Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Leaders & Lessons: A Conversation with District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson

March 03, 2016

This is Part III of the Leaders & Lessons blog series. You can also find Part I (Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist) and Part II (Former Maryland State Superintendent Dr. Lillian Lowery) on Impatient Optimists.

This blog series started with a simple idea: let us have a series of conversations with education leaders and tap into the wisdom they’ve acquired through putting policy into practice. What have they found that works? How have they changed systems to improve student outcomes? How do they communicate a vision for success and engage their communities as partners? How are they tackling issues like inequity and achievement gaps?

My guest in this post, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, gets an additional question that she is uniquely qualified to answer: how do you take a district caught in a downward spiral and in less than a decade make it the fastest improving school system in the nation?


From 1997 – 2007, DCPS was led by six different superintendents. Despite spending more per-pupil than almost anywhere else in the nation, half of the district’s schools were failing in reading and math. Morale and parent perceptions of DCPS schools were similarly troubled. Then the district made a dramatic shift in both policy and culture. Kaya Henderson was a part of this shift from the beginning, joining DCPS in 2007 as Deputy Chancellor before being appointed Chancellor in November of 2010.


Since embracing high expectations, data-driven decision-making, and committing to teacher growth and retention, DCPS has been on a steady path of improvement. Graduation rates are on the rise, NAEP scores have shown significant and continued growth in both reading and math, and DCPS enrollment has increased every year since 2012.


This remarkable turnaround has been led by a charismatic and passionate leader who has sustained DCPS’s progress across three different mayoral administrations and emerged as a national leader along the way. I’m thrilled to be joined by Kaya Henderson.


Gavin Payne: Not ten minutes before we got on the phone I was in a meeting where someone said, “DCPS is doing better on multiple measures than anybody else.” And it’s true – DCPS is on a steady path of improvement. What is the “secret sauce”? To what do you attribute this remarkable turnaround from where DCPS was a decade ago?


Chancellor Kaya Henderson: I think that it is a combination of some really important things that DCPS and the city have done together that have resulted in the tremendous improvement, growth, and progress that we’re making. On the DCPS front, we have a theory of action, which is fairly simple:


We need the very best people – the best teachers, the best school leaders, the best central office staff. Because any organization is only as good as its people.


The second piece is rigorous academic curricula. I don’t mean just reading and math, but also art, music, PE, athletics, and foreign language. We focus on creating the kind of experience you want for your child and the kind of experience I want for my child. That’s the kind of experience that we are providing to all students in DCPS.


The third piece is motivating our students and engaging our families. We think that students and families are a part of the solution, not a problem to be solved. When kids are excited to come to school and families know how to support their young people, the combination of that, plus rigorous curricula and great people, has helped us turn around what was once the lowest performing school district in the country.


The city has also made commitments, investments, and policy changes over time that helped create an environment where DCPS could actually turn around. We have had sustained political support for real education change over several mayors, and that is, I think, rare. With that sustained political support we’ve also seen continued fiscal investments. We did not experience the recession the way a lot of other jurisdictions did. Every year we’ve seen greater and greater investments in the public education system, which is important because you can’t turn around a low-performing school district on the same dollars that you use to operate it; there has to be some investment. So, this type of cooperation has been a key part of the work.


GP: Inside DCPS, I can imagine there are a thousand demands that come at you every day. How do you prioritize and find the right balance between acting on ideas to help drive improvement and also addressing the pressing problems at hand?


KH: One of the things that I learned when I first started working with school districts is this: there are literally a zillion things you could be doing every single day, and in attempting to do them all, you do absolutely none of them well. And so, we are very disciplined about picking a couple of things to do really well.


For example, our theory of action evolved over time. At first we thought, “just get great people.” To the exclusion of almost everything else, we focused on getting and keeping great teachers and educators, and building an environment where they would want to stay.


Then when we thought about curriculum and started to do that work very well, we realized that it was going to take 3 or 4 years to do what we want to do, and we’ve got to be disciplined about not being distracted or following whatever is the next fad. I think there are a set of strategies that are important across any educational organization. But the order in which you do them matters and your ability to do as few things as possible to the best degree will literally make or break what you’re trying to do.


But we don’t do this disciplined, focused work without some sense of exploration and trying new things. If we have a new exciting idea to test, we usually don’t have the space in our budget to try it out. We use philanthropic dollars to help us catalyze a lot of innovative practices. And here’s where the discipline comes in: we give ourselves a fairly short runway to decide whether the new idea is something that is successful and important enough to build so that it’s sustainable in the long term.


GP: Even within those lessons, it sounds like there are things that require thoughtful, continued change and a bit of nuanced rejiggering. Tell us about how you’ve gone about making systemic changes and what has worked well for you?


KH: One of the things that we’ve been very clear about is that none of us knows all of the answers and there are no silver bullets. We’re going to put our best foot forward at all times. But we’re also going to make mid-course corrections when the data tells us that we need to do so.


When we put our evaluation system together, we called it “IMPACT 1.0” because we knew that we would be inviting improvements and changes over time. It all has to evolve with your teaching corps. And so, at the three-year mark on IMPACT 1.0, we made some pretty big changes, mostly based on what teachers were telling us and what the data were showing us.


And now we’re at year six, so it’s time for another big re-examination of IMPACT. Our curricula have changed, and the challenges that our teachers face are very different than they were six years ago when we first put IMPACT in place. So, we’ve got to have an evaluation system that meets the needs of the entire system and reflects how the system has evolved.


GP: If you’re giving advice to your fellow district leaders and superintendents, what was the best data point for you that indicated you needed to modify the work?


KH: The first iteration of IMPACT was developed because we just weren’t seeing consistently good instructional practices being implemented, and we didn’t have a curriculum in place. Over time, we’ve developed a curriculum, which is the best professional development. Once your people get these basic instructional practices down, it is really all about pushing inside of teachers’ classrooms instead of pulling them out for workshops. But, we needed that data to figure out where we were, so we could rebuild that foundational pedagogical base first. From there we can begin to evaluate teachers on content-based efficacy around teaching and learning.


GP: So, by focusing on data, the data itself gets tighter and you can make improvements in the system.


KH: Absolutely.

GP: Let me ask you about building buy-in and retaining the best teachers while still addressing the everyday needs of district schools.


Years ago, in the early days of NCLB, I was touring a school in L.A. and I was having a great conversation with a principal about her school’s teachers. As the principal went down the list of how many highly qualified teachers they had, how many long-term subs they had, how many situational subs they had, she turned to me and said,” You forgot to ask me one question – “how many classrooms do I not have a body in right now?” To me, that was a great example of how school leaders have to balance that drive for improvement with the everyday aspects of running schools and meeting basic needs. What are some of the day-in and day-out methods of retaining the best, making them feel engaged in the system and bought-in?


KH: When I joined DCPC staff in 2007, we asked ourselves: which teachers do we want to recognize, reward, and retain so that they will stick around? Which ones do we need to grow and which ones do we need to find something different to do with?  But, our teacher evaluation system told us that 90-some percent of the teachers met or exceeded expectations. We didn’t even have a true picture.


We decided that we needed a system where quality drove every single decision that we made around personnel. And then we decided that we were going to create a place where the best teachers would want to come and stay. We created a performance pay system and reward programs for our teachers.


Over time, the better teachers perform, the more opportunities they have to lead throughout the district. We used to be one of the lowest-paying school districts in our region. But if we want the best teachers, we’ve got to pay for the best. We changed our compensation system so that we now have the highest first-year teacher salary in the country. And that has had a tremendous impact on retention.


We also created a program called “A Standing Ovation for DC Teachers,” which is kind of the Kennedy Center Honors for our best teachers – we work hard to celebrate their hard work. I’m really proud of our successes. We have three times as many male teachers of color in DCPS than the national average. We retain 93 percent of our highly effective teachers.


GP: Talk a bit about how you go about establishing and setting expectations around progress and growth. Test scores aren’t the only thing happening in the classroom. I would love to hear your thinking about how you connect outcomes with other measures and how those connect to your thinking about investments.


KH: First, you’ve got to decide what you want from your education system. I’m the parent of two DCPS students; many of my leadership team also have children in DCPS.  One time we were making decisions around some investments. When I asked my team how we should use the funds, we all started talking about what we want for our own children. I heard someone on my team say, “In addition to academics, I want them to play an instrument and master a foreign language. I want them to play a sport and I want them to be technologically literate. I want them to feel safe and happy.” And I said, “Well then that’s how we’re going to invest this money.” Our fundamental philosophical underpinning is we want schools that we would be happy to send our kids to.


We’ve also had to reset expectations for our stakeholders around what success looks like. In 2012, we laid out a five-year plan with five goals. First, we will improve proficiency for all of our students, while doubling the number of advanced students. The second goal is centered on improving struggling schools at a quicker pace. Our third goal is to ensure that we’re getting kids through school and on to college or a career. The fourth goal is around student satisfaction. I want 90 percent of our kids to love their school. That’s important because as a parent, my kids spend more time at school than they do with me. Our fifth goal is about enrollment. Enrollment is a proxy for public confidence in DCPS.


Every single department within the organization creates their annual goals and operating plans based on those five overarching goals. I’m held accountable to those five goals by the city. We do regular “school stats,” where we review data that tell us whether we’re on track to meet these goals and discuss what’s working and what changes we need to make. Looking at data regularly and using that to drive us towards our goals has kept us honest and focused over time.


GP: You have spoken openly about your personal goal of closing achievement gaps. Our work at the foundation is similarly focused on creating a bridge to opportunity for all students, but particularly for low-income students and students of color. How are you attacking achievement gaps in DCPS?  

KH: So first of all – and this might be controversial, but that has never stopped me from saying something – I think that I am not exactly convinced that schools alone can close the achievement gap. I think about the fact that in Washington, DC, we have the greatest income inequality in the country. That gap is only growing and the fact that our achievement gap is growing in a similar way shouldn’t be baffling.


But I think what we’ve learned is that equity is really more appropriate: giving different people different kinds of support. We have to make sure that whether they are traditional high school students or alternative school students, general ed or special ed, early childhood or post-secondary, that we’re giving all of our young people whatever it takes for them to succeed in either a job, college or the military. And for different groups and different kids that means different things.


GP: Last question. If you had five words to describe the key (or keys) to improving education for all students, what 5 words would those be?


KH: Treat them like your own.


GP: I just love that. Thank you, I really appreciate you sharing your time with us.

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