Charlottesville Summit, 30 Years Later: Kaya Henderson on the Governors’ Gathering That Changed Education, Student-Level Accountability & Why Schools Can’t Do It Alone

Kaya Henderson (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

To commemorate the 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, that convened 49 of the nation’s 50 governors to discuss a single policy issue — the education of America’s children — the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program is partnering with The 74 to produce a series of Q&A’s with distinguished leaders across politics, education and advocacy to reflect on the legacy of the summit and what lies ahead for public education. The interviews were conducted over the telephone, transcribed and edited for clarity and length. Participants were asked some of the same questions, but also queried specifically about their careers and backgrounds. These leaders share their thoughts on why the summit was a groundbreaking event, the strengths and shortcomings of education policy and what is required for propelling further gains for students. You can see all the interviews here.

Kaya Henderson is the head of community impact at Teach for All, the international counterpart to Teach for America (both organizations were founded by Wendy Kopp). From 2010 to 2016, Henderson was chancellor of DC Public Schools, succeeding Michelle Rhee. Under Henderson, DCPS had the biggest growth of any urban district on the National Assessment of Education Progress, graduation rates increased, student satisfaction improved and enrollment climbed. She is also a member of the Aspen Institute’s Board of Trustees and a co-founder of Education Leaders of Color.

Here, Henderson discusses how leading by fear does not work, the missing piece of student accountability and why she thinks schools alone cannot be responsible for closing the achievement gap.

What do you think are the most positive accomplishments that came from the 1989 Education Summit and the standards-based reform agenda that it helped to propel?

Over the past 30 or more years, we have learned a lot about the condition of our education system. In 1983, A Nation at Risk sounded the alarm on the problem — that our schools were not preparing our students for the future. But we still didn’t know enough about what it would take to transform our schools. In 1989, the Education Summit helped us understand the need for rigorous standards, assessments and data to measure our educational progress.

The summit reminded us that what it meant to graduate from high school in Massachusetts was very different from what it meant to graduate from high school in Mississippi. In a world that has increasingly fewer borders and more work opportunities across different geographies, it was important for a standard to be a standard across the country. I know people have concerns about standardized testing, but the desire to measure our performance and our progress, and to hold people accountable, is important. One of the things that the summit did was say, “We are responsible for everything — from pre-K to adult literacy.”

Every place in the world that I know of that has made broad, transformative educational change has made that change because of a strong government commitment. The Education Summit reminded us of this governmental role. We shouldn’t forget that the next three presidents all placed a premium on education, and the role the government could play in improving student outcomes.

What are the most important lessons you take from these 30 years of standards-based education reform? What could we have done differently?

While there is a lot that we all could have done better, it is important to reiterate that it is only because of the movement toward standards and assessments that we are able to have thoughtful conversations about differences in student performance. This continues to be the most important outcome of the past 30 years.

That said, one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that the people closest to the problem usually have the best solutions. The co-creation of solutions by people who have educational expertise and the people close to the problem usually gets you to better outcomes. Broadly, we just didn’t take this approach in standards-based education reform.

The biggest example is the Common Core Standards. I am a huge supporter of the Common Core Standards. I aligned all our work at the school district around the standards.

Common Core didn’t work because most districts and states didn’t do the work to connect the high-quality standards with the work that was happening on the ground. There was a belief that if there was an assessment in place, it would drive all the downstream things that needed to happen. By downstream, I mean the development of curriculum that’s aligned to the assessments, the creation of good professional development to help teachers move from what they had been doing to the new standards and systems to create ongoing professional development that is rooted in the new content, not rooted in pedagogy. This was a huge shift from the teaching and professional development that was happening before.

There was a belief that if people had this high-stakes test, that they would do all the other things necessary to make the tests and the standards effective. What happened was, some people did some of those things; most people did not.

Without thoughtful implementation, high-stakes tests hit, and kids freaked out because this wasn’t content they had been taught. Teachers freaked out because they hadn’t been teaching this material. Parents freaked out because their children were not performing as well as they expected. Everybody was freaked out, so the test must have been bad. Therefore, the Common Core must be bad. The truth was that the tests and the standards were fine. It was how we implemented them that was bad.


“It is only because of the movement toward standards and assessments that we are able to have thoughtful conversations about differences in student performance. … My worry is that the backlash against standards and accountability is going to push us all the way back to no accountability. … We have to find a happy medium.”

We can see specific examples of how poor policy implementation risked overall dissatisfaction with high-quality standards. At DCPS, we were one of the first districts to use student achievement data as part of our teacher evaluation system. We relied on our assessments to be fair measures of the progress. Our work was lauded by many, including the U.S. Department of Education. However, when DC changed assessments to the PARCC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career], I decided that we should suspend the use of value-add data as part of teacher evaluation for a year.

I was initially chastised by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education for this decision. I said, “You’ve just got to be mad at me, but this is not how things work in school districts. I can’t put people’s jobs on the line for a test they’ve never seen before and a curriculum that we are just beginning to use. At some point, this is a human endeavor and I’ve got to manage change in a way that makes our teachers able to implement.” With the market-driven, business-oriented philosophy underlying some reforms over the last 30 years, we lost some of what we know needs to happen in schools and school districts in order for things to work.

You are doing a lot of work outside of the United States right now and seeing a lot of different contexts. What should we be drawing from other countries to inform American policymaking? How do you see student success defined in different countries?

What I see happening abroad is very similar to what I see happening here: Policymakers and people are disconnected from one another. Governments, policymakers and businesspeople have one set of ideas on what the goals of schools should be. Parents, students and teachers, sometimes, have a different set of ideas. In the case of the former, the goals are very closely tied to work and the ability to be employed. For the latter, it is about economic security for sure, but also happiness, freedom, choice and opportunity. It is about self-actualization. These two sides feel in tension more and more these days.

I worry that we have swung so far in the direction of focusing on jobs, STEM and alignment to work that we haven’t tempered that with well-being, happiness and the things that make you a person, not just a worker.

My worry is that the backlash against standards and accountability is going to push us all the way back to no accountability, which was not good, either. We have to find a happy medium.

Are there ways in which we need to shift our frame about how to think about the role of accountability?

We need to rethink the overall approach to accountability and engagement. In a high-functioning system, all the stakeholders should be both accountable and engaged. Currently, while there are a few stakeholders who are both accountable and engaged, too many are accountable and not engaged, or neither accountable nor engaged.

Here’s what I mean: We made a big push to make teachers and principals accountable without making all the people who are around them accountable as well. For example, unions should not get to sit on the sidelines and scream and holler without answering the question, “What’s your role in this and how are you helping?” In my experience, teachers unions are neither accountable nor engaged.

Students are an interesting case as well. In many systems, even systems like mine that had robust teacher, principal, central office and personal accountability for me as a superintendent — we probably had more up-and-down accountability than a lot of other places — students were not accountable and often were not engaged.

Our intent was to implement assessments that would help students and their parents understand if they are on track for success — to provide them useful information to hold themselves accountable and to help them engage. However, we got so invested in the strict accountability for teachers and for schools that we forgot to engage with parents and students and we forgot to help them understand how they are also accountable.

We also must remember that fear is not the thing that makes people do their best work. I think about how we talked about teachers when Michelle Rhee was chancellor versus how we talked about teachers when I was chancellor.

I came in saying, “I have the best teaching force in the country. We might still have more professional development to do, but I would put my teachers up against anybody.” When people feel motivated, inspired, and that you believe in them, they’ll climb a mountain. I believe that’s part of the reason why we were able to see such significant results. People do their best work when they are not fearful. That was not how I did my best work, so I ignored the people who were trying to scare the bejesus out of me — the federal government and the state — and I did my work differently.

We have to think about accountability and engagement in a very different way.

When you say we haven’t embraced student-level accountability, what should that look like?

Some places have end-of-course exams, where student accountability means you don’t graduate if you don’t pass the test. Of course, these places face their own set of challenges with ensuring tests are sufficiently rigorous and that instruction still emphasizes the joy of learning. In my ideal system, there would be skin in the game for students and the ability to recognize students when they succeed.

So much of what’s animated the standards-based agenda in terms of rhetoric is around the need to focus on equity. You celebrated the commendable gains in DCPS, but gaps persist in significant ways. Talk about what needs to happen to make extra gains in equity.

I have never talked about closing the achievement gap. I know we as a movement do, but I don’t believe that schools alone can close the achievement gap. The achievement gap is an economic gap that schools didn’t create. I think schools are one of the best chances to help narrow the gap, but in D.C., a city that has the largest socioeconomic gap of any major metropolitan area in the country, the fact that you expect schools alone to close the achievement gap is unrealistic to me.

Also, I have observed that if a parent’s own kids are achieving, they don’t actually care about the achievement gap. They may care intellectually, but it’s not going to make them do anything different. Every parent wants their kid to have every advantage possible. The truth is that in order to give every kid every advantage possible, we need all parents working together as part of the solution.

How we thought about it at DCPS was from an equity perspective: What do we want for all kids, not just the kids who are struggling? We want them to master reading and math. Sure, that’s the low bar, but we also want them to speak a foreign language, play an instrument, excel at a sport, do community service, have internships.

We had to put different supports in different places in order to get people to that, but when everybody wants their kid to study abroad, you just get a different level of people working together than if you were trying to get some kids up to a certain standard. I worry, frankly, that the fragmentation that has happened because of our desire to celebrate our differences has perhaps made us lose the notion that what we have in common actually makes us work together and gets us to better results. When we are pitting parents against each other, when parents don’t see that their kids need the same thing as other people’s kids, then I don’t know how you get to equity.

When I first got to DCPS, I saw principals who were used to doing whatever they wanted to do because school-level autonomy ruled the day. What I saw was that at places that needed the most, there was a stripping away of everything. In places that needed the least, I saw additional resources. The truth of the matter is, if everybody is out charting their own goals, then you don’t get to a common level of rigor and you don’t get to see progress across all fronts. Black kids are not just competing against white kids in the United States — black, white and every other kid in the U.S. is competing against kids around the world.

The governors were right in trying to set a common education agenda. I understand the tensions in trying to do something nationally in a staunchly federalist environment, I understand why some of these questions didn’t get answered, but I think we have shown that by focusing on the important things we have in common, we make progress.

If you were convening a governors’ education summit today, how would you approach that? What issues would you focus on?

I have two answers to that question. First, when I left DC Public Schools, I committed to myself that I would never just work on education because without health care, housing and jobs, education is one leg of a four-legged stool that will fall down — it can’t stand on its own. I have seen too many kids who have housing insecurity and food insecurity, too many people for whom a sickness can wipe out the whole family, too many people for whom even if they work, they don’t make enough to support their family. That stuff gets in the way of the work that educators do. That does not mean that we shouldn’t do what we, as educators, are paid to do and try to knock down every barrier. It also doesn’t mean that educators shouldn’t be held accountable. It forces us to clarify what we expect educators to accomplish. I would ask the governors to think not just in terms of education, but in terms of young people. Governors have a real opportunity to change the future for youth by addressing all these concerns in a more integrated and aligned way.

My second answer is that this just might be the wrong question. Maybe governors, as important as they are, are simply not the right people to solve the real challenges facing our young people. I have seen young people around the world do some pretty amazing work on issues from gun control to climate change to education. Maybe the right answer is that we should stop asking governors for their thoughts and start listening to kids.

Ross Wiener is vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of its Education & Society Program. Previously, he was vice president for program and policy at the Education Trust and a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section.

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