Coffee Break: Kaya Henderson on Smashing Disbelief, Lessons for Reform and Beachside Sunsets

Following  the departure of Michelle Rhee, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has brought leadership strength and stability to District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). And the  bold reforms and  academic progress have continued. Henderson recently  passed the five-year mark as D.C.’s chancellor, and she shared her plans for driving even greater improvements in the public schools of the nation’s capital. Are you a coffee or tea drinker? I have been a tea drinker since I was a little girl. I take it with lemon and sugar or honey. Both of my grandmothers were tea drinkers. They started me early. My 9-year-old loves hot tea. We’re a tea family. Mint tea is my fave. What is most promising and most challenging about education reform in D.C.? I’m really proud that DCPS’ current state of reform is progressing rapidly, though not as quickly as any of us would like. I think the results we’re delivering across multiple measures—increasing enrollment, improving graduation rates, increasing proficiency and growth rates, improving student satisfaction rates, higher teacher retention rates, etc.—are promising. We have a greater sense of possibility about what we can accomplish, even after we’ve raised expectations for students and teachers. I’m especially excited that we're able to demonstrate progress while paying attention to cultivating students’ talents in addition to their test scores. Nobody ever thought DCPS could improve, and we’re smashing that disbelief! There is a narrative that school districts are broken and can’t be fixed. I think that’s a cop-out, and very dangerous, when 95 percent of students in America are being educated in traditional districts. We need more people to prove what we know—that DCPS is not a unicorn. We can figure out how to change systems and structures. With talent, policy change, investment and strategic thinking, we can make more schools and districts work for ALL students across this country. If D.C. can do it, anyone can do it. When I think about what is most challenging, two things come to mind: 1) I am frustrated—but determined to change this—that we haven’t been able to move our lowest-performing schools to greater academic success more quickly, and 2) so many students across this city are still significantly behind in both DCPS and charters (our results are strikingly similar), and we have to figure out how both sectors can do a better job at accelerating achievement more quickly. How will the new federal education law affect you at the local level? In terms of flexibility? To be very honest, the federal law doesn’t drive how we do our work. Of course, we know that we have to meet the mandates, but we try to make decisions that we think are best for our educators and families, and then figure out how to make the work meet the requirements. While flexibility is always helpful to our work at the local level, I am concerned about what it will take for all states/jurisdictions to maximize that flexibility by developing the capacity to effectively educate all students to high levels. Of course, I’m most worried about how this will affect our disadvantaged and struggling students. You came out of Teach For America and served under one of the most controversial education leaders, Michelle Rhee. You are also implementing a bold reform agenda. What lessons do you have for reform going forward? Anything we should change, drop, expand? I’ve learned quite a bit over the 23 years that I’ve been in education—that informs the way I work today. Here are a few of the tried-and-true lessons:
  • Make decisions for students as if they were your own.
  • Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • Believe the best about your stakeholders and engage them in the work.
  • Be willing to admit mistakes and fix them.
  • Work hard; play hard.
What's your favorite way to escape from your very challenging job? What's your guilty pleasure? I love to travel. The best way to escape from my challenging job is to literally escape: The hotter the place, the better. I also make time for the things that make me happy—dancing, massages, hanging with family and friends, and good food.
Photo of Kaya Henderson and student courtesy of DCPS.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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