Kaya Henderson’s Track Record (redux)

When I questioned Kaya Henderson’s record as Schools Chancellor in Washington, D.C. in this space last week, most of the criticism was directed at me personally. “Odious rambling” was one of the gentler ad hominem epithets, while others tweeted about my mental decline. One critic wrote a strong defense of Henderson’s record but carefully cherry-picked data to make the Rhee/Henderson regime appear successful.

So let’s look at all the data, because, my critics to the contrary, the past nine years of ‘test and punish’ education have done significant damage to the life chances of poor and minority students in Washington’s public schools, both traditional public schools and charter schools.

While in some grades scores have gone up, that is most likely the result of a change in student population.  The percentage of white test-takers has increased steadily over the last decade (5% to 16% in 4th grade and 5% to 9% or 10% in 8th grade), as has the percentage of Hispanic students (9% to 16% in 4th grade and 7% to 15% in 8th grade). In Nation’s Capital, almost all whites are from well-to-do families, while Hispanics and blacks are mostly low-income.

Consider 8th grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called ‘The Nation’s Report Card.’ From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP scores of low income students in DC increased just one point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low income (called ‘other’) climbed 18 points, from 263 to 281.   Over that same time period, the percentage of low income students scoring at the proficient level remained at an embarrassingly low 8%, while proficiency among ‘other’ students climbed from 34% to 53%.    An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: Black proficiency increased two points, from 9% to 11%, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 22% to 17%.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be measured, but in 2015 white proficiency was at 75%.

The results in 4th grade are equally depressing, with low income students making small gains, while ‘others’ jump up to respectable levels.  The 4th grade proficiency gap between low income and ‘other’ students has increased from 26% to 62% during Michelle Rhee’s and Kaya Henderson’s terms in office.

The 8th graders and the 4th graders have spent their entire school lives in a system controlled by Rhee and Henderson.

Mary Levy, a respected observer of DC schools, notes that “Figures for ‘economically disadvantaged’ students in 2013 and 2015 include some number of non-low-income test-takers, because most schools now provide free lunch to all their students, and no longer collect family income forms. Thus, low-income scores are inflated by some unknown amount compared to those in earlier years.”  In other words, these discouraging results are probably worse than they appear.

While achievement gaps between DCPS whites and black or Hispanic scores have diminished somewhat since 2003, they are still enormous. White proficiency rates now run about 65 percentage points above black proficiency rates and 53 to 61 percentage points above Hispanic rates.

The achievement gaps between DCPS economically disadvantaged and other students have widened continually over the last decade, and are now over twice as high in 4th grade and two-and-a-half times as high in 8th.  They started at 18-25 and are now 47-58 scale score points.

In short, despite all the promises made by Rhee and Henderson, the ‘achievement gap’ between well-to-do kids and poor kids has widened on her watch, and the gains on the NAEP seem to be a byproduct of gentrification. The uptick in graduation rates, while real, is minuscule, and DC continues to lag behind almost every other urban district.

DC’s scores on the Common Core test known as PAARC were embarrassingly low, as were the most recent reading scores of DC’s fourth graders.

Henderson said these results were a wake-up call–as if she had not been running the system for the past five years, as if she should not  be held accountable.

And the Mayor and City Council just shrugged.

Is it possible that Kaya Henderson is not really in charge of the DC public schools?  Could Henderson be a place-holder for a shadow chancellor, the rich and powerful woman who stage-managed her hiring when Michelle Rhee left?  That’s the conclusion drawn by Jeffrey Anderson in a recent issue of City Paper, and he makes a strong case that Katherine Bradley, the philanthropist and wife of the publisher of the Atlantic, is actually calling the shots.

If Anderson is correct, then DC schools are a pawn in a political and ideological struggle, and actually doing something about it will require some heavy lifting.  Merely removing Kaya Henderson would not change things if a shadow chancellor can simply replace her with someone who will continue to push for greater growth in the charter sector.

Oh, by the way, DC’s charter schools do only marginally better and sometimes worse than DCPS schools in almost all categories.

Because facts matter, and because Black and Hispanic lives matters, it’s time for DC’s elected political leaders to show what they are made of.

7 thoughts on “Kaya Henderson’s Track Record (redux)

  1. Mr. Merrow — agree with your conjecture about Katherine Bradley, but can’t for the life of me figure out what’s in it for her to ruin DCPS. Can you? She may have been convinced at one time that Rhee was right and that TFA and a evaluation system to weed out “bad teachers” were truly the way to help DC’s minority children, but she can easily see now that it didn’t work, so why press on? Just to support charters?


  2. Mr. Merrow – I strongly disagree with your assertion that there has been little improvement in DC charter schools. DC Charter NAEP scores from 2009 – 2015 show significant improvements in 4th and 8th grade math, and 4th grade reading. These improvements are overall, for black students, for economically disadvantaged students, and for other subgroups. Only in 8th grade reading has growth been more modest. You can see full results here: http://bit.ly/1Mi7tik. Our website published some of this data here: http://www.dcpcsb.org/2015-naep-data Sincerely yours, Scott Pearson, Executive Director, DC Public Charter School Board


    • Mr. Pearson, is it discouraging to see that public charter school boards have become nothing more than paid promoters of charter schools. That shouldn’t be the case. You should want to know whether directing public funds to private entities to run charter schools really makes a difference, and for whom it makes a difference. Even non-profits take money off the top for overhead, so if scarce resources are going to be directed toward non-profits who must take out their share in order to keep the non-profit running, it should be for a good reason.

      What the evidence shows is that the people benefitting most from privatization — aside from the well-paid administrators at the “non-profits” and charter boards who are supposed to oversee these schools — are middle class and upper middle class white students. The benefits flow to them, with (arguably) some crumbs tossed to the low-income primarily minority children who really need it. Not only are you completely satisfied with that result, you are cheering it on and want to keep doing exactly what you are doing.

      When people who work in public policy — whether for the government or a non-profit — have lost their way and only look for facts that justifies their high salaries salaries or the facts that keep the people who donate to their cause happy, then something has gone terribly wrong.

      You can cherry pick a few facts and refuse to address the valid criticisms that John Merrow cited until the cows come home. But please don’t pretend you are doing it for the most vulnerable students. If that was the case, you would certainly have concern about how little is being done for them and not try to pretend that all the dollars flowing into those coffers is making a world of difference. Except to the highly paid administrators who are well-rewarded for continuing to promote the myth that their main concern is for the most vulnerable children in the school system. I wish it was.


  3. I did not mention that DC’s high school graduation rate, 61%, is the lowest among all urban districts. The absolute bottom.
    Leaders ought to be judged on their performance, not on whether they are pleasant or charismatic, and certainly not by race or gender.
    Both Kaya Henderson and her predecessor endorse ‘data-driven decision making.’ Look at the data!


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