This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.” These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.
In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?
The US has invested in two things in public education that are fundamentally wrong. The first one? Perpetuating really low expectations for kids. When you look at our education investments over the last 20-30 years, the focus has been low-level proficiency in a handful of subject areas. That belies a fairly low expectation about what kids can accomplish. It reveals our belief that, if schools can just get the moderate level of proficiency, then they will have done their job. We seem believe that low to moderate proficiency is the goal for some kids. For wealthy kids, we believe they also need international trips, art and music, foreign language, and service experiences. Those investments, made both by wealthy families and wealthier schools – belie greater expectations for those students.
I had the very good fortune to grow up in a family that started out poor, but transcended to the middle class over the course of my childhood. I was blessed to have a mother who had us traveling the world, insured that I spoke a foreign language, took horseback riding, and participated in Girl Scouts. But I had cousins who came from the exact same place as I did, whose parents and schools didn’t share those expectations. Some of them attended the magnet elementary with me, so even when their parents didn’t have high expectations, good public schools put us on the same trajectory.
When I became chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), my expectations were based on my personal experiences. I believe that schools have to inspire kids to greatness. What I saw however, was people trying to remediate kids to death. So, I inherited a district where people weren’t teaching social studies and science, and where arts and foreign language programs were paid for by some PTAs, because some parents recognized the needs even with the district didn’t. What I saw was different expectations for different kids, and the investments followed suit. Our goal was to recreate these rich experiences, both enrichment and academic, for all kids.
The second investment that cripple US education? Systems that are built for teachers who we don’t believe in. We try to teacher-proof the things that we want teachers to do. But, if what we give teachers is worthy of them, if it peaks their intellectual curiosity, makes them need to learn, pushes and challenges them? — then teachers rise to expectations in the same way that kids do.
One of the things that we did in DCPS was to significantly raise teachers’ salaries, and radically raise expectations. Lots of people were not happy about it, but the people who were happiest? Our best teachers! They were already rising to highest expectations.
We reinvented our curriculum aligned to Common Core State Standards, with the idea that every single course should have lessons that blow kids’ minds. We designed these Cornerstone lessons – the lesson that kids will remember when they are grownups. For example, when we’re teaching volume in math, it coincides with a social studies unit on Third World development. So students learn to design a recyclable water bottle, in a few different dimensions, to help developing countries get better access to water. They then build the prototypes for the containers and test them out. Lessons like that make you remember volume in a different way.
We wanted one Cornerstone less in each unit, for a total of five over the year. We designed lessons for every grade level, every subject area. When we designed the Cornerstones, we mandated that teachers teach that lesson. What happened? Everyone used them and demanded more! Teachers wanted to have 3 or 4 Cornerstone lessons for each of their units.
How do we get parents to opt –in to public schools at scale?
I had families tell me that I needed to do a better marketing job, that I wasn’t selling DCPS enough. They compared us to charter schools with glossy brochures. When I started, the product that we had to market wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to duplicate the negative experiences parents were getting: great marketing, but then disappointment in the product.
The first year that I was Chancellor at DCPS, we didn’t lose any kids to charters. That was monumental! After 40 consecutive years of enrollment decline, we had 5 consecutive years of enrollment growth. We laid a foundation with a good program, then we listened to parents. We combined what they wanted, with what we knew kids needed, and rebuilt the system from the ground up. Our competitive advantage is that we are not boutique schools. We are like Target: we have to serve lots of different people and give them different things. As a district, our challenge is to guarantee the same quality of product, regardless of location. What are we going to guarantee to every family and how will every family know that?
We started by re-engineering our elementary schools. Some schools had been operating for so long without social studies, that they didn’t know how to schedule for it. It meant creating sample schedules for them and hiring specialist teachers. Once we could tell parents that every school would have XYZ programs, they didn’t have to shop for it anymore! Then we moved on to middle school and guaranteed advanced and enrichment offerings at every campus. Then we did the same at the high school level and significantly expanded AP courses. Today all of our high schools offer on average 13 AP courses. Even if there are kids who have to take the AP course twice, they do it. We know that the exposure to that level of academic rigor prepares students for college.
DCPS was a district where families came for elementary, opted-out at middle school, and then maybe came back for a handful of high schools. So we looked at the boutique competitor schools and added a few of those models to DCPS too.
You do have to sell, but there’s no better advertisement than parents saying “I love this school !” Some of our schools that were never in the lottery, now have a ton of applicants! We were careful not to build things on charismatic people, but to build systems so that these gains would be sustainable. Now parents that never would have considered DCPS are clamoring for our schools.
Kids are kids, no matter where in the country they live. The cost of education is static. If we are serious about this education, we have to make some different decisions and put the money behind it. We’ve seen ten consecutive years of financial surplus in DC, at a time when the country was falling apart. I was even more lucky that three different mayors prioritized education and but the money in the budget. You can’t expect schools to do the more on the same dollars. You have to invest in innovation funds.
Kaya’s One Good Question Literally, my question is what is the best use of my time moving forward? When you’re running a district, you are in the weeds. You don’t know about all of the new and exciting things in the space. Right now, I’m being deliberate about exploring the sector and that’s important. I want to figure out what will make my heart sing!
Right now I’m obsessed with the intersectionality about housing, education, jobs and healthcare. This old trope that, if we just ‘fix’ education, is garbage. I’m not saying it’s linear or causal, but it’s necessary to work on more than one issue affecting families at a time, and the efforts have to be coordinated and triangulated. Some of the most exciting things on the horizon are people like Derwin Sisnett, who is working to re-engineer communities for housing to be anchored around high performing schools and the community is replete with healthcare services and job training that the community needs to improve.
About Kaya: Kaya Henderson is an educator, activist, and civil servant who served as Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools from November 2010 to September 2016. She is the proud parent of a DCPS graduate and a DCPS fifth grader.
In 1992, Henderson joined Teach For America, and took a job teaching in the South Bronx in New York City. Henderson was promoted to executive director of Teach for America in 1997, and relocated to Washington, D.C. In 2000, Henderson left Teach for America and joined the New Teacher Project as Vice President for Strategic Operations.