at grade level, and so there is a significant disconnect. Part of the reason was because student achievement wasn't a factor in teacher evaluation, which seems odd, but is true.
HENDERSONAnd it's not just true in Washington. It's true across the country. And so what you've seen is a movement nationwide to ensure that student achievement is taken into account in terms of how we evaluate teachers. You can't say somebody is effective if they aren't moving their students. And part of that is spurred by Race To The Top. I think the Obama administration and Secretary Duncan threw down the gauntlet and said, this is important to us, and we'll put money behind it. But lots of us were working on that even before Race To The Top came along. As I spoke with Mr. Saunders, what he said to me is, there are things about IMPACT that I'd like to change.
HENDERSONAnd I said, I'm happy to consider whatever changes you have. Let me know what they are, and we can discuss them. But if the changes include removing student achievement as a measure, I'm not interested. If the changes include, you know, eliminating master educators who are an objective third party -- our teachers said to us very clearly as we were developing this, I don't just want to be evaluated by my principal. If they like me or they don't like me, that weighs in. I'd like to be evaluated by somebody who knows my content area and who is objective. And so we've hired some of the most talented teachers across the country to come in and observe our teachers in addition to the principal, and that allows for much more objectivity in what is inherently a subjective process.
NNAMDIThere are two aspects of that I'd like to look at.
NNAMDIBecause if student performance is going to be an important ingredient in teacher evaluation, one of the aspects -- well, we had Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast on recently, and you talked about master teachers. He is a fierce advocate for incorporating peer review into teacher evaluation. What's the difference between -- or the relationship between peer review and master teacher evaluation?
HENDERSONSure. So I think they are two sides of the same coin. The concept around peer review is having somebody who is not the supervisor and who is a teacher come in and provide feedback on the teacher's evaluation. And that's -- we call them master educators. In other places, they are called peer reviewers.
NNAMDIThe other aspect of that -- yes, he's going to pull out the race car. Now the other aspect of that is when it would appear to some people that African-American teachers and older African-American teachers seem to be most --more adversely affected by impact or other forms of teacher evaluation than other teachers. And so Nathan Saunders, for one, raised the issue when he appeared on this broadcast, saying that African-American teachers are a bastion of the African-American middle class. And so race should be taken into consideration when evaluating these teachers. How do you take race into consideration in that situation?
HENDERSONWe don't take race into consideration. At the end of the day, I've never met an evaluation system where someone's race actually impacted whether or not they performed well. And so...
NNAMDIHow do you deal with that perception...
HENDERSONWell, I mean, the teaching force is disproportionately...
NNAMDI...that African-American teachers, and especially older African-American teachers, are disproportionately affected by impact evaluations?
HENDERSONSure. Well, I think that the older African-American teachers are disproportionately represented or -- in the teaching force, and so we would expect, when the large majority -- the vast majority of our teachers are African-American and older, that you would see those kinds of similar numbers. But we haven't seen a disproportionate effect.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Diane in Washington, D.C. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEWe would expect when the...
NNAMDIDiane, you are listening to us on the radio. I'm going to put you on hold, so you can listen to us on the telephone. And when I come back to you, just speak into the telephone like Walter in Washington, D.C. Walter, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIHi, Walter, it's your turn.
WALTERHi. Yeah, it's about a second. I'm from The Arc of DC. I'm the new president board, and we really appreciate the real support you've had for students with intellectual development disabilities. Want to know what would be the continued support so that we mainstream these students? It's a real challenge for the system to provide the support needed. And how do you plan to deal with that? And thank you again for all you've done for the students of D.C. to this point.
NNAMDIYeah, keep sucking up. No, no, I'm sorry. Kaya Henderson, go ahead, please.
HENDERSONThank you very much, Walter. As many of you know, we have pursued an aggressive special education agenda. We understand that we have not built the capacity within DCPS to provide services to our students with disabilities. And Dr. Richard Nyankori, who leads that work for us, has undertaken some very aggressive reforms where we are now able to provide a number of supports for students that previously were not in place. We look to great partnerships like the one that we have with The Arc and other providers in the District to ensure that we can create a seamless web for our students.
HENDERSONBut we will continue that, and I think that the mayor-elect has a proven commitment to young adults with disabilities, to people with disabilities across the board. And he was integral in the formation of The Arc. And so we're looking forward to continuing those kinds of partnerships to be able to serve our students.
NNAMDIHarold, (sic) thank you very much for your call. We got this tweet about children living in poverty. How do children of poverty learn on an even playing field? How is performance of students and teachers measure beyond test scores?
HENDERSONSo students and poverty, I think, have incredible challenges. But what we know for sure is that the best way to get out of poverty is through a good education. And so for the eight hours a day that we have them, we can't make excuses for the fact that they come from poverty. In fact, we have to set incredibly high expectations. And what I know about children is they rise to the expectations that you set for them. For far too long, people have been making excuses, have used poverty as an excuse, and we think it's a consideration that you have to address. And so we feed our kids, and we, you know, provide social and emotional services at our school to the -- at our schools. To the level that we like? Of course not.
HENDERSONIf I had an infinite pot of cash, I'd put all kinds of things in place. But I think one of the strengths of the Public School Reform Act in putting the D.C. public schools underneath the mayor is, it has allowed the coordination of city services, the Mental Health Department, CFSA, and all kinds of other agencies that can provide the support, so that DCPS can really focus on teaching and learning. And if we are able to do that at an incredibly rigorous and high level for our students, poverty can be eradicated, quite frankly.
NNAMDIOn, again, to Diane in Washington, D.C. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEAgencies that can provide the support...
NNAMDIDiane is still listening to us on the radio. Diane, sorry, you're probably going to have to send us an e-mail before you get through. Back to the relationship between D.C. public schools and the Washington Teachers' Union, what concerns do you have about the state of that relationship right now?
HENDERSONWell, I don't have any concerns at this point. I feel like it's important for Mr. Saunders and I to sit down and do some work together. I feel like anytime two people respect each other as professionals that they can figure out ways to deal with whatever the vexing challenges are, and so I'm looking forward to that.
NNAMDILet's bring back the situation at Dunbar just for a minute. Safety is a major concern not only at Dunbar but on school campuses throughout the city. What are some of the solutions you're considering to meet those concerns about safety?
HENDERSONSo we have a unique relationship with the Metropolitan Police Department, and they have provided significant help around ensuring that our schools are safe. We, again -- as a result of the Reform Act, we now have an explicit relationship with them. They manage our security contracts. And the real deal is if we can make classrooms engaging and inviting places where students are excited to learn, then that is when safety and security issues pale in comparison. And so I have to ensure that every single teacher is knocking it down for kids in their classrooms, and that's the way the safety and security issues go away.
NNAMDII know you have to go on, and we will let you soon, but a couple of more issues. One specific, Michelle Rhee focused a great deal on the idea of the neighborhood school that led to a big blow up when she made changes at Hardy Middle School. Designed to attract more families from the neighborhood surrounding it, where does the neighborhood school fit in to your vision for reforming schools?
HENDERSONI think the neighborhood school is important. It's frustrating to me that parents -- over 50 percent of our children go to schools that are out of their boundary area. And that means parents are traipsing across the city because they feel like they can't find high-quality options in their neighborhood. I went to a neighborhood school when I was in elementary school. I walked to that school. And the sense of community that you're able to create when you are in a school where kids who live near you and families that are around are at the same school is incredibly important.
HENDERSONAt the same time, I think that we want to make sure that we have a district that has a number of diverse options for families. And so if they have to travel or are willing to travel, great, but I want to make sure that they have a high-quality neighborhood option as well.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that there's still some frustration with the personnel arrangements at Hardy, where the principal now splits time -- the new principal with Hyde-Addison Elementary School. Do you have any immediate plans to change that?
HENDERSONWell, I think, anytime there's a leadership change from a long-term leader to a new leader, you expect some transition issues. And I think that the dual role of the principal also presents some challenges. And so we're working with a group of folks at DCPS. We've heard from parents and teachers at Hardy and are looking to put some things in place to try to smooth those issues out.
NNAMDIYou said when you first inherited this position, so to speak, that you kind of liked being number two. You kind of liked being the person who stayed behind the scenes. Having spoken with you for the first time, for the first -- for the last 30 minutes or so, you seem to have a very strong grasp of all of the issues involved. You seem to be able to express your understanding of those issues fairly clearly. What's not to like about being up front in front?
HENDERSONWell, I never said I couldn't do it.
NNAMDIIt's just that that you didn't really want to.
HENDERSONWell, it just means that going home to my neighborhood restaurant and having a drink after work is now a very different experience than it was six weeks ago.
NNAMDIThat's right. Welcome to the club. Here is Alexandria in Southeast Washington. Alexandria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXANDRIAYes. Regarding future evaluations, I'd like to know how the social challenges of a community -- for instance, from one school to another -- are going to be taken into account when evaluating teachers. For example, in a very high-income neighborhood where students are motivated by the example of their parents, perhaps, as far as student achievement versus a low-income school, where that example may not be there, how is that going to be taken as to account when evaluating teachers? Surely, student achievement might be different in those cases. And teacher evaluations should not necessarily -- teacher evaluations should at least take that into account at some point.
HENDERSONSure. Our definition of student achievement is really around growth, just for the issue that you raised. And so we look at where students come in when they get to a teacher and how much a teacher has been able to move them as opposed to some absolute standard that you want everybody across the city to reach. We understand that that's simply not realistic. And so we focus on the growth that the teacher is able to make with their students.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Alexandria. Joe in Fairfax, Va., you're the last caller. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEThank you, Kojo. I've been listening to you for a long, long time. I'm a public policy student at the College of William and Mary, and I'm focusing on education policy. And, as I'm sure your guest knows, an integral part of any bureaucracy is operator input or, you know, having people at the ground level, really, you know, tell them what the reforms are needed. And I hear a lot about teacher accountability and, you know, how we're going to, you know, hold our teachers to a high standard. But I want to know how the people at the top are going to use the teachers' knowledge about their, you know, ability to, you know, teach in the classrooms, to, you know, make the system more effective as a whole. How are you going to have operator input from the people at the bottom to tell the people at the top what to do?
HENDERSONThat's a great question. We've actually spent a lot of time doing what we call teacher listening sessions as we develop the teacher evaluation tool. And even in my day-to-day schedule, twice a week, I go and sit down with teachers at different schools and hear what is on their minds and hear what they have to say. We've involved teachers in the development of curriculum at D.C. Public Schools. We actually think the teacher voice is incredibly important and so have set up systems and mechanisms to ensure that we're constantly asking our teachers what we need to do to serve them better and how they can help us do that.
NNAMDIKaya Henderson, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
HENDERSONThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis time, we worked with kid gloves. Next time, we'll be telling people exactly where your neighborhood restaurant and neighborhood bar is...
NNAMDI..so they can come there looking for you. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, it is your turn. The Congress of the United States has decided to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. What are your feelings about it, and about President Jimmy Carter's observation that he thinks that in the near future, America may be able to have a gay president? You can start calling now at 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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