Two Guys...and a Dream
Ask Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin what drove them to write one of the greatest educational success stories in recent times, and their answer seems reasonable enough: "ignorance." Except that the ignorance they speak of wasn't that of their students; it was their own. "We didn't know what we didn't know," says Feinberg. "No one said how impossible this was going to be."
That's a good thing. Because if these two Ivy League-educated white guys had really understood the challenges of teaching fifth graders in inner-city Houston when they started out 14 years ago, they might never have had the audacity to found the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of public schools that has posted stunning achievement gains and shattered all manner of myths about the academic capabilities of minority kids.
As it was, Feinberg and Levin had confidence but no clue. For Feinberg, the realization came on the first day of school, the minute he said, "Hi, I'm Mr. Feinberg. You can call me Mr. F." Levin, a fellow Teach for America recruit, didn't fare much better. When the school added 17 kids to the 11 he had started with, Levin put them in groups facing each other. "What no one had told me," he recalls, "is that they were from rival gangs." There were bets--a running pool with odds--of whether he would make it past Thanksgiving.
Raising eyebrows. Sorely humbled, the two resolved to learn everything they could about how to connect with the 10-year-old mind. "For two years we worked really hard," says Feinberg." And as with anything, your skills get better with time."
And yet, like most idealistic teachers, Levin and Feinberg remained frustrated by institutional barriers. They could get superior results, they knew, only if they had the freedom to teach the way they wanted and considerably more time on task. So one night in 1993, while listening to U2's Achtung Baby on repeat play, they brainstormed until dawn and arrived at a plan for a fifth grade that embodied their belief in high standards, hard work, and a focus on results. Today, KIPP boasts 44 middle schools, two high schools, and one prekindergarten from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. And the results are raising eyebrows throughout the educational world. KIPP students consistently outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools on standardized tests, and more than 80 percent of KIPP students from the classes of 2004 and 2005 are enrolled in four-year colleges.
The premise of KIPP is simple: Do whatever it takes to learn. Under a contract signed by students, parents, and teachers, students go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, every other Saturday morning, and for an extra month in the summer--over 60 percent more class time than the average school year. Teachers are on call 24-7 to answer questions about homework (the better they teach, the fewer the calls), and parents are held accountable.
Carrot--and stick. A "no excuses" culture of strict discipline prevails. Should a student forget his homework, he is banished to the doorway of the class--forbidden to speak to classmates, yet still taking in the lesson. If a single child fails to look at the teacher, the instructor will stop the whole class until he does. Once, when an exasperated Feinberg couldn't get a student to do her homework, he went to her home and, with her mother's permission, hauled the family's 37-inch TV out of the living room and installed it at the front of his classroom. When the student delivered, she got the TV back.