On The HotSeat: KIPP Co-Founder Mike Feinberg

Hated by many educators but loved by the media, the KIPP network of (mostly) charter schools are a fascinating and in some ways horrifying effort to reach low-income kids and get them to and through college.

On the HotSeat, Feinberg explains what it's like to be loved and hated by so many (not so bad), dispells that 16-hour day rumor (sort of), espouses the virtues of hard work ("Plow On" is his motto), tells us where the KIPP model came from (her name is Harriett), and explains why KIPP failed in Chicago (no charter). He also says that regular schools could do much of what he and others are trying, without KIPP or a charter.


A lot of educators really hate KIPP schools, as you probably know – how do you deal with that and what do you tell to those folks?

MF: Work hard. Be nice. In KIPP’s 12 years I have run into far more educators who appreciate what we are doing and like to learn new techniques and strategies from us (and we learn how to teach better from them) than those who would like to see us disappear.

How does it feel to be a media darling?

MF: While I’m always skeptical of hype, our KIPP students, whom we call “KIPPsters,” have earned this recognition. The KIPPsters are the ones who are getting on buses at 6:00 am, going to school until 5:00 pm, getting home after 6:00 pm, doing two hours of homework, going to bed, and then waking up early the next morning to start all over.

Sixteen-hour work days for KIPP teachers? Is that true?

MF: Creating a new KIPP school is essentially a start-up venture. The founding faculty of a new KIPP school often work very long hours because, on top of their goal of helping students below grade level climb the mountain to college, no tried and true systems are in place yet. They need to be created, scrapped, reinvented, and refined. That being said, sixteen hour work days are not the norm and particularly as a school matures, teachers find their work loads to be very manageable.

What’s the KIPP workload like after the start-up is done?

MF: When our schools transition out of start-up mode and into focusing on sustainability, they are coming up with staffing solutions that can allow many different great teachers to teach in their schools. KIPP has young mothers and fathers who need to leave right at 5:00 pm to pick up their children from daycare, part-time teachers who job share, and teachers who continue to work past 5:00 pm. We also have 35-year classroom veterans who have come out of retirement to teach at KIPP.

Do KIPP teachers make any more money for all this work?

Since we are very lean on administrative costs, we typically can afford to pay our teachers 15-20% higher salaries than the neighboring public school. However our schools are staffed, though, we at KIPP remain steadfastly convinced that having the children come to school from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm for 180 days a year is not enough time We firmly believe what Rafe Esquith taught us: that there are no shortcuts on any path towards success.

Who’s Rafe Esquith?

MF: Rafe is an amazing teacher at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles whose students learn many talents and achieve phenomenal results.

For those of us who think of them as one undistinguishable entity, what’s the difference between KIPP and the Amistad schools, for example?

MF: It’s comforting to hear y’all see them as undistinguishable–as KIPP shares the same mission and results-oriented philosophy as Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry’s Achievement First schools, Chris Barbic’s YES Prep schools, and Norman Atkins’ Uncommon Schools, as examples. This development makes it more difficult to dismiss any of our results as an anomaly that does not have any relevance to the rest of the schools and systems in public education today.

OK, there’s more than one success story to tell – but what’s different about a KIPP school than an Achievement First or YES Prep or Uncommon school?

MF: We have a shorter email address for people to type. ☺

What’s the relationship between KIPP and TFA?

MF: KIPP grew out of Teach For America. Dave Levin and I started KIPP after completing our commitment to TFA in 1994. Currently 60% of KIPP principals and 33% of KIPP teachers are TFA alumni. We owe a great debt to Wendy Kopp for not only creating TFA, but growing the organization to a point where 4,400 TFA teachers serve in classrooms across America.

I didn’t know that the KIPP creation story was so TFAntastic. Wendy Kopp created KIPP and spun it off?

MF: Wendy inspired us to dream, think, and act big – and KIPP was the result.

How big do you want KIPP to get?

MF: We are focused on educating kids and figuring out how to grow to serve children who are on our schools’ wait lists. We don’t believe that we have all the answers for public education, or that every school in the country should be a KIPP school, but we do believe that we can help many underserved children succeed in school and life. We also believe that many of our strategies can help other educators learn how to do great things with their students, too. And right now we’re laser focused on helping our 12,000 KIPPsters get ready for college. There’s no substitute for hard work.

What are two things that regular schools could do like KIPP without being KIPP or even being a charter school?

MF: They can extend their students’ learning time to make the clock a friend instead of an enemy, and they can adjust their curriculum to make sure it’s college-prep by reverse engineering expectations from college graduation back to the grade levels they serve. And here’s one more thing to chew on – schools can view their students and families as the main source of accountability, and serve the children so well that even if there are many other free, easy options for where to attend school, the children and families would continue to choose to remain at that school.

KIPP schools have only failed outright in a couple of places, including Chicago – what have you learned from those few experiences and how has it changed what you do?

In 2003, we opened two schools in Chicago-KIPP Ascend Charter School on the west side, and a contract school-within-a-school in partnership with Chicago Public Schools. While the contract school had the second largest math gains in the city of Chicago in 2005, the achievement levels were not as high as they needed to be to get these kids in college. We made the decision to phase this school into the other school in November of 2005, giving parents and students time so that they could plan for the next year. Several former students enrolled in KIPP Ascend, which was one of the top performing public schools in Chicago in 2006.

What did you learn from what happened in Chicago?

MF: We learned that the contract path in Chicago was not helpful to achieving our mission, and we shouldn’t have been naïve enough to think that the conditions into which we are sending our school leaders and teachers do not matter at all. Now that Chicago Public Schools has a new contract model, I hope they have cracked the nut on ensuring their new schools are set up for success.

What specifically were some of the things that didn’t work without a charter in Chicago?

MF: The staff of the contract school had to spend considerable time navigating through the traditional school system of 600 schools that is more complex than a charter school system of 1 school. That navigation time could have and should have been spent with the students and families, which our charter school on the west side of Chicago has been able to do and has achieved great results in the process.

Can KIPP work inside the regular school district system, or is it charter-only?

MF: Our preferred model for opening new schools is the charter school model. The charter model guarantees the 3 Fs that are necessary to set up KIPP for success: freedom, funding, and facilities. Currently, 49 of our 52 schools are charter schools. This is not an ideological issue for us, though; it’s a practical issue. There are things we know we need to do to help create great public schools, and so long as we can do them we’re fine. We engage districts in the discussion frequently, and we are clear that we would happily open our schools in a district if we can get these key freedoms in place. Today, it’s a tall order. We’re hopeful, though, that over time it will be easier for districts to be able to make this happen.

Is it true that a lot of the KIPP model came from a veteran African American teacher in Texas? Whatever happened to her?

MF: Harriett Ball was Dave’s and my incredible mentor teacher when we started teaching as new Teach For America corps members in 1992. She taught us how to teach and reach our students—that mindset was the basis for starting KIPP. Even the name–Knowledge is Power--comes from one of Harriett’s chants that she does with students in the classroom.

Why isn’t she out front with you guys, then?

MF: Today Harriett has retired from teaching in the Houston public schools and is hired by schools, including KIPP schools, to do workshops around the country. More than learning her chants, raps, and songs, educators learn from her a new way to view lesson planning and instructional strategies for how to reach and teach all children with very different learning needs and preferences.

Do KIPP schools provide lots of social services and supports, or is it all about enhancing the academic, in-school experience as much as possible?

MF: It’s all about doing whatever it takes to help our students climb the mountain to and through college. That certainly means teaching the 3 R’s, but given the challenges found in underserved communities, we cannot expect our students to learn and succeed in a bubble at KIPP without addressing the out-of-school issues that affect them as well.

Have you guys pursued federal funding to expand or support your efforts?

MF: Like many other education groups, we received no funding for this current year when all supplemental grants were wiped out of the education appropriations bill because of Hurricane Katrina. Our last supplemental federal funding –from November of 2004-- received bipartisan support from a range of Congressmen and Senators. Most recently, we received a credit enhancement grant from the US DOE in 2006 that acts as a reserve fund to help our schools secure facilities.

How much more (or less) does it take, money-wise, to run a KIPP school than a traditional district school?

MF: The majority of KIPP schools spend the same or less than traditional public schools. Given that most of our schools receive less per-pupil funding than district schools receive (typically we receive 60 to 90 percent of the operational revenue and none of the capital expenditure revenue), there is fundraising that we need to do to make up that difference.

What’s your work day like – as long and hard as your teachers’?

MF: I believe I can’t ask others to do what I’m not willing to do, so I try to work both very hard and very smart. Some days I’m smarter than others…..still learning….. ☺

You sign off your emails with “plow on.” – Where does that come from, and how long have you been using it?

MF: It comes from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Freedom’s Plow”. I’ve been using it since I heard Dave read that poem during a speech over a decade ago.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like the Chicago explanation conveniently leaves out the fact that the KIPP school went through 2 very unsuccessful leaders which added to the mess..

3:00 PM  
Blogger Alexander Russo said...

yeah, i've heard that explanation as well, but feinberg seems to think that it was a governance/administrative burden problem more than anything else.

who were the chicago principals and where did they go after leaving KIPP?

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having spoken with a couple of former KIPP teachers, I would take the comments about "sixteen hour work days are not the norm" with a grain of salt. Fifteen hours certainly are, from what I've heard.

That can be true in regular public schools, too, but at least more of those hours are for planning, though fewer would be time with students in person or helping with homework via the phone.

1:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why didn't you ask Feinberg about "KIPPsters" being put in isolation and having to wear "miscreant" signs around their neck? Maybe that's preparing them to pull the Freedom Plow.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Tutor Mentor Connections said...

I think the charter school leaders and traditional school leaders are both ignoring a few important issues in their strategies.

I've been creating maps showing where there are high concentrations of poverty and poorly performing schools in Chicago. In these areas schools will always struggle because the community does not send kids to school as well prepared, or as well motivated, as do more economically diverse communities.

Thus, until a strategy emerges that expands the network of adults and learning experiences available to kids in the non-school hours, the schools and teachers will continue to struggle to teach and prepare kids for careers.

The strategy I propose is one that supports comprehensive, volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs that connect adults from many different backgrounds with kids, and keep the kids and adults connected for multiple years. An economist at the University of Chicago, James Heckman, recently encouraged tutoring/mentoring as a form of on-going support.

I demonstrate such maps, and a strategy to draw volunteers and donors to tutor/mentor programs in the Program Locator at http://www.tutormentorconnection.org. I think there's a natural opportunity for charter school and tutor/mentor leaders to work together. They are both trying to accomplish something that traditional schools may never achieve.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Here are some questions I would ask Mike Feinberg (and you should have, because they're important ones):

-- A look at the enrollment figures for some KIPP schools show sky-high attrition, especially among the most academically challenged subgroups who are really KIPP's targets. For example: KIPP Bridge Academy in Oakland, CA, had 35 African-American boys in the fifth grade that started there in fall 2002. By fall 2005, there were only 8 African-American boys remaining in that class. (We don't know how many actually graduated from eighth grade.) That is an extreme case, but 6 of California's 9 KIPP schools show the same pattern.

Is that a common pattern in KIPP schools nationwide? Do you view such high attrition as a problem? Assuming that it's the most academically and/or behaviorally challenged kids who leave KIPP schools, that raises questions. How big a factor in KIPP schools' success is the ability to get rid of unsuccessful students? And if traditional public schools could get rid of such high percentages of their most challenging kids, would they then succeed as well with the rest as KIPP has, even without the elaborate discipline system, ultra-long days and all the other KIPP features? And shouldn't there be some effort to find out?

-- KIPP schools use a strict discipline system emphasizing public humiliation and shunning. Most middle-class people would be enraged if a school used such discipline strategies on our own kids. Is it morally right to espouse discipline for poor minority kids that we would feel was cruel and inhumane used on our own kids?

1:32 PM  
Blogger Peter Campbell said...

KIPP still has a lot to prove.

For KIPP to show that it "works," it needs to address the following issues.

Creaming at KIPP
KIPP attracts and enrolls already successful students

As I was reading the recent SRI report on Bay Area KIPP schools, I came across this paragraph on the phenomenon of "creaming" at KIPP schools:

Given increasing interest in KIPP schools on the part of parents and students, some principals expressed concern about “creaming” already high-performing students from local schools when there remains a large number who are low-performing and underserved. One principal expressed dismay with the school’s struggle to enroll Title I students, whom she considers to be her target population. (p. 18)

From this, it seems that at least some KIPP students have already been succeeding at other schools prior to entering a KIPP school.

In addition, some have argued that KIPP's success is based on the fact that KIPP students have motivated parents who push them in ways that other underprivileged kids don't. Given these two factors -- motivated parents and already successful students -- how much credit can we reasonably ascribe to KIPP?

Also, KIPP schools are made up almost entirely of black and Hispanic students. How concerned should we be that KIPP's success undergirds the recent law passed by the Nebraska legislature, allowing for segregated schools in Omaha? In other words, looking at KIPP as an example, the argument could be made that while segregated schools might seem bad, they actually "work." Of course, what they work at doing is the question.

KIPP and Achievement
How reliable are the data?

KIPP schools claim they are responsible for dramatic leaps in achievement. According to one source, on average KIPP kids are at about the 30th percentile nationally in 4th grade. By the end of 4 years at KIPP, they are about the 70th percentile. The obvious problem with averaging anything is that the average often does not depict the typical outcome. If there is one outcome that is very far from the rest of the data, then the average will be strongly affected by this outcome. In short, some really high achievers will make the others look pretty good, even if these others are not doing so well.

For example, let's say there were 5 students taking a test. The scores (out of 100 possible points) were as follows: 45, 47, 52, 98, 99. The average of these five scores is 68.2 So you could truthfully and accurately say, "Student scores were near the 70th percentile." But how many students scored a 70? None. If you look at the scores, 3 out of the 5 did really badly. But 2 of the 5 did really, really well. The result? It looks like great things are happening when, in fact, they are not.

I'm still waiting for a statistical analysis of KIPP achievement data to determine the variance and standard deviation of these data. The variance and standard deviation describe how spread out the data is. If the data all lie close to the average, then the standard deviation will be small, while if the data are spread out over a large range of values, it will be large. Having outliers -- very high achievers that make the KIPP scores seem better than they really are -- will increase the standard deviation. If the standard deviation is small, then the claim about "leap in achievement" would be quite substantive. But if the standard deviation is large, then the claim about "leap in achievement" would be pretty sketchy.

KIPP and Enrollment
Are these the same kids?

Are the kids that graduate from KIPP in 8th grade the same kids that began KIPP in 4th grade? If these were the same kids, then the numbers might indeed be impressive. But how many of the 4th graders dropped out after being at KIPP for a year or two? It's entirely possible that a large number of the original 4th graders dropped out, leaving only the higher-performing students, resulting in fewer 8th graders. Also, how many of these 8th graders came from outside KIPP schools? (see Creaming, above)

KIPP and Broad-Based Curriculum
What are the kids actually learning?

KIPP claims that it has a broad-based curriculum and does not shirk on subjects that are not tested under NCLB, e.g., social studies. According to the SRI report on Bay Area KIPP schools,

"Students have 90 minutes of (English Language Arts) and math every day. They also have 90 minutes of social studies and science on alternating days." (p. 33)

The report does not indicate what is actually taught in the social studies and science blocks, nor how it is taught. Moreover, there is no evidence in this report that KIPP students receive a "broad-based education" other than the fact that science and social studies are taught for 90 minutes every other day. Because students are not tested in these subjects, we have no way of knowing if they are learning anything. More troubling, we have no way of knowing if the instruction they receive is substantive or superficial.

How does KIPP respond to these questions and issues?

7:41 PM  
Blogger Educator of a New School said...

Stop criticizing and do something positive. Where I am from, we call that "Hatin." :)

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since there is so much negative say about this....someone talk to the producer of MTV and do a reality TV show like the real world but replace the cast with 10 different teachers (including all subjects) from 10 different school of different geographic areas and have them start a school. Wouldn't that be something.

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really hate to get on the middle of these kind of conversations, but Mike Feinberg was my teacher back on 1992, I learned so much from him and his ideals. Now, I have a 10 year old who is also attending a KIPP school, I'm not saying that is easy for her, but at least she is working hard for what she believes in, she knows is not going to be easy and it doesn't have to be handed to her to be able to appreciate it, but her teachers show that they are concerned about her education. Public schools are good, but sometimes the early dismissals or going in late makes the kids lazy and used to a routine where there's not much to expect out of it.... I'm happy for what they are doing for all these kids... is a job well done.

8:30 AM  

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