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Interview with Kaya Henderson

D.C.'s chancellor discusses following Michelle Rhee, dealing with a cheating scandal, and trying to keep newcomers from fleeing public schools.

When Kaya Henderson took over the job as head of the District of Columbia Public Schools, she did so under a cloud of controversy, to put it mildly. Her predecessor, Michelle Rhee, had pushed through a labor contract that eliminated forced placements, seniority-based layoffs, and the single-salary schedule, then resigned during a cheating scandal that called some of DCPS's recent test-score increases into question. The only saving grace was that Henderson wasn't a new arrival on the scene: She'd been working in and around the district for 10 years. It has been 17 months since Henderson took the helm, and she talked with us about where she's been and where DCPS is heading.

Q What's different about being head of the system, for better or worse?
I do a lot of politicking, a lot of representing, a lot of "ambassadoring." What I really love to do is sit in a room and bust up a crazy, vexing problem. I do a lot less of that kind of work now.

Q How have people reacted to D.C.'s much-debated teacher contract-which, among other things, ended forced placements and seniority-based layoffs?
Principals-but even now teachers-appreciate the mutual consent provision, which treats them as professionals. Of course, some people don't have the job security they once had. If you are rated effective or higher [but are slated to change schools], you can take a $25,000 buyout or a year paid to find a job, which we call a grace year.

Q What lessons have been learned from the cheating scandal that rocked DCPS and a handful of other districts?
States have to build their role to monitor and hold districts accountable. There also needs to be some standards in place for what a good investigation looks like. We did what was requested of us, which was to investigate the places that the state flagged. We're not forensic test investigators. That's not our role or job.

Q What was the media's role in this?
With all due respect to the media, what makes a scandal? To me, a scandal is lots of people cheating. In DCPS, 10 classrooms were flagged out of 1,800. I'd like to discuss the definition of a scandal. Help me understand how I get 4,000 people to pick themselves up off the floor when they're all accused of being cheaters.

Q Define your position on publishing teachers' value-added ratings, which has been done in Los Angeles and New York City, and advocated elsewhere.
We do not do it, and it's not something that I would pursue. Our professional responsibility to our employees is developmental in nature and is not about putting a label on who they are at one moment in time.

Q Will NCLB waivers be as helpful as we've been led to believe?
NCLB has been really good in that it allows us to focus on all of our students, disaggregating special needs and other subgroups. But it would be good to have a little more flexibility, especially around how we deal with failing schools.

Q What have you been doing with closures and turnarounds, two things that most districts have to do but seem to always be difficult and controversial?
In terms of closings over the next six to eight months, we are going to figure out what our portfolio is going to look like and look at our boundaries and feeder patterns-many of which have not been changed since the 1970s. As for turnarounds, we look at our schools in "restructuring" status every year and determine what we think is the best approach. We have a lot of different models, including schools partnering with CMOs and putting a "planning principal" in place a year before changes are made.

Q What are you doing to engage those families that are staying in or returning to the district but have not previously sent their kids to neighborhood schools?
With 18,000 new residents arriving in the last 12 months, we're seeing a tremendous demand for public schooling that is more diverse. The challenge is to create schools where newcomers who want to invest in neighborhood schools feel comfortable with our ability to meet their needs, without disparaging the needs of the people who've been there all along.

Q Last year, Netflix founder Reed Hastings publicly promised that if you could provide buildings he would bring Rocketship Charters to Washington. What's happened since then?
[Laughs] Rocketship told me they can probably get here in five years. I told them, "Great-if I'm here, call me." In the meantime, we're piloting 18 different blended learning approaches across the district to figure out which ones teachers feel most invested in so we can begin to scale ourselves.

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