What Kaya Henderson really said about middle schools, and why it makes sense

Some have criticized DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson for reported remarks that the school system should "outsource" middle schools to charters. Here's what she really said, which happens to be something that's well worth considering.

Photo from DC Council website.

Middle schools have been the subject of much debate, not just in DC and not just in recent weeks. We'll take a close look at this complex subject in future posts, but let's start with the exchange that triggered the recent controversy here.

Henderson made her comments on middle schools in mid-November, when the topic arose at a DC Council hearing on school boundaries and feeder patterns. Several Councilmembers and a number of those who testified identified middle schools as a weak link in the DCPS system, with families often leaving after elementary school.

According to the Washington Post, Henderson "suggested that perhaps the city should figure out how to funnel children to charter schools in the middle grades, arguing that 'they know how to do middle school really well.'" Councilmember David Catania, who was chairing the hearing, retorted that he was "not about to outsource middle schools to charters."

Since then, the exchange, as reported, has become fodder for tweets, sound bites, and mayoral campaign rhetoric. Most recently, candidate Andy Shallal said that, while he didn't want to "demonize" anyone, he did "take exception when the top educators say we cannot do middle school."

Henderson's comments in context

But let's take a look at what Henderson actually said, in context. (You can view her statements on the video below, or watch the entire hearing by clicking here. The relevant discussion occurs at about 4 hours and 17 minutes in.)

The exchange began after Councilmember Yvette Alexander complained that Ward 7's H.D. Woodson High School—which was rebuilt in 2011 with great fanfare as a school focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—hasn't lived up to expectations. She also bemoaned the fact that many students in Ward 7, which she represents, go to schools outside their assigned boundaries.

Henderson pointed out that charter schools have siphoned off many students from the DCPS system, including more than 50% of those in Ward 7. This exodus was predictable, she said: if you give people choice, and create "a whole new set of schools that [are] better than DCPS, then people will want to go to them."

"Now," Henderson continued, "we have the opportunity to say, these are all of our schools. How do we equalize the resources across the sectors, or how do we have the sectors working together?"

Then she launched into the comments that appear to have landed her in hot water: "One of the things I take my hat off to the charter sector on is that they know how to do middle school really well, right? So if we can't do middle school well and they can do middle school well, then how do we funnel kids through those middle schools and then bring some of those folks to H.D. Woodson, if they have STEM middle schools, or whatnot? We've got to be creative."

Alexander didn't recoil at this suggestion. In fact, she said she agreed. And then Catania reminded Alexander that her time was up and went on to express his outrage at the idea of "outsourcing middle school."

Henderson's words, standing alone, could be interpreted as a statement that DCPS "can't do middle school well." But in context, it's clear that Henderson was focusing on the situation in Ward 7, and possibly Ward 8, where large numbers of students have already left the DCPS system for charter schools. She wasn't advocating abandoning, for example, Deal Middle School in Ward 3.

Still, Henderson's candor about DC's middle school difficulties was surprising, because she has generally been a staunch defender of middle school progress. After the hearing, in a written response to Catania's demand for a "middle school plan," Henderson pointed to improvement at several middle schools and even singled out Kelly Miller, the feeder school for H.D. Woodson, which has seen double-digit growth in its test scores recently. Why she didn't mention those developments at the hearing is a mystery.

But it's also true that Kelly Miller's test scores are still nowhere near those at high-achieving charter middle schools like those operated by KIPP and DC Prep. And let's take a calm, clear-eyed look at what Henderson really was saying, and ask if it was that outrageous.

Cooperation with charters, not just competition

Henderson's basic point was that we should stop putting charters in one box and DCPS schools in another. Instead, we should look at all our public schools—traditional and charter—as part of a common set of possibilities for educating DC children.

Some will disagree with that approach, either because they're opposed to the concept of charters or because they feel Henderson should be able to replicate the results that charters have had. But by this point, it's clear that charters are here to stay. And there are a host of reasons, many of them structural, for DCPS's failure to equal the success of some charters.

If all students in a given neighborhood were "funneled" into charters for middle school, it would at least eliminate one argument raised by some who are skeptical of the results achieved by charters: that they're successful only because they manage, one way or another, to avoid enrolling the students who are the hardest to educate.

And in an area of the District where many students are already enrolled in charter schools, maybe we should consider creating educational pathways for children that could lead through both sectors, if that's what would benefit them most.

Henderson is now working on the middle school plan that Catania called for. Whether she'll continue to advocate for such cross-sector cooperation remains to be seen. The advisory committee that is reviewing school boundaries and feeder patterns has also indicated it intends to look at that possibility.

Given the outcry that greeted Henderson's remarks at the November hearing, she and the advisory committee may both decide to back away from that idea. That would be unfortunate. It's time that we stopped pitting the charter and DCPS sectors against each other and started figuring out how they can work together for the benefit of DC's students.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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It seems to me that the source of much of the back and forth is with the specific wording Kaya Henderson used. "Can't" implies that DCPS is incapable of creating successful middle schools. Deal, the example cited above, has 23% free and reduced lunch students and located in well-off ward 3. One can't deny that it's easier to create a successful middle school when the students come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and the school itself is located in the wealthiest ward in the city.

These words from Kaya Henderson are not the cause of parent's frustration, they are merely a trigger. Many will hear these words as more evidence that DCPS is not working to improve neighborhood schools. The recent rounds of school closures, despite a rapidly growing city population, is solid evidence to many of that divestment. DCPS solicited input from stakeholders in ward 6 but appears to have made no progress since 2010, despite several subtopics containing the word momentum. The Ward 5 Great Schools Initiative, though moving forward, has not yet provided substantial improvement to the schools (Brown is exploring the extensive and long IB accreditation process, the Brookland Middle School opening has been delayed for one year, and I can't find much information about McKinley Tech Middle School, even on OSSE's new school info website).

Parents are right to call Kaya Henderson out for the use of can't. We don't encourage our children to use that word and we ought to expect that anyone who is in charge of educating our children will not use it, especially when talking about whole schools. What she may have meant is that if DCPS is not currently creating good middle schools, then they should figure out a way to get current students into successful charters, but not abandon the plan that DCPS will create successful middle schools.

I'm hopeful that DCPS schools throughout the city will be improved to a point that students will not have to win the lottery to get into a good school that meets their needs, but Kaya Henderson's remarks leave me underwhelmed and uninspired.

by Jessica Christy on Jan 22, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

Though you mention that Chancellor Henderson's working on middle school, the first step seemed to be in the wrong direction - writing a letter to Council Member Catania basically stating that she wouldn't propose any possibilities up front and would ask DC parents to come up with ideas for middle school.

I really would like to see some contributions of ideas to the discussion from the guys who run the show.

by ar on Jan 22, 2014 9:05 pm • linkreport

At this point I agree the complete picture of public and charter across the city should be coordinated. However, the fact remains that charter schools are operated with public funds yet have a great deal more freedom to innovate and be selective. There should be no reason public schools cannot innovate but to be selective is far less possible. If we have a two track system, both public and charter should be equal otherwise there is a student body that is being sidetracked. All schools should have the freedom to innovate through evidence based decision making to address their challenges in specific student bodies. So far it appears that the charter movement has done more do divide than to lift the boats of all students. True or not, the thought is out there that charter schools have a much lower percentage of the challenging students than public schools have. This division of the student body creates much higher challenges for the public system. If every student is equally important this division should not exist. This whole system of charter and public has to change.

by AndrewJ on Jan 23, 2014 6:32 am • linkreport

ar -- My impression, both from Henderson's letter and from talking to people, is that she's not just waiting for DC parents to come up with ideas before working on a plan. DCPS is actively working on a plan at the same time that it is soliciting input from parents. I realize that some people would like faster action, but I can also see that some might criticize DCPS for coming up with a plan WITHOUT soliciting input from the community first.

AndrewJ -- You're right that, generally speaking, the traditional public school system doesn't have the right to be "selective." But some DCPS schools DO have a right to be selective, which charters, at least theoretically, don't. I'm talking about the 6 selective DCPS high schools. Some of them, like School Without Walls and Banneker, are highly selective and turn away many applicants. Charters, on the other hand, are required by law to take all comers and hold a random lottery if they're oversubscribed (I know there are charges that they manage to get around this, but that is in fact the law -- even for specialized schools like St. Coletta's, which serves students with serious disabilities.)

I find it interesting that no one is really questioning whether we should have selective DCPS high schools, even though they certainly have the same effect that charters are sometimes accused of having -- i.e., of skimming off the "cream" and leaving regular DCPS schools with the kids that are more challenging to educate.

by Natalie Wexler on Jan 23, 2014 10:02 am • linkreport

I find it interesting that no one is really questioning whether we should have selective DCPS high schools, even though they certainly have the same effect that charters are sometimes accused of having -- i.e., of skimming off the "cream" and leaving regular DCPS schools with the kids that are more challenging to educate.

could it be that the "selective" schools aren't really that selective? Maybe a small subset are on par with Wilson, but it's hardly a skimming effect.

by anon_1 on Jan 23, 2014 2:09 pm • linkreport

anon_1: I think the degree of selectiveness varies with the school. Columbia Heights Educational Campus is listed as a selective school, but its test scores are about the same as the DCPS average, and I haven't been able to find out anything about how they select students.

School Without Walls, on the other hand, requires a minimum 3.0 GPA in order to apply, along with standardized test scores of proficient or advanced (this is for applicants to 11th or 12th grade -- information for applicants for 9th and 10th isn't available on the website). If you qualify on that basis (according to dcurbanmom.com, http://www.dcurbanmom.com/jforum/posts/list/72256.page), then you get to take a test. In 2011, about 450 students took the test for 170 slots. I'd say that's pretty selective. Test scores at Walls are, as you might expect, high: 97% proficient in math and 99% in reading.

It may be even harder to get into Banneker (one parent on dcurbanmom.com says her daughter got into Walls but not Banneker), and their test scores are as impressive as Walls, even though they have a higher proportion of students receiving free and reduced lunch: 100% proficient in math and 96% in reading.

The enrollment at Walls is 548 and at Banneker 394. So that's almost 1000 high-achieving students who have been "skimmed" off the neighborhood high schools (although, obviously, some of them might have attended private or charter schools instead). And I think McKinley Tech (697 students) and Ellington (531) are pretty selective as well, so there's another 1200 or so students.

I'm not arguing that selective high schools should be abolished. I just don't completely understand why those who oppose charter schools on the ground that they're "skimming" don't also oppose selective DCPS schools.

by Natalie Wexler on Jan 23, 2014 3:31 pm • linkreport

since when is "proficient" high achieving? If you set the bar low enough it's easy to make the schools look more competitive than they really are. I'm not that interested in proficient. The minimum for the entire system should be proficient.

by anon_1 on Jan 24, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport

Chancellor Henderson is completely wrong. Charters absolutely cherry pick their population. They also push out the lowest performing students and back fill them into DCPS middle schools. Folks should study New Orleans closely. We are mirroring their charter school experience, just five years behind. DCPCS now have nearly 50% of all education seats in DC. What, then, is the long term purpose of DCPS? People have to realize that Charter schools and public schools ard directly linked. Are charters that great if they selectively provide some pockets of better education, but overall dessimate the city-wide educational structure? DC is the wild west of education capitalism. Charters do a lot of damage if not controlled. DC should have a charter seat cap. Probably 33% of all seats. The integrity of the neighborhood school systems must be maintained. Wards 7 & 8 can't keep exporting all their talented young people. Charters do just as much systemic damage (or more) than they do individual good.

by Geno Donney on Jun 5, 2014 8:34 am • linkreport

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