Photo by MsSaraKelly.
By nearly all accounts, Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson departed from the abusive style of her predecessor, Michelle Rhee. Rather than intentionally alienating and opposing educators and members of the community, Henderson made a far warmer and more inspiring impression.
There was still friction between Henderson and the D.C. teachers union and with community activists who opposed her decisions to close multiple schools. Still, when Henderson announced last week that she will step down after five years in the chancellor’s office, admirers and colleagues shared fond memories and messages of gratitude on Twitter, via the hashtags #ThankYouKaya and #KayaMagicMoment. Some came from the same pro-privatization crowd who supported Rhee, but many also came from local educators, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) staff, and parents.
But whether it’s served up with a scowl or a smile, it's still an open question whether the privatization-friendly, test-score-driven style of education policy D.C. has become known for benefits students.
There has been measurable progress in test scores in the District of Columbia. But it’s not clear that leaders like Kaya Henderson are driving the upswing. Rising test scores, which we know track family income more closely than any other factor, may have less to do with district leadership than with gentrification.
Over the past decade, gentrification has proceeded at breakneck speed in our nation’s capitol. Neighborhoods previously known for open-air drug markets now host farmers markets and art walks. Buildings once burned in riots of decades past are being transformed into wine bars, bake shops, and yoga studios. And of course, as privileged residents claim more and more space in these areas, they are displacing poorer longtime residents whose families are increasingly unable to afford to live in their old neighborhoods.
For the time being, D.C. public schools still serve a higher proportion of students living in severe poverty than the parallel charter system that now claims 45 percent of D.C.’s school-aged students. There are incredible stories of individual schools and teachers working their hardest to provide a high-quality, well-rounded education to students. But there are also plenty of stories of drill and kill test-prep dominating students’ academic lives. And on the main measures of “progress” touted by privatization advocates, these students-- the ones urban education “reform” is supposed to be about-- still remain on the losing side of a large and growing achievement gap.
Meanwhile, students in wealthier parts of the city, as well as the children of newer residents, are attending D.C.’s public schools at higher rates than in years past. An examination by the Urban Institute finds that growing numbers of D.C.’s children are being born to the kinds of affluent, highly-educated parents who used to leave all but the north- and westernmost parts of the city before starting families. Over the past few years, those students have started to fill the early grades of D.C.’s public schools—though wealthier families still tend to pull their children out of public schools by middle school, an observation which could explain why the recent gains seen for D.C.’s fourth graders on the NAEP don’t hold for eighth graders.
As we reflect on Kaya Henderson’s legacy, we need also to remember the hard work and dedication of D.C. public schools teachers and staff, most of whom before, during, and after Rhee and Henderson, have done their best to serve students under incredibly difficult conditions. And with regard to measures like test scores, which we know track family income more closely than anything else, we need to ask whether the changes sought by Henderson (and Rhee before her) are working for the students and schools who need great public schools the most.
Especially as national policy wonks and advocates promote D.C. as a model for other struggling districts to emulate, it’s important that we ask whether any celebrated gains are 1) substantive and 2) truly a victory of policy and leadership, or simply another of example of gentrification making things look better than they really are.
Sabrina Stevens is midatlantic regional education fellow for The Progressive.