Photo from DC Council website.

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.

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.