Kaya Henderson: Leading System Improvement From the Inside

"You need to lead the community, and you need to follow the community." 

Drawing from her experience as Chancellor of DC Public Schools (“the best job in the world”), Teach For America alumna Kaya Henderson reflected on the benefits and challenges of leading change from inside the education system in a keynote address at the Teach For All Global System Change Conference in Santiago, Chile on April 4. 

"When you're making real change, sometimes it's tumultuous, sometimes it's contentious," Henderson explained of her efforts to turn a historically underperforming school system into what has become the fastest improving district in the US, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

A commitment to true community engagement and to learning from the past—without repeating prior mistakes—are among the key lessons Kaya shared with her audience of staff and alumni leaders from 16 network partners. To illustrate the importance of both, she compared two instances in which her department moved to close failing district schools. In 2008, district community members were informed of the impending school closings largely after the decision had been made, which led to widespread frustration and distrust. Realizing the importance of engaging the community in such decisions far earlier in the process, in 2013 Henderson collaborated with parents and other stakeholders on solutions that addressed the needs of all parties, and the resulting reforms were far less controversial.

Looking ahead, Henderson revealed that in addition to continuing to improve curriculum, instruction, and equity, DC Public schools has a goal—with significant funding dedicated to achieving it—that 90% of the District’s students will love school by 2017. "I have no appetite for small triumphs," she explained.

For more of Kaya Henderson’s journey from Teach For America corps member to Chancellor of DC Public Schools, watch the full video. 

Watch Highlights from the Global System Change Conference and visit our conference Vimeo channel to view additional keynote addresses from Mike Feinberg and Tim Daly, as well as panels exploring Student Leadership, Community Engagement and Teacher Training.