Two Guys...and a Dream
"Moral compass." The two met on the first day of Teach for America training when Feinberg was angling to meet another new teacher. The woman needed a ride to the store, but Feinberg didn't drive a stick shift, so for cover, he asked Levin to come along. He didn't know that Levin, raised in Manhattan, couldn't drive a stick either. Friends ever since, they embarrass each other with praise. "Dave is one of the most passionate and loyal people I have ever met," says Feinberg. "There are lots of fakes and phonies when it comes to friendship, but Dave is the exact opposite. And watching him teach ... he just creates this aura around him." Says Levin, "Mike is like a moral compass. You think that if you follow him, you must be on the right track of life."
Although they share many traits, including refreshingly restrained egos, each brings complementary skills to the enterprise. One who has had a chance to observe the two in action is Don Fisher, the founder and chairman emeritus of the Gap clothing chain and the principal benefactor of the KIPP Foundation. Levin, says Fisher, is "a visionary," a man with so much enthusiasm "he can't finish his sentences." Feinberg, he says, is a great operations man. Neither, he says, is fond of spending time behind a desk. When Fisher asked Levin to be the CEO of the KIPP Foundation, Levin said he would accept only if he could teach at the same time. (Fisher later persuaded Levin to look outside for a CEO, and in Richard Barth, Fisher says, Levin "hit a 10-strike.") Feinberg, too, admits that "liability insurance is not the sort of thing that gets me psyched to get up in the morning." But he sees running the business as a means to an end. And for both men, the end is a return to teaching fifth grade.
Yet as perennial students themselves, both Feinberg and Levin have relished their lessons in such business disciplines as financing and fundraising, and as they did as rookie teachers, they have learned by making mistakes. "We'd become good at managing 10-year-olds," says Feinberg, "but we had no clue of how to manage adults."
One of the big lessons, he says, was "how to balance a sense of urgency with maturity." The urgency comes from the need to play catch-up with kids who are starting from so far behind; at the KIPP D.C. Key Academy in Washington, D.C., for instance, the average fifth grader enters with the test scores of a third grader. "The fifth grade is like the fourth quarter, when you've had the two-minute warning and you're down by a touchdown," Feinberg says. "You can still win, but every second counts." Yet his impatience, he admits, has sent him into some headlong dives. He recalls the day a bad ice storm slammed into Houston. "Other schools were closing, but I demanded that the buses come and pick the KIPP kids up. Could I have let the kids spend just one day at home watching TV and not put them at risk?" he asks. "Yes."