Outgoing Chancellor Michelle Rhee's Permanent Stamp on D.C. Schools

“Education is unlike any other industry in the world,” Kaya Henderson, the incoming interim chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools, told me two years ago, when I was working on a profile for her now-outgoing boss, Michelle Rhee. “It’s bizarro world.”

The drama of that bizarro world—the entrenched interests, the resistance to change, the fragile egos, and political grandstanding—ultimately culminated in Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty’s primary-election loss last month and today’s resignation by Chancellor Rhee. Many Washingtonians aren’t sad to see her go; her fearless, blunt, and occasionally undiplomatic style often rankled more than the abysmal standards in the city’s public schools. But even as Fenty and Rhee depart, they leave a firm stamp on the district’s schools: a contract with the teachers’ union that is one of the most progressive in the nation, as well as Henderson, a like-minded if stylistically more low-key reformer who was Rhee’s point person in the contract negotiations.

Henderson has never been the No. 1 in a school district, but then when she entered the negotiations for the contract, she’d never done that either. “I don’t know the dance steps you’re supposed to follow,” she told me in 2008. “I just talk to them the way I talk to anyone else.”

Talking to the city will be a big part of her job—more than anything, the next chancellor must keep marketing the reforms that Rhee initiated and get more of Washington on board. Henderson has long been thoughtful about the task of winning converts in the community. “I think that one of the things we have to think about differently is community engagement,” she said. “We have actually done more community engagement and public outreach than in the past, but because it’s been Michelle and me doing living rooms around the city, it’s been viewed differently. It’s not the way previous administrations did it, but we need to figure out how to do more highly visible community engagement.”

In the months after she said that, her boss did do a lot of highly visible community engagement—talking repeatedly with journalists like me, allowing access to film crews, even appearing on Oprah in September. What Henderson was talking about, though, was the local community, and that’s where she will have to concentrate her efforts.

Henderson, who has worked with Washington schools in some form for the past 13 years, is a canny operator who can read a room well and set the right tone. When negotiations opened with the union, for instance, she got everyone to stop and participate in a simple, but important group exercise that put the focus where she wanted it to be: Before they even started talking about the tough stuff, Henderson recalled, “each of us talked about a student who had impacted us the most. Everyone on the negotiating team had been a teacher. That set us off on a very nice note.”

Henderson will now enjoy something of a honeymoon period. Much of the D.C. system and city are clearly ready for a fresh chief exec. But opponents and proponents of reform should be appropriately cautioned/soothed: Beyond the fact that she looks very different from Rhee and maybe speaks a little more softly, things shouldn’t change that much. A veteran of both Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, Henderson is a true believer in Rhee’s reforms and in her open-door policy. “We have a sense of urgency. We have incredibly high expectations. And we have a belief in accountability,” she told me. To sell that package, “we will meet with anyone in the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re a king or a peon.”

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