A Premature Celebration in DC

Why Is Washington Celebrating Kaya Henderson’s Five Year Anniversary?

Last month Kaya Henderson celebrated her fifth anniversary as Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC.  Five years at the helm of an urban district is a milestone that few big city superintendents achieve, and she has been praised for hanging in and for calming down the storm created by Michelle Rhee, whose 3+ year reign was marked by numerous controversies, included the massive scandal sometimes called “Erasergate,” when USA Today investigative reporters found that thousands of student answers were changed–and almost always from ‘wrong’ to ‘right.’

The Washington Post, a consistent cheerleader for Henderson and her controversial predecessor, celebrated Henderson’s anniversary with a largely laudatory article that included praise from two members of Washington’s education establishment, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the long time Executive Director of the Great City Schools, Michael Casserly.  The latter called Henderson “one of the most effective and popular school leaders any place in the country.”  As the Post put it, “Unlike her predecessor, whose turbulent style and top-down approach made enemies of many teachers and politicians, Henderson is credited with taking a more collaborative approach.”  That’s another way of saying that Henderson is a “kinder, gentler version of Rhee,” a familiar observation over the years.

But a closer look at what Henderson has achieved reveals that there’s little reason to celebrate.

It’s true that DC’s scores on NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have improved faster than any other urban district’s and that graduation rates have moved up to 64%, but as Post reporter Michael Allison Chandler noted, the DC results are, at best, mixed. Earlier this year a report by the National Research Council pointed out that most of the academic gain was likely the result of more affluent families moving into Washington and enrolling their children in public schools.  The gaps between wealthy and poor remain huge–and have actually increased–under Rhee and Henderson, despite the District’s spending considerably more than surrounding school districts.

Casting even more doubt on the efficacy of the Rhee/Henderson approach are the Common Core test results.  Barely 10 percent of District students who took the PAARC geometry test, and only 25 percent of those taking the English test, achieved ‘college and career ready’ status.  And at fourteen of the District’s high schools not one student reached that level in mathematics; at four high schools no students achieved that level in English.  This is a catastrophic failure, strong evidence that something is seriously wrong in Washington’s schools.

Faced with these disastrous results, Henderson tried to embrace them as a wakeup call.   According to the Post, she told the Mayor and the City Council that the results would help reset expectations. “What we have effectively told our kids is that if you make it to the 50-yard line you made a touchdown, when we knew that a touchdown is at the other end of the field.”

Her public posture is curious.   Who is the ‘we‘ that Henderson is referring to, if not herself and Rhee? After all, they have run the District schools for going on NINE years.  Shouldn’t they have ‘reset expectations’ a half dozen or so years ago?  And why on God’s green earth aren’t the Mayor and the City Council asking some tough questions of Henderson and demanding explanations for the consistent failure?  Are they so grateful for the calm that they are willing to overlook massive educational malpractice?

It seems to me that the District’s academic performance–the NAEP gaps, the PAARC scores, the exodus of veteran teachers and principals–are prima facie evidence of the bankruptcy of the Rhee/Henderson ‘test and punish’ approach.  Henderson may in fact be a ‘kinder, gentler version’ of Michelle Rhee, but she’s still an acolyte and enthusiast for policies that damage learning opportunities for children.

Henderson has taken pains to separate herself and her approach from her best friend, but they were joined at the hip during Rhee’s tenure. I have written extensively about the cheating scandal.  The long and short of it is this: when the erasures were reported, one of Rhee’s acolytes hired an outside consultant to look at the scores; his confidential report indicated that adults, not students, had done the erasing.  He made it clear that he suspected that Rhee’s principals were responsible for changing the scores, perhaps tempted by the promise of cash bonuses.

The timing was inauspicious, to say the least. Rhee and Henderson had already publicly celebrated the score gains with great fanfare and those substantial cash bonuses  to high-achieving teachers and principals. Going public would have meant embarrassment for Rhee and Henderson.  On the other hand, keeping quiet meant lying to thousands of students about their prowess.  Many had actually done poorly and were in need of remedial help, and leaving the phony scores in place meant they were being promoted and would not get the help they needed.

The leadership chose silence.  With full knowledge, they looked the other way and let the fraudulent scores stay in place.

(Was that decision made by Rhee, or by the team of Rhee and Henderson?  Henderson claims that she was out of the loop.  At one point, she surprised the DC City Council by testifying under oath–completely unprompted–that she first learned of the confidential memo from me–and that she had never even seen it!  However, a reliable source told of being in a meeting where Rhee and Henderson spoke of the memo and the consequences of its becoming public.  Is it credible that Rhee would not have discussed the memo with her Deputy and best friend?  Not to me.  I believe our source.)

The ensuing coverup, orchestrated largely by Henderson and Rhee, was a work of art, aided by an inept Inspector General and a compliant Washington Post editorial page.  “It’s not the crime; it’s the coverup” is the cliché, but Henderson and Rhee have gotten away with both.

If past is prologue, The Washington Post is unlikely to look at the harsh truth about the Rhee/Henderson approach to education.

Nationally, many in education are waking up to the failures of ‘test and punish,’ and the new ESEA pulls back on testing. Of course we need ways of assessing teachers, but teachers themselves have to be part of the process.  Every other country uses tests to assess students, not to play gotcha with teachers.

The approach to ‘education reform’ begun by Michelle Rhee in 2007 and continuing under Kaya Henderson to this day is a failure and a fraud.  Washington’s students and teachers deserve better……




8 thoughts on “A Premature Celebration in DC

  1. Thank you so much for speaking the truth and not mincing words. It is a travesty what has happened, and continues to happen, under Rhee/Henderson. Henderson has done a great job of staying under the radar, which has allowed her to get away with so much as you pointed out in your article. Thanks also for calling out the Washington Post, the City Council and the Mayor for going along with this farce. It is so unfortunate that the most vulnerable students are getting cheated out of a quality education, all while the leadership is celebrated. I have been teaching in DC for over 12 years and there continues to be a coverup. How else can you explain the massive teacher and principal turnover and increasing disparities in student performance? Meanwhile, Henderson claims to provide so much support for teachers. She has left teachers at the most challenging schools with few, if any, supports. Where is the money going? Not to classrooms, but toward high paid consultants, a bloated central office, PR, etc. Teachers still have to beg and plead for the basics–paper, novels, and money for field trips.

    I am fortunate enough to work in a school that has many high performing students, but I know of many teachers in other schools. Teachers who are dedicated, hardworking and smart who share similar complaints–lack of resources, overbearing leadership, constant meetings and not enough time to spend on their teaching. It is depressing to go to professional development trainings and hear their stories.

    I really hope this is the first of many articles that will help to expose the reality of what is really going on in Washington, DC. God help the rest of the country if we are supposedly the ones leading the way in education.

    For the sake of our students, we must face the truth and stop pretending that things are getting better when we continue to rob students of the supports they need for a quality education. Shame on you Kaya Henderson, et al.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. THANK YOU so much, John Merrow, for sticking with this sordid story, after realizing, based on the facts, that your support for reform was misguided. You clearly care so much more for the students – and about personal integrity – than anyone in control at DCPS.

    I only hope you can someday bring them down. This will be a hard job with the establishment of the Washington Post and the Federal City Council supporting this bogus reform. I sometimes wonder if at this point, with their failure so much in evidence, that it’s only hubris that has them hanging on. They can’t admit error and they don’t have to. Who cares about the kids, or the many teachers and principals falsely maligned? The reformers’ sense of righteousness is so much more important — to them.


  3. In the press release from the mayor’s office last January when she and Henderson were announcing their Empowering Males of Color initiative, they said that “By 4th grade, nearly 50% of Black and Latino males are reading below grade level.” 4th graders would be children in DCPS since kindergarten, or five years ago when Henderson took the helm from Michele Rhee. Henderson has had every opportunity to 1-have discovered students failing to learn to read well before 4th grade and 2-to have tackled the causes and the cures with all of the out-sized powers of her office. She didn’t. But she did get a raise to $284,000 for a one year contract. It’s appalling that anyone would be rewarded for that kind of failure, let alone celebrated for it!


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