Here is an assessment by Peter MacPherson of the performance of Kaya Henderson, the current head of the DC public school system and the successor to the notorious and infamous serial prevaricator, Michelle Rhee. You may not be surprised that it’s not a favorable evaluation. Comments are welcome; as usual, you have to find the tiny word ‘comment’ at the bottom of the box containing this article and then click on it.
By Peter MacPherson
When the sun rose over Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945 Franklin Roosevelt had been president of the United States for 12 years. He was less than three months into an unprecedented fourth term and figured in the national psyche like no other since Abraham Lincoln. Roosevelt led the country through economic depression and global war, through some of the most tumultuous years in American history. He was in Georgia taking a break from the crushing burdens of his office. Few could imagine an America without him at the helm.
Before the sun had set that spring day FDR was dead, having succumbed to a stroke. Then something even more remarkable happened. Life went on. Harry Truman became president and the wars in Europe and the Pacific brought to an end. A new phase in the life of the United States began.
What the death of FDR showed was that the shoes of even the greatest leaders can be filled by others. No one is irreplaceable. FDR helps put someone like Kaya Henderson in perspective. The leader of the District of Columbia Public Schools is not FDR. She is not even the FDR of school system administrators. Henderson is simply a person who has run a medium-sized school system for three and a half years. And she has not done it well. But the hagiographic treatment she has been afforded by many opinion leaders in the city has prevented an honest appraisal from being conducted in the public space of how she has run a troubled school system.
It is time for that appraisal to take place.
Not only is Kaya Henderson not irreplaceable as chancellor but her tenure needs to come to an end. The District of Columbia is in better fiscal and demographic condition than at any time in the past 50 years. But education could well be the undoing of this trend line. The Washington Post conducted a poll in January that showed that 51 percent of participants viewed District public schools as not so good or poor. A 46 percent minority approve of her performance as chancellor. The vibrant future for the city that everyone hopes can be sustained is overwhelmingly dependent on the emergence of a consistently good public school system. But a solid majority of District residents does not believe that exists here yet. And if that does not change quickly then families will leave, as they have in the past. With the ability of the District government to deliver quality public education for all an open question, the future prosperity of the city is unknown. And Henderson bears substantial responsibility for that ambiguity.
Even more central is the fact that many District school children are not getting the education to which they are entitled and deserve. And that failure belongs to Henderson and the mayor.
Obviously DCPS is still struggling. In part that’s attributable to basic management failures on Henderson’s part. But there is also her inability to align goals such as those articulated in “A Capital Commitment,” her statement of where she wants DCPS to be by 2017, with an actual plan for achieving those objectives. Mostly what Henderson has given us in this regard are slogans, like “Proving What’s Possible.” Other than a longer school day Henderson never did say what else was possible.
Putting aside for a moment any discussion about the merits of the kind of education reform pursued by District leaders in recent years, DCPS has been run poorly. Basic administrative competence has been absent. We have children showing up for field-trips only to learn they’re transportation isn’t coming because the school system is in arrears to a bus company to the tune of $430,000. There are parents who have to search city-wide to find coaches for school team sports in which their children are interested. We have expensively-modernized high schools, like Anacostia, that operated for more than a year without a single library book. School librarians sign-on to Destiny, the electronic card catalog system, and are greeted by a message informing them that the license for the software has expired. That’s happening because DCPS has not paid the bill. We have schools struggling to get sufficient numbers of computers and adequate support to keep them functioning. In spite of possessing a large central office staff basic supports for the local schools are often lacking. The system does a poor job of recruiting needed staff and the chancellor ignores pleas to ramp up those efforts. For example DCPS does not have enough foreign language teachers or librarians. It’s ability to recruit school leadership from outside our region is manifest.
Money always seems to be an issue yet Henderson has endorsed huge waste in basic programs like food service. DCPS contracts for food and in recent years has had deficits in this area of between $10 million and $14 million annually. And talented central office staff that could have alerted that situation, even producing profit in this area for DCPS, found themselves unemployed. As Henderson said, food is not a “core competency” of DCPS.
DCPS has a leader whose commitment to leading the system often seems tenuous, conveying the sense that she’d really rather be running a charter school. Henderson always seems to be looking to charter schools for models. In recent testimony before the council she suggested that perhaps DCPS middle school students should be funneled to charters because of her system’s inability to transform the ones its operating. We see her trying to form partnerships with charter schools in order to create hybrid institutions. But the best charters are no better than the best schools in DCPS. The charters do not seem to be in sole possession of the proverbial secret sauce.
Henderson never mentions the suburban school systems in our region, some of which are amongst the finest in the United States, as a source of models and best practices. These are diverse systems that can run things well, like middle schools.
Henderson’s ambivalence is seen in DCPS enrollment statistics. Despite lavish expenditures on the schools and an increasing city population, DCPS has only recently stopped bleeding away students. She and her predecessor Michelle Rhee drove many students into charter schools in their drive to shrink the footprint of DCPS. Despite the pleadings of communities in which the closed schools resided, the people who wanted to keep what DCPS was offering, these campuses were closed anyway. Though Henderson has had the resources to compete, she has chosen instead to give up territory to charter schools. Henderson and Rhee have never taken responsibility for the fact that the closed schools failed to thrive. Failure has always belonged to others, be they parents and communities who did not embrace the schools or administrators who ran them poorly.
None of the closed schools had been modernized, though a few were extensively stabilized. That means that schools like the old Gage-Eckington Elementary had large sums dumped into them to ensure basic habitability. But that is far as modernization for these schools went.
The closed schools were drab, uninviting places. More than that, though, was the fact that they were thin academically and in programmatic terms. Individual school funding has followed enrollment in recent years and this placed these schools in a death spiral. They had no money because they were too small. And they could not improve their offerings because they were too small. These schools, in poor communities, usually had only half-time music, art and library coverage. In some instances it was Rhee who brought those features to schools. But they did not create a critical mass of improvements in these schools. A lot goes into a school in which parents wish to send their children. Outside of Wards Three and Six those kinds of schools, the ones parents are clamoring for their children to attend, are in short supply.
When enrollment declines at feeder schools, the high schools suffer. Everything becomes weaker. During community meetings held around the city in the fall of 2012, Henderson always said that the consolidated schools would have more offerings. But last spring, during a round of closings, DC Council Education Committee David Catania complained he could see no real evidence that was taking place.
Currently taxpayers are obligated to paying municipal debt on $700 million worth of high school modernizations alone. That number will climb to over $1.12 billion by the time modernizations of Roosevelt, Coolidge, Ellington, Ballou and Banneker are completed. We a few exceptions these schools are operating at barely 50 percent of capacity. The relentless spending on high schools, which have 22 percent of DCPS students, has crowded out spending on elementary and middle schools. These two categories account for 73 percent of enrollment if preK3 is included. Henderson has done nothing to alter this allocation of resources. What DCPS needs the most of at this moment is bright and vibrant elementary and middle schools that are rich in terms of their academic offerings. What we have is a modernization program that is not even close to delivering what is needed.
All this is why the modest growth in academic performance as measured by standardized tests seems so unimpressive to many. It has been achieved in the context of a lavishly funded yet poorly run school system. The obvious question for many is why aren’t we further along.
The answer is the individual occupying the executive suite at DCPS.