Here’s Hoping More Education Leaders “Pull a Kaya Henderson”
“Pull a Kaya Henderson” – verb. To succeed a contentious education leader, unite divided factions, and solidify reforms by striking a more conciliatory tone while supporting and implementing the same policies.
Last June at an event on the future of education and the Democratic Party, Third Way’s Vice President for Social Policy & Politics Lanae Erickson Hatalsky jokingly added a new phrase to the education policy vernacular. She asked the panelists, who included leaders like former Congressman George Miller (D-CA) and former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whether Hillary Clinton would be able to repair relationships with teachers’ unions while still carrying on the bulk of President Obama’s education policies—an action she dubbed, “pulling a Kaya Henderson.”
This new phrase may have elicited a few chuckles from the crowd, but its underlying meaning—and its namesake—deserve serious credit. That’s because DC Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who is celebrating her 5th anniversary in the role this month, has managed to sustain incredible gains for the students of DC, all while unifying a deeply divided district after years of significant and disruptive change.
Chancellor Henderson began her tenure at DCPS following the controversial term of notable education-reformer-turned-union-villain Michelle Rhee. During her time at DCPS, Rhee famously negotiated a groundbreaking contract with the teachers’ union to create a new performance-based salary and bonus schedule in exchange for relaxed tenure protections and teacher evaluations that included student test scores. This system, known as IMPACTplus, was designed to better reward and attract excellent teachers. But its introduction into the district was discordant to say the least, pitting those opposed to tying high-stakes testing to personnel decisions against those demanding effectiveness as a condition of pay, a fight that ultimately cost Michelle Rhee her job.
When Kaya Henderson took over the reins following Rhee’s departure, she had one of two options: abandon these reforms in an effort to relieve the tension and appease defenders of the status quo, or push forward full-speed ahead on policies that once implemented had a chance of seriously increasing the quality of DC’s schools.
Chancellor Henderson courageously chose the latter, and it paid off.
Today, DCPS stands out as the shining star of what is possible in urban education reform. The district continues to tout significant progress with its students, teachers, and principals, boasting steadily increasing graduation rates (up 11% in the last five years), some of the highest teacher salaries in the United States (the average DCPS teacher makes $74,855 per year, with the chance to earn up to $20,000 in bonus pay), and teachers flocking from all over the country to teach in the district (while many other cities experience shortages). Most importantly are the positive gains exhibited by DCPS students, showcased once again on the recently-released National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), where the district remained the only jurisdiction in the country to have upward gains in both 2013 and 2015, and on the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA), where DCPS saw the largest increase in scores of any other urban district in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth-grade math.
But while Chancellor Henderson did not change course from the policy direction chartered by her contentious predecessor, she did notably shift the tone for conducting business and rebuilt a culture of trust after years of bitter battles. Early reports of her time in the district noted Henderson’s penchant for listening to stakeholder feedback, citing “the words you're most likely to hear about Henderson are collaborative and accessible.” By making an effort to implement policies by partnering with stakeholders, rather than dictating to them, Henderson was able to create the buy-in necessary to cement important systemic change.
Both her supporters and detractors would agree that Michelle Rhee played a crucial role in shaking up the status quo in DCPS. But because she was the one breaking the eggs, perhaps it required a new face to serve the omelet. The successes of Kaya Henderson during her last five years should serve as an example for those who follow in the footsteps of President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan. Despite the vitriol lobbed at the current Administration by teachers’ unions and other critics of accountability and reform, the leaders who follow them need not abandon the breathtaking progress we have made in raising standards for students and teachers alike. Instead, they can stay the course on policy while using this opportunity to reboot the tone of the conversation and rebuild relationships, and experience shows that will go a long way toward both dissolving the tension and solidifying the changes. Ultimately, there is no doubt that our country will be better off if our next President and Secretary of Education “pull a Kaya Henderson.”