Education reform In DC (Part 1) — interview with Kaya Henderson | VIEWPOINT

Kaya: We also knew very clearly, from years
of work, that it was critically important to tie teacher performance to student performance. There’s no way you can tell me a teacher is
amazing, and their kids are not performing. Rick: Hi, I’m Rick, cast director of Education
Policy Studies here at the American Enterprise Institute. Delighted you can join me today. Honored to be with my friend, Kaya Henderson. Kaya started out by teaching middle school
in the South Bronx back as a member of one of the early Teach for America cohorts in
1992. She spent time with Teach for America. She along with Michelle Rhee helped launch
in a very influential effort called the New Teacher Project known as the TNTP. And she later went on to be Deputy Chancellor
and then Chancellor of the Washington DC Public Schools. She now mentors coaches and shares some of
the wisdom learned over lots of years of doing the work. Kaya, thanks so much for joining me today. Kaya: Thank you for having me, Rick. Rick: So that brings us to really what I would
love to talk about with you today, which are, what are some of the things you’ve learned
over time? What can young reformers take away from some
of your experiences? And what do we have to share? Well, let’s start with that. You spent close to a half dozen years as Chancellor
of Washington DC Public Schools, getting a lot of recognition for some of the, you know,
widely recognized improvements in play place. What are a couple of things that surprised
you that you learned in the course of those years? Kaya: I learned a lot, and was surprised by
quite a bit as DC Public Schools. I think going in, we knew that talent mattered,
right? And initially, when we got there our theory
of action was just get great people. And that led to a lot of the reforms that
DCPS has known for, human capital reforms, teacher evaluation, pay for performance, you
know, a revised union contract, all of those kinds of things. But as we get…as we got an uncapped great
talent, it became clear that that wasn’t enough. Those great people needed support and resources
and development. Those great people also needed to be engaged
with students and families in ways that I think big systems don’t contemplate. And so, we saw our theory of action evolving
really based on the feedback and responses that we were getting from our most valuable
commodity, which were our teachers and leaders. And I think, you know, lots of times when
I look at young reformers, one, young reformers think they have all the answers. And lots of times they think that the people
in the field just don’t…either don’t know the answers or can’t figure out how to get
to success. But what I found is people in the field have
tremendous, tremendous expertise. But these big systems actually impede them
from doing the things that they know are good and right for kids. And so, I think young reformers need to enter
this work with much more humility about the people that are working in districts, and
about what they have and haven’t been able to do. I think you know, a big key to our success
at DCPS is we’re in constant communication with our teachers, with our principals, and
later with our parents and our students, to figure out what it was they wanted, what they
needed to be successful. And our job as policy makers or as stewards
of financial resources, was to really enable folks on the ground to be successful. And I think we enter the reform space believing
that, you know, the folks who are there just don’t know what they are doing. And I think that that’s a terrible mistake
to make. Rick: So let’s unpack that a little bit because
there’s a lot there, obviously. So one part of it is, you know, when Michelle
Rhee was brought into DC as chancellor by Adrian Fenty and you went with her as her
number two, there was certainly a sense at least I think out there that this was you
guys against the teachers. Was that how you initially thought about it? Was that people misreading how you guys were
going about the work? Kaya: I think that was people misreading how
we were going about the work. So a little-known fact is that I had been
working in DCPS for seven years before we got there as…before I got there as the deputy
chancellor. I had a contract with DC Public Schools through
The New Teacher Project where I was managing all of teacher recruitment for the district,
all principal recruitment for the district. I had negotiated successfully a memorandum
of understanding to change the hiring timelines with the Teachers Union. And so, part of the reason why we were able
to be so successful, was because we had positive relationships with teachers and the union
and principals when we walked into DCPS. Now, we knew that we…because we had this
experience in DCPS, we also knew that there were lots of things to clean up. It was never about us against the teachers. We knew that there was some segment of teachers
who didn’t belong there, but we also knew that we needed to highlight and expand the
span of control of our high performers, and there were plenty of high performers in DC
Public Schools. And that we needed to figure out a really
good mechanism for developing people because when you come to an embattled school district
like DC Public Schools, you don’t always have the kind of support and professional development
that you need to grow. And so, teachers feel like they’re swimming
against the tide. And our entire orientation was, how can we
make teachers better. Because what we’ve known from doing nearly
15 years of work at The New Teacher Project was the single most important in-school factor
for moving student achievement is the quality of the teacher. And so, it couldn’t be us against the leverage
point, the lynch pin, right? This is why we wanted to pay teachers more. This is why we wanted to recognize and reward
teachers with The Kennedy Center event. We wanted to make DCPS the best place in the
country for teachers. We have some work to do to get there. But it was never about us versus the teachers. Rick: So obviously, that message didn’t get
out at least in the early years… Kaya: You know, people need…people like
drama. People like good guys and bad guys. People like, you know, Lone Rangers on white
horses coming to save people. And I think that we both benefited and were
significantly hurt by the edgy liberty that sort of surrounded the work that we were doing. Rick: So talk about that a little bit, and
especially what did you learn about trying to make sure the message…because it seems
like, over the years, that sense of conflict between the leadership and the teachers changed. Kaya: Yes. Rick: So what did you guys learn to kind of…so
that people saw more of the way that you wanted them to see it? Kaya: Yeah. I, you know, I think that, one, we needed
people to understand that we were serious about change. As I said, I had been working in DCPS for
seven years directly in human resources department. Before that, I was the executive director
of Teach for America DC, so I had been working with the district for close to four years. And in that nearly 11 years, there were probably
9 or 10 different superintendents. And so. the posture when new superintendents came
into the organization was for people to just cross their arms and wait it out because inevitably,
you, know that person would be gone in short order. And so, literally, we needed to come in with
a different sense of momentum, a different sense of urgency, to help people understand
there is no waiting out. Like we are moving, we’re moving fast. We’re doing things very differently. And I think that that sense of urgency was
in some cases misconstrued, in some cases sort of overblown. But, you know, you can’t fight your way to
success, right? I just have never seen an organization where
the people who had to make the organization work, like fought their way to a great outcome. You only get success when people work together. And so, I think what we were able to do and,
you know, again the communication stuff really I think hampered us in lots of ways. We were able to change the narrative first
by not talking to people outside of the organization. When I became chancellor, I watched how bruised
people were from all of the back and forth in the press.And people felt like Michelle
had really made her kind of fame on the backs of this local context. And I wanted people to understand coming in
as chancellor, that they were my priority, that local was everything for me. And so, for the entire first year of my chancellorship,
I would not attend any national conferences. I wouldn’t take press with any national reporters. I only spoke to local reporters. I only did things here in DC. And for me, that was about making sure that
people understood that my priority was nothing but this city, these kids, these families. And then when the sort of moratorium was lifted,
I felt like it was really important for people to hear and see a different story about DCPS. People had decades worth of anecdotes and
images about how terrible DCPS was. And they hadn’t seen much of the progress
that we had begun to make. And so, it became very clear to me when we
started doing really positive things and had good news, and nobody was covering it, that
we needed to change how we were communicating. And God bless social media, which allows us
to go direct to consumer, right? And not wait for the Washington Post to tell
us tell our story or somebody else to tell our story. And it allowed us to tell our story the way
we wanted to. And so, it meant me opening up a Facebook
account and a Twitter account and an Instagram account and showing people the DCPS what I
was seeing. Showing the amazing teachers. Showing the great new programs that we are
putting in place. Showing kids achieving at high levels. And we asked all of our schools to think differently
about how they told their story all of our central office folks. And so, you know, a couple of years ago, I
was really excited when we won somebodies award or another for having the best social
media presence of any school district in the country. But we seized that to create a different narrative
about DCPS and to help people get a different level of confidence in the school system. Rick: One piece of this, especially the professionalization
of teachers, is the DC impact program. Teacher evaluation that a lot of folks have
pointed to as a model that states have tried with mixed success to benefit. Can you talk a little bit about why you guys
think it worked? And a little bit how it’s evolved over time? Kaya: Sure. So we went into this work in 2007 thinking,
again, human capital just get and keep great people. And that meant three things. That meant recognizing and rewarding our highest
performers. Developing our mid-length performers. And moving out are low performers. But when we got to the District 90 something
percent of teachers were rated as meets or exceeds expectations, when only 20 some percent
of kids, 23% of kids were meeting or exceeding expectations on the statewide test. So there’s a huge disconnect. We literally could not tell who the good teachers
were because the evaluation system, which was a one page checklist that maybe were observed
and got that feedback and maybe you didn’t, it was so ill conceived and inconsistently
implemented that we knew that we needed to create a baseline and set expectations around
what teaching would look like in DC Public Schools. And the way to do that is through a teacher
evaluation system. It lays out very clearly what you want to
see, how you want teachers to teach. And by providing them with observations and
feedback they get they have a clear understanding of where they are and where they’re struggling,
where they’re excelling, and you can move from there. We also knew very clearly from years of work
at TNTP, that it was critically important to tie teacher performance to student performance. There’s no way you can tell me a teacher is
amazing and their kids are not performing. And state tests are part of that, but only
13% of teachers teach in tested grades and subjective. Rick: Can you explain when you say only 13%,
what do you mean? Kaya: So I mean teachers who teach grades
three through eight…3 through 8, 9, 10 and 11, English, language arts, and math for the
most part. And then there are all of these other teachers
pre-K through two, and then up the grade span that don’t teach in those major subject areas. And those people need feedback and growth
and development as well because developing kids artistic talents is as important as developing
their test scores. And so, we needed an evaluation mechanism
for art teachers and music teachers and PE teachers and, you know, science teachers and
social studies teachers. And so, we designed a system that took into
account how teachers were teaching through observations. And we hired expert teachers in those content
areas to provide good feedback for teachers. We also looked at student performance. In some cases test scores and other cases
goals that were set with the principal and the teachers. A set of goals that we pre-approved because
we wanted them to be rigorous. But, you know, we created a system that had
multiple metrics so that teachers had different opportunities to show where they were against
our expectations. And it was, you know, it was pioneering at
the time, but I think the most important thing that we did when we started impact, was we
called it impact 1.0 to signal to people that were putting a stake in the ground around
teacher evaluation in ways that had never been done before. But we were also…we knew that we were gonna
have to iterate on this, right? Because, you know, our best first guess was,
could it be perfect? And so, we wanted to create the space and
teachers said ”Why? Are you gonna change this every year?” We said, ”No” because we don’t want you
to feel like the goalpost is moving every year. But every three years. Every year we will tweak in ways that, you
know, might improve but wouldn’t radically change what you’re trying to do. But every three years we’ll do a big kind
of refresh. And I think that gave teachers a level of
stability and confidence in the system. The same way we started impact is the same
way we iterated which was talk about talking to lots and lots of teachers. And we held 140 listening sessions with teachers,
groups of teachers, before we even put pen to paper. And throughout the process through every three
years in terms of the evolutions of impact from, you know, teachers saying ”Five observations
is too much. If I’m good can I go down to three?” Or teachers saying, ”You know what? This one score was an anomaly. Do I have the ability to drop a score?” And all of the things that teachers asked
us were quite reasonable. They weren’t trying to game the system. They literally brought good thoughts to the
table, and we engaged with them as co-creators, I think, of the system. And so, when the park was coming for example,
and none of us knew what our scores were gonna look like or… Rick: So this is the new Common Core aligned
test. Kaya: New Common Core aligned tests. Our teachers were very nervous about how this
would impact their evaluation scores. And so, I decided to waive teacher…student
test scores in the evaluations for two years. Year one just for us to sort of see what the
test was, and see how we were doing. And then a second year so that teachers had
a little run up before it started to have consequence for them. And while I got my hands spanked from the
US Department of Education, and I got lots of flack from policy people who felt like
we were softening our stance on teacher evaluation, it was the rightest decision that I could
have made for my school district, right? My teachers felt a level of comfort and, like,
we want people to do their best work and put their best foot forward. And so, they knew that for two years they
had some grace period. At the same time we used other student achievement
metrics, so we were still incorporating student achievement. And then in year three, what we saw was incredible
progress both on the park and on the nape. And I think part of that is because we listen
to our teacher’s concerns, and then made the appropriate adjustments. And they knew because we said the whole entire
time. Year three it is back on. People were like, ”That’s cool. I can I can do that.” So I think, you know, when I think about what
I would tell a young reformer, your policy might be incredibly right, but you have to
manage how people actually implement these policies because you could, in fact, undo
a really good policy because you didn’t manage the change appropriately. Rick: And it just seems like that is something
that in DC, you guys were positioned to do well because you were working directly with
the mayor. There is not a state managing lots of systems. And it seems like one of the things a lot
of well-intended folks from states ran into is they were trying to write statewide laws
in lots of districts. Kaya: Yes, districts are so different from
one another. And, you know, even within a district there
are so much diversity around school type and blah blah. You know, I think we like the policy lever
because it’s a hammer, right? And when you’ve got a hammer everything looks
like a nail. And so, we think by writing one law, like,
everything changes. And what I can tell you for sure and we’ve
talked about this in cage busting, right, is that there are easy ways to get around
policy. There are easy ways to get around mandates
and whatnot. And so, I think just because you’ve written
a policy or you’ve instituted a policy, it doesn’t mean that the implementation will
go well. And it doesn’t mean that people won’t work
around it. Rick: So let’s stay with this cage busting
point. This is something, I think, you’ve always
been incredibly thoughtful about. Is as, you know, as we would talk during the
years as chancellor before, you would talk about ways in which you had figured out how
to make things happen that folks frequently said, ”Gosh there’s no way to make that happen.” Kaya: Yeah. Rick: Can you talk…id there an example or
two that comes to mind? And you talk a little bit just about the habits
of mind that help people and school systems solve problems like that? Kaya: So I’ll be really honest. I think that me never having sort of advanced
through a school system, gave me a very different perspective on the problems that school systems
face. And so, you know, lots of things that hamstring
people, you know, people sort of run up against these walls. And my thing is, ”Okay if we can’t go through
it how do we go over it or under it or around it?” Part of that I think comes out of my time
as executive director at Teach for America where I had 50 kids to place. And when the human resources department at
DC Public Schools told me that they weren’t gonna place my kids, I mean, these were people’s
lives who were on the line. They had moved to DC to teach and I had to
get them jobs whether the district was gonna cooperate or not. And so, I hit the road and I went out and
talked to principals and got them all placed myself, right? At TNTP, you know, where we were delivering
for clients and they were paying us, if we didn’t do what we said no matter what the
state regulations or whatever…So first I had to go to the state regulator and say,
”Can we change this?” And if they said, ”No” I had to see if there
was a loophole that I could drive a truck through so that I could get my client what
they needed. I think that orientation, you know, is what
took me to my cage busting this at DC Public Schools. May, shall does not mean must, right? And, you know, just because you’ve been doing
it these ways like what do you have to do versus what do you not have to do. And I just started asking lots of questions
and challenging these notions of, you know, must do or can’t do. And what we found where lots of opportunities
that could be maximized. Rick: Hey, everyone. Thanks for watching Part one of our discussion
with former DC schools Chancellor, Kaya Henderson. If you enjoyed what you saw remember to like
the video or leave a comment. And if you want to see more, check out Part
Number two.

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