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October 20, 2014

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In school reform, ‘caliber of the teacher matters,’ D.C. chancellor tells Nevada educators

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Sam Morris

Washington D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson speaks to a group of Clark County School District administrators Thursday, March 20, 2014.

D.C. Schools Chancellor

Washington D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson speaks to a group of Clark County School District administrators Thursday, March 20, 2014. Launch slideshow »

The key to improving Clark County schools is to improve the quality of its teachers.

That’s the message Kaya Henderson shared with educators and community leaders gathered at a Public Education Foundation event on Thursday.

The Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor came to Las Vegas this week to share her education reform ideas with 30 Nevada principals, school district administrators and business leaders attending the foundation’s leadership academy.

“The single most important in-school factor to move student achievement is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the classroom,” Henderson said. “It’s not the degree a teacher has, or how long he or she’s taught, or where they went to school.”

Henderson, who took the helm of the D.C. public schools in 2010, served as former Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s right-hand woman, first at The New Teacher Project, which aims to boost teacher retention and quality, and subsequently as the human resources director of public schools in the nation’s capital. Both Rhee and Henderson are Teach For America alumni, and have experience teaching in some of the lowest-performing major urban public school systems in the country.

During her work with TNTP and in D.C. with Rhee, Henderson said she found a persistent lack of attention to the caliber of teachers in the country’s largest urban school systems. The average college GPA of American teachers is somewhere between a 2.0 and a 2.2 out of a possible 4.0, Henderson said.

“Who do we let into our teaching profession? Anybody,” Henderson said. “It’s no wonder why we don’t have the top education system in the world. The caliber of the teacher matters.”

The first thing Rhee and Henderson did when they took over D.C. public schools was to focus on “human capital,” Henderson said. As the director of DCPS’s Office of Human Capital, Henderson changed the way D.C. public schools recruited, trained and evaluated teachers.

Henderson required potential new teacher hires to undergo phone interviews, but also submit a sample teaching video that would be evaluated by a group of educators. If the candidate passed muster, he or she would be brought into one of 15 D.C. “demonstration sites,” or schools, to be observed teaching students.

The rigorous selection process winnowed down candidates who had the “right skills and the right cultural fit,” Henderson said. Once hired, the teachers received customized training, which encouraged them to expect more out of students, she added.

“You can’t just drop a curriculum on somebody,” Henderson said. “You need professional development, otherwise you’re squandering human capital.”

Henderson also revamped D.C. schools’ employee evaluation system, creating teams within her department who looked at the effectiveness of teachers, principals and central office administrators.

The goal of the evaluation system is to set expectations for teachers, Henderson said. With rigorous evaluations, school districts can reward high-performing teachers, provide tailored professional development to middling teachers and remove low-performing teachers, Henderson added.

To reward high performance, Henderson created a teacher recognition ceremony and principal leadership academy, and overhauled the district’s salary schedule.

Washington, D.C., now has the highest first-year teacher salary in the country: up to $120,000. Previously, teachers with 20 years of experience and a doctorate could earn up to $90,000, Henderson said.

The higher teacher salaries helped to attract and retain D.C.’s best teachers, Henderson said. The district sought $67 million in funding from private foundations to raise salaries and made efficiencies in district operations to continue the pay-for-performance program, she added.

Rhee and Henderson also focused on removing low-performing teachers, firing about 400 educators in the first three years. That represents about 10 percent of the 4,100 teachers in Washington, D.C., Henderson said.

Rhee was criticized letting go of hundreds of teachers and allowing media to cover one such firing.

“I might do it differently, but I’d do it all over again,” Henderson said of the teacher layoffs. “We had to send a different message (to teachers).”

The changes brought about a “radical” improvement in teacher quality, which in turn improved student achievement, Henderson said. Student enrollment and teacher retention ticked up, graduation rates went up, truancy rates dropped and students’ scores on national and international tests jumped, she said.

On a national benchmark assessment, D.C. eighth-graders posted the biggest gains in reading nationally, Henderson said.

“We’re not at the top of the pack, but we’re growing further, faster,” she said. “That’s what’s going to get us to the top of the pack.”

(Henderson didn’t mention that teachers in 18 D.C. public schools were found last year to have cheated on high-stakes tests. An independent investigation found there is no widespread cheating in D.C. schools.)

Henderson’s school reform efforts haven’t just focused on teachers, she said. Improving parent engagement and student satisfaction is just as important, she said.

About 12 percent of D.C. Public Schools’ 47,000 students are considered English-language learners, many of whom don’t have English-speaking parents, Henderson said. Instead of offering expensive programs that teach parents to read and properly file taxes, D.C. worked with teachers to provide materials that could help parents teach their children.

“Even if you can’t read, you can do flashcards with kids,” Henderson said. “We trained teachers to engage parents by sending something like flashcards home with kids.”

To improve student satisfaction, Henderson recently committed $5 million to D.C. schools. Henderson, who has two children in her public school system, said she wants students to learn, but also be content at school.

“I want my kids to be happy, to feel safe and to explore their talents and possibilities,” Henderson said. “I want my kids, everybody’s kids, to like school. I don’t want to test and drill them to death.”

School Board President Erin Cranor, who attended Henderson’s talk, said she was pleased to find that Nevada is adopting many of the education reform efforts that have occurred in Washington.

The Silver State is in the middle of rolling out a new teacher and principal evaluation system, which will grade teachers as being "highly effective," "effective," "minimally effective" or "ineffective" based on student test scores and how well teachers model good teaching practices. Previously, teachers were evaluated by their principals through two classroom observations and were rated either "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory."

“It’s great timing to learn what their game plan is,” Cranor said. “There’s a lot we can learn from (Henderson).”

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