See Ya, Kaya: ‘Legacy of Progress’?

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Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee
Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee
Washington Post

This is the first in a three-part series on Kaya Henderson’s time atop DCPS. [Part 2]

After six years as head of D.C. Public Schools, Kaya Henderson is calling it quits Friday.

According to the Washington Post, her biggest booster, Henderson is leaving behind a “legacy of progress.”

Not everyone agrees.

Before ascending to chancellor, Henderson served three years as top deputy to her close friend, Michelle Rhee, known for mass teacher firings and school closings.

Henderson has continued in Rhee’s footsteps, albeit with less bombast.

Throughout the Rhee and Henderson years, the Post has played the role of lead-cheerleader (even collaborating on coverage). Now the Post wants the good times to continue.

Instead of conducting a search for the next chancellor, the Post’s Jay Mathews says D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser should just ask Henderson to name her replacement since “she knows better than anybody what the job is.”

But after nearly a decade atop DCPS, some don’t give the Rhee/Henderson team such high marks.


Improving test scores has been central to Henderson and Rhee’s claims of turning DCPS around.

But when retired DCPS teacher Erich Martel dug into the data, he found the gains were largely due to D.C.’s rapid gentrification, which has pushed lower-income African American students out, while ushering in wealthier whites, who score higher on tests.

Associated Press reporter Ben Nuckols similarly noted, “the gains in test scores have... coincided with the city becoming wealthier and the white population increasing.”

“Literally, I just got to just let this out,” Henderson has said in response to such critiques, “Haters are going to hate.”

Cheating Scandal

Within a year of Rhee’s 2007 DCPS takeover, test scores started climbing, dramatically at some schools.

While the Post was busy touting the results, out-of-town news organizations questioned them. A 2011 USA Today investigation found a higher than average wrong-to-right erasure rate the prior three years at “more than half of D.C. schools.”

Erasure rate refers to the number of changed answers on a test and can be used to identify possible cheating.

“A high erasure rate alone is not evidence of impropriety,” Henderson said in response.

But some of the erasure rates were very, very high. At Noyes Education Campus, for example, USA Today found,

The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance.

After USA Today’s exposé, scores at Noyes dropped, according to data posted at Guy Brandenburg’s education blog.

“Real students may be fidgety and jumpy, but their scores on yearly high-stakes tests… do NOT jump around like this,” wrote Brandenburg, a retired DCPS teacher.

“Look at those scores,” wrote historian and education scholar Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under George H. W. Bush. “First they soar up, then they plummet down. Nothing suspicious there, right?”

Not for D.C. Inspector General Charles Willoughby, who found no evidence of widespread cheating, despite only investigating one school, Noyes. The U.S. Education Department Inspector General, in a “tandem” investigation, came to a similar conclusion.

Meanwhile, DCPS failed to conduct its own investigation, even after an internal memo called for one, as PBS’s John Merrow reported at his blog.

“There have been no meaningful investigations of the evidence of widespread cheating,” civil rights attorney and D.C. budget expert Mary Levy wrote in response to the inspectors general’s findings.

“Among the top 10 DCPS erasure schools… scores plummeted at all but one by 2010,” noted Levy. “The bottom dropped out by chance at all those schools?”


Public schools in Atlanta experienced similar testing irregularities around the same time DCPS did. In Atlanta, however, superintendent Beverly Hall was unable to thwart an investigation.

“There’s one key difference between Atlanta and Washington,” wrote PBS’s Merrow, “the role played by the local newspapers.”

Unlike the Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution kept a spotlight on the issue.

The result? Dr. Hall and 34 educators were charged with racketeering.

The co-leader of Atlanta’s independent investigation, former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert Wilson, also followed the situation in D.C., concluding, “the big difference is that nobody in D.C. wanted to know the truth.”

‘Legacy of Progress’

As Henderson prepares to step down Friday, she does so amidst a wave of positive press, led by the Post.

“For a decade… Henderson has worked to turn around one of the nation’s most troubled school systems,” the Post reported Tuesday, pointing to “better test scores” under her watch.

The role that gentrification and cheating have played in achieving these “better test scores” is left unsaid.

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