Lessons in leadership: Transforming struggling US K–12 schools

In the early 2000s, Washington, DC, had the lowest math and reading achievement scores of any major metropolitan school district in the United States and had suffered years of declining enrollments.1 Fast-forward to 2017, and enrollments were increasing along with student performance. During that time, reforms were initiated under two school chancellors, Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. Rhee was the first chancellor to serve District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) after the system was placed under mayoral control in 2007. Henderson joined as her deputy chancellor and went on to serve as chancellor from 2010 to 2016.

Under the leadership of both women, DCPS made significant improvements in basic operations, overhauled its talent strategy, implemented new curriculum that aligned to Common Core State Standards and spoke to the whole child, and streamlined accountability. Along the way, Henderson overcame common implementation challenges to successfully sustain momentum from Rhee’s tenure by motivating staff at all levels, engaging stakeholders throughout the city, and maintaining clarity of focus. In an interview with McKinsey’s Emma Dorn, Henderson shares her experiences with achieving lasting improvements in K–12 student outcomes (Exhibit 1).2

From 2000 to 2019, Washington, DC, saw tremendous growth on National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for all students.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Dorn: What was the state of the DC public school system when you were appointed deputy chancellor under Chancellor Michelle Rhee back in June 2007, and what were your priorities as you came into the system?

Kaya Henderson: At the time, DC Public Schools was the lowest-performing urban school district in the country.3 We were losing thousands of students each year. Public education in DC was in a death spiral, partly because of poor performance but also because of a very robust charter market here in Washington. The public school system had not been innovating, and students were fleeing to charter schools.

There was only one priority in the early days, and that was changing every policy possible to allow us to get, grow, and keep great people.

We created the first office of human capital in any school system in the country. We understood that human resources does one set of things, which is transactional, but nobody in a school district was stepping back to look at the human-capital continuum: recruitment, selection, onboarding, induction, professional development, career ladders, and exits.

We negotiated a teachers’ union contract that completely changed how we were able to hire. We eliminated tenure and seniority, we created a pay-for-performance system, and we created a new teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT.4

Emma Dorn: Did you encounter opposition?

Kaya Henderson: We had a level of political cover that allowed us to be bold. Michelle did a really good job of communicating the narrative: why we were doing what we were doing, engaging in a broader conversation around teacher evaluation, getting national support for what we were doing—and raising money for it.

I was able to then work with our team within the district to hammer out the actual nuts and bolts of the policies and the union contract. Eighty percent of the teachers’ vote ratified the contract. People wanted change.

Eighty percent of the teachers’ vote ratified the contract. People wanted change.

We also had a leadership structure that allowed us to do all those things. I had been working with DC Public Schools for seven years before we came on. None of these people were new to me. I had positive working relationships with folks. In any other school district, it would have taken people a while to build the kinds of relationships that we had already, and that enabled us to just skate and go.

Emma Dorn: In 2010, you were named interim chancellor, then appointed permanently to the job in 2011. Was that a planned evolution?

Kaya Henderson: The interesting thing is, I refused the job, maybe fifty times. I said I would stay as interim chancellor, but my plan was not to be the chancellor of DC Public Schools. They were doing a national search.

Ultimately, I said yes, not because I wanted to, but because a lot of the great teachers and principals who I had spent three and a half years getting, growing, and retaining were literally telling me, “If you stay, we’ll stay.” So, I felt like it was really important for me to stay to maintain the work that we did and to keep our foot on the gas.

Emma Dorn: How did you maintain momentum from Michelle’s tenure as chancellor to yours, and what critical shifts did you make?

Kaya Henderson: When we got to DCPS in 2007, it was a mess and needed to be dismantled. We had 29 data systems and none of them talked to one another. We were paying people who were dead. We needed to break this whole thing apart and put it back together in a new way. And Michelle was a very good leader to help break it up. She’s a fighter and we needed a fighter at that point.

We needed to break this whole thing apart and put it back together in a new way.

The first thing that we did when I transitioned into the role was called the Hopes and Dreams campaign.5 We asked people, “Ten years from now, what should DCPS look like? What are your hopes and your dreams for the district and for your students?” We had an online portal. We had boxes in barbershops, and beauty parlors, and laundromats. And 10,000 people told us what they wanted to see. We took that, crafted a strategic plan and then went back to the community and said, “Is this what you want to do?” And that’s how we did everything in my tenure, with community engagement at the center—even with hard decisions such as the school closings we decided to do in 2013.

The community understood the hard decisions that we had to make, in part because I spent a year communicating the mismatch of resources. After a year of helping people understand resource misalignment, some said, “Then, let’s just close schools.” At that point, I knew we were ready to do it. And we did it with the community. We had no protests, no drama. And we did not lose children that year. In fact, from 2010 to 2016, which was my tenure, we saw six consecutive years of enrollment growth, which hadn’t happened in 40 years in DC Public Schools (Exhibit 2).

Following education reforms in the early 2000s, Washington, DC, public school enrollment grew meaningfully for the first time in decades.

Emma Dorn: You remained chancellor until 2016. How did your priorities shift and evolve across your tenure?

Kaya Henderson: My job was to listen to people, to be in constant communication with our teachers, our principals, and our central office staff to know what they needed to be successful.

While we continued to do human-capital work, it became very clear that we also needed to do curricular work. I characterize it as an equity floor. What is the least that we are going to guarantee to every single kid across the district? If people want to add to it, great. But it has to be at a high enough standard that you would be happy sending your kid to any school in the district.

Armed with the information from the evaluation system, which told us who our best teachers were, we pulled those people together and asked them to develop curriculum with us. We had some lofty goals. We wanted it to be rigorous. We wanted it to be joyful. We wanted our young people to see windows and mirrors, and see other communities, but also see themselves mightily reflected in the things that they were learning. And that was very different for us. We wanted to ensure that it wasn't just around the core subjects, but that we were creating an interdisciplinary curriculum. We were creating curriculum to develop the whole child. And our teachers were super on fire about it.

We were creating curriculum to develop the whole child. And our teachers were super on fire about it.

We engaged the city. We had a project called “City as our Classroom,” where after we released the curriculum, we then went to institutions in the city and asked, “Where does your content overlap with our curriculum, and how can we create field trips so that parents can take kids to places that align with what they’re learning?”

The third priority was, again, community engagement—co-creating solutions with our students, our parents, and our community members. So when people ask, “How did you do it at DC Public Schools?” it’s those three things: its human capital, its curriculum, and its family and community engagement. That was the cocktail.

Emma Dorn: How did you align different stakeholders around these initiatives?

Kaya Henderson: We spent a lot of time on alignment, making sure that every single person in the district knew what the priorities were as well as all the programs and initiatives that we were doing, and how they lined up to these goals. We set five big goals. We called it a “capital commitment.” It was our five-year strategic plan. And everybody knew what the five goals were. They could recite them. Everybody knew how their job contributed to one of the goals. Every single employee’s strategic plan, their department’s strategic plan, their division’s strategic plan all rolled up to those five goals.

We only chose two or three big things to do each year because you can’t do everything. But if you choose the right few things, and you do them well, and you continue to do them well, you create a flywheel effect. And we were able to catch that momentum and do a lot more than, I think, anybody expected.

Emma Dorn: How did you manage to motivate the department, to engage it in a new way, and attract top-caliber talent?

Kaya Henderson: I believe if you’re doing really hard work, you should do it with people who you’re inspired by and who challenge you.

I am no educational expert. I don’t have conviction about a whole lot of things. But I know how to find people who are experts. And I’m OK to let them do their thing. I’ve always been a collector of talented people. And I feel like, if we’re going to be doing really hard stuff, then we should have fun doing it. I think it’s important for you to help people remember why they are doing this stuff, to celebrate people when things are going well or when they do good things.

I know how to find people who are experts. And I’m okay to let them do their thing.

One of the things that we were noted for was our Standing Ovation Awards for DC teachers. We did a huge celebration at the Kennedy Center, honoring our best teachers.

Emma Dorn: Were there new capabilities or capacities that you discovered you needed at each level of the system?

Kaya Henderson: This was the beginning of publicly available data in school systems, so there was a level of transparency into school districts that you never had before. We needed to replace probably 80 to 90 percent of our principal corps, and I was like, “OK, let’s go find us some good principals.”

We scoured the school district websites of our surrounding jurisdictions to figure out which principals had really turned around a low-performing school. We called those people. We sent them emails saying, “Hi. I’m Kaya Henderson. I’m the deputy chancellor of DC Public Schools. We see you’re doing amazing work at your elementary school and wanted to say congratulations. We know how hard this is, and we’re sure you’re probably not even thinking about moving, but if you ever want to have a conversation about opportunities at DCPS, I personally would love to talk to you.”

Nobody ever says “congratulations” to principals. Nobody says “thank you.” The number of people who responded was astounding. Every single person that we reached out to said that they weren’t thinking about moving but would love to talk about positions at DC Public Schools.

The other thing that we did—and I can’t even tell you how much it paid off—was to create an internship program. We hired undergraduate students and graduate students to work for us for a semester, or a summer, or a year. And we gave them meaningful projects. We had interns from the best colleges and universities in America because we were the hotbed of education innovation, and everybody was looking at DC.

We were the hotbed of education innovation, and everybody was looking at DC.

Emma Dorn: Education leaders across the country are struggling right now with a host of challenges. What needs to happen to support them?

Kaya Henderson: What’s unfortunate to me is that many educational leaders and educators, in general, are so tired and so beaten down from the last three years that it is tough to rustle up the innovation. And nobody wants to come behind them and do this work because our narrative on public education is so terrible. I would love to reframe that narrative. This is a dynamic industry, where you are able to do amazing work. And we don’t sell it that way.

Emma Dorn: You’re currently CEO of Reconstruction, an education tech company that provides supplemental curricula for Black K–12 students. What inspired you to go in that direction, and what’s next for you?

Kaya Henderson: Reconstruction came directly out of my curricular work at DC Public Schools. We wanted kids to see themselves, and we built curriculum where kids’ communities were featured prominently. We watched kids attach to this stuff and engage in ways that I had never seen before.

I started thinking, what would a national Black curriculum look like? What are all the books that I want Black kids to read before they graduate from high school so that they know who they are and they know the history of Black excellence, resilience, and creativity in the United States?

We are just starting our third year at Reconstruction. We’ve served over 12,000 kids in the last two years and are in major school districts all across the country, working with community-based organizations, working with individuals. And it’s been a dream come true. I’ve got an amazing, talented team who has a lot of fun together. We built a product that is in tremendous demand. We’ve produced over 150 courses. And I cannot create content fast enough. Figuring out what the next phase of Reconstruction looks like is the big thing that I’m noodling on right now.

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