INTERVIEW WITH MIKE FEINBERG, CO-FOUNDER
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER PROGRAM (KIPP)
Hedrick Smith: How did KIPP get started?
Michael Feinberg: KIPP got started back in 1994 by Dave Levin and myself when
we were two “Teach For America” teachers that just got very frustrated at what
was happening with our kids when they left our classrooms and went off to the
local middle schools. We were realizing that the impact we could make from eight
o'clock to three o'clock for 180 days on kids was very limited. We could have
them do well in our fifth grade classrooms, but when they left our classrooms,
there was no long-term impact that was noticeable. Our kids would go off to the
middle schools and by Christmas time, unfortunately, even though they were in
our classrooms well behaved, intelligent, enthusiastic students, they quickly
would start skipping just as many classes, start smoking just as much dope, start
joining just as many gangs and start becoming just as many parents as all the
other kids in those middle school and high school feeder patterns. And that was
Smith: And why did you start a school system and why did you start it at fifth
Feinberg: Well, originally, we didn't start a school system. I wish to say
that all of this was not some kind of brilliant idea we hatched up back in 1994
and wrote a business plan on and a strategic plan on, but we were just trying
to do right by our students. So our original goal was, what can we do to really
have an impact so that what they learn in our classroom does get used well beyond
this year, that they succeed in middle school, have the success continue into
high school, have the momentum, continue to be able to go to college and do whatever
they want to do in this world. So the original plan was just to create a fifth
grade classroom that really could accomplish all that. So one night we just sat
down all night long after being inspired by one of our mentor teachers, Rafe
Esquith. We put on U2 “Achtung Baby” repeat play. By about five o'clock in the
morning, our response to feelings of failure and frustration was on the computer
screen and that was the “Knowledge is Power Program”, with the premise that – borrowing
from Rafe – that there are no shortcuts, no quick, easy magical solutions to
making that kind of impact. It was about rolling up your sleeves and working
very hard at it. So we designed KIPP to be a fifth grade program. We were going
to motivate the kids to come from seven-thirty in the morning until five o'clock
in the afternoon, to come for four hours on Saturdays, to come for an extra month
in the summer and we'd give them two or three hours of homework every single
night. We figured that about should do it.
Smith: So the core idea was a lot more time on task and also kids taking responsibility
for a big chunk of homework at night?
Feinberg: You're right, the core idea back then is today fairly simple. It's
focusing on the fact that people make the difference. So we wanted to work to
become the greatest teachers we possibly could by learning from such great teachers
as Harriet Ball and Rafe Esquith, as well as having enough time on the clock
to get everything done so our great teaching could have a necessary impact. So
it's about great people with enough time to get things done. That was our recipe
for success back then and a decade later that's still our recipe for success.
Smith: And when you take the Saturday classes, the long day, the weeks in the
summertime, how much extra time does that give students in an academic year?
Feinberg: It's about 67% more time in the classroom than that which is found
in a traditional public school setting.
Smith: That's a big difference.
Feinberg: Oh, it's a big difference. It's a big commitment, but one that has
a big payoff at the end of the day.
Smith: And then you're talking about a couple of hours of homework at night
for kids starting at fifth grade onward, right?
Smith: So, it sounds like there's a tremendous sense of urgency here. I mean,
if you're putting in that much extra time, at the end of three years you've done
five years of work, right?
Smith: So what's the point here?
Feinberg: This is a race. This is a competition. There's no prize for winning
the race, but there's a prize for what you know at the end. And the prize is
that after twelfth grade, those who have the knowledge, skills, and character
have amazing opportunities to go off to higher education and learn what they
want to learn in this world and get trained to do whatever they want to do. And
those who don't have the knowledge, skills, and character are going to have doors
of opportunity closed in their faces. And so there's a tremendous sense of urgency
because we know by fifth grade the children we're working with in underserved
communities are already behind where they need to be to win that competition
and succeed in that race. And so we want to catch them up and get them where
they need to be.
Smith: Where are they at fifth grade? I mean a lot of these inner city kids,
poor kids, kids from families who don't speak English in their home, what are
they – a year, two years behind?
Feinberg: It's across the board. There are certainly some kids that are on
grade level, some who are ahead of grade level, but that success, unfortunately,
in underserved communities is the exception to the rule. On average, our kids
come in one to two grade levels behind where they should be by fifth grade.
Smith: So how do you feel when you get them?
Feinberg: Angry, frustrated. We want to do whatever we can. Well, I say angry
and frustrated because on day one of fifth grade, it shouldn't be that way. In
a perfect world, the kids should be coming into pre-K ready to learn, they should
be coming into first grade already reading so when they get up to fifth grade,
they should be reading on grade level. You know, they should know their times
tables and know how to problem solve. They should be ready to conduct scientific
experiments and make hypotheses. But they're not, so we either have two options.
We can either shrug our shoulders and sit there and say, “What can we do about
it? It's because of the families. It's because of the community. It's because
of their former schools and former teachers. It's because of society.” Or we
can just say, “You know what, it might have been someone else's problem but now
it's ours and we need to do something about it.” And our take has always been
that if there's a problem, we look for a solution.
Smith: Many people start middle school or junior high at seventh grade. Some
say “not soon enough, sixth grade.” You say fifth grade. Why do you start your
schools at fifth grade?
Feinberg: Our idea of fifth grade is like the fourth quarter – the two-minute
warning, we're down by a touchdown – that's how we view fifth grade. You can
still win the game but now every second counts; there's a tremendous sense of
urgency and there's no more margin for error. There's that heightened sense of
urgency to get everything done. After fifth grade it's simply a matter of less
than eight years of time to prepare the kids to be ready to succeed in college
as well. And less than eight years, when you're starting from close to scratch,
is not enough time on the clock. So even if you are a great teacher and if you're
running a great school, the variable of not enough time still weighs heavily
on you and we want to eliminate that variable.
Smith: And you give them a pretty heavy dosage of seat time, structure, discipline,
homework. Is it easier to work with kids at fifth grade? I mean you start to
get a little bit older than that and you're dealing with all the hormones that
are raging through teens and pre-teens.
Feinberg: Right, well that's the other advantage of starting with fifth grade
versus sixth or seventh grade is that we're still working with the children while
They're still children at that age. The eye rolling and the talking back and
the having the attitudes that all of us have gone through when we started going
through the pre-adolescent stage starts somewhere in the sixth or seventh grade
year. So at fifth grade, because they're still children, you can establish strong
relationships with the children and with the families and so when the storm of
middle school and pre-adolescence starts to hit, you already have strong bonds
to weather that storm and get through it together.
Smith: So you want to lure them into your game and to your structure while
they're still a little bit more manageable if not malleable.
Feinberg: Absolutely. Fifth grade, we feel, is the last year to truly make
that happen because by sixth grade, they're not quite as malleable, they're already
kind of in that natural rebellious stage which we've all gone through; so it
just makes sense to try to start working with them before the rebelliousness
Smith: Speaking of that, I mean you have had kids coming into your fifth grade
who've had trouble. They've already been talking back to teachers and sassing,
they know four-letter words and we've had some of them tell us, that they were
bad actors even in fourth grade. But they say you get on their case. One of the
kids we talked to said, “Yeah, KIPP is a little bit like the Army. They're on
your case right from day one.”
Feinberg: I suppose some people think that KIPP is like the Army; that's their
perspective. But I think as you spend some time here at our schools, you sense
a whole lot of joy beyond the structure and the discipline. And I haven't been
in the Army but I would assume that this is a little bit different from that.
The fact that we combine the structure and the discipline with the joy factor
as well is critical around here. If we're going to motivate the kids to work
this hard day in and day out, week in and week out, and year in and year out,
67% more time, there's got to be an extra hook in there for why they want to
be here. At the end of the day we don't want them working this hard because we
tell them to, we want them working this hard because they want to.
Smith: You do put a lot of emphasis on structure and discipline. Talk about
that for a minute. What are you after? Why is structure and discipline so important
to kids in fifth grade, and particularly kids coming from high poverty homes
and communities, minority families and families who maybe don't speak English
Feinberg: I don't think structure and discipline is something that's necessary
in one community versus another. I think anyone who's been successful in this
world will say that part of their success was owed to some measure of structure
and some measure of discipline that they either created themselves or they received
from someone else to help them along. That's a necessary ingredient for any recipe
of success and we want to make sure we have that here.
Smith: Benching. People all talk about benching. What's benching all about?
Feinberg: Sure. The bench, the metaphor that comes from one of our values which
is teammates and teamwork. You know at KIPP we say all the time that we are a
team and a family and that team always beats individual. And so the bench has
become, basically, one of the consequences when kids are making bad choices and
not following the rules. They're “on the bench,” as in: they're not part of the
team playing the game, they're on the sidelines watching. And all it really is,
is a middle school version of timeout from kindergarten days.
We do not want to punish children by taking away their education. We don't
believe in suspending children. When we suspend children they go home for a week
on suspension, they'll watch Jerry Springer and they'll come back worse than
ever. We didn't want that to happen. Plus, the ultimate reward for the kids,
the most important thing, is education. So sending them to the principal's office
or sending them on suspensions is what we don't want to do.
So in its place, we've come up with the idea of the bench in terms of not being
on the team. And on the bench what we've taken away is the social aspect which
the kids at the middle school level so crave. So they're still in the classroom,
they're still learning but they have to sit apart from their teammates and the
only one they can talk to in that classroom is the teacher. They can't talk to
their friends and their friends can't talk to them. So it applies not just to
the classroom but the entire school day so when they go eat lunch, they have
to sit at a separate table. Once again, they can't eat with their friends, they
have to eat either in silence or they can work on their homework and reading
when they're at the table.
Then over the weekend, if they're on the bench, they have to do some deep reflection
on the bad choices they made to go to the bench because that means they either
weren't doing their work, or they weren't being nice and respectful to their
teammates, they have to write letters of apology to their teammates explaining
what they did wrong and what they're going to do the next week to get off the
bench and contribute to the team again.
Smith: And there's a whole system of incentives, of rewards, punishments, carrots
and sticks, paychecks, trips. Are these central to the KIPP method?
Feinberg: Well, it goes back to the general premise that all good teachers
use in their classrooms – that also applies in life for the most part – which
is when you do the right thing, good things happen and when you do the wrong
thing, bad things happen. I know it doesn't always work out that way in life
but it usually follows that pattern and we want the kids to learn that valuable
life lesson. So when they make good choices, when they choose to get their work
done, when they choose to be respectful to each other, when they choose to solve
problems, positively and constructively, we want to make sure they're rewarded
for it. And when they make bad choices, and they choose to not get their work
done or choose to be disrespectful to each other, we want to make sure there's
a consequence for it.
And whatever the age is, whether we're talking about fifth graders or seventh
graders or ninth graders, we want to make sure it's age-level appropriate so
the good things that are happening are things that kids that age really look
forward to. And the bad things that are happening are things that kids that age
really don't want to happen. So, therefore, there's always basically two reasons
why one should make the right choice and there's always two reasons why you should
avoid the wrong choice. You want the good things and you hate the bad things.
And that's a good lesson for life.
Smith: There's also this thing that you earn privileges, you earn status, you
earn the right to mix. Why, I mean that's true everywhere, you earn your grades,
you earn rewards or you earn accolades from the principal or you win prizes and
that kind of stuff. But you've kind of calibrated it and carried it a lot further
than a lot of schools. What's that all about?
Feinberg: Well that's just, as you said, that's a value that is out there in
the world, that technically the kids don't really have to learn until they're
out there in the world but we want them to learn now. Because there's universal
K-12, in many cases pre-K–12 education, children who are at public schools don't
have to feel that way, don't feel the sense of earning things which we know exists
beyond education out there in the real world. They're entitled to their desk,
they're entitled to books, they're entitled to the breakfast and the lunch, they're
entitled to have a teacher in front of them, they're entitled to be in a school
building that's somewhere in their neighborhood.
All those are great entitlements and should be there, but without teaching
the value that things need to get earned, you can create a situation where kids
grow up thinking that this is going to keep happening, that they're going to
be entitled to a college education, they're going to be entitled to become a
lawyer, doctor, architect, engineer, whatever they want to do in this world.
And so I think it's important, while we have some very important entitlements
in this country, which we should be very proud of, we also at the same time have
to balance that by teaching the value that people should take advantage of the
opportunity of having these entitlements to now build upon them and earn their
way in this world.
Smith: You got 38 KIPP schools. By and large, who are the kids who are in those
Feinberg: By and large, these are kids from underserved communities, from neighborhoods
that are not experiencing tremendous success, in the education areas, in the
socioeconomic areas, in lots of the other areas we use to measure how society
is doing. And they also come from families where there are not many choices available
to them other than the one public school down the block. The families are hardworking
families, working long hours and sometimes two or three jobs to put food on the
table and pay rent, but they don't have the funds to decide that because that
one public school is not a great option for their child they want to look for
other private choices. They don't have the funds to do that so we want to make
sure they have other public options available to them.
Smith: We're talking largely minority kids, we're talking largely high poverty,
low income. Can you give me a better description of the kids in your schools.
Feinberg: Our schools are located in underserved communities where, in general,
usually around 89% of the kids are on the federal free breakfast and lunch program;
98 - 99% of them are children of color, and they're coming from neighborhoods
where there's a whole lot more high school dropouts going on than kids matriculating
to college. Unfortunately.
Smith: Did you deliberately set out to reach kids from high poverty families,
kids from minority families?
Feinberg: Yes, originally that's why Dave and I joined Teach For America in
the first place because we wanted to be part of this national movement to ensure
that all children in this nation achieve an excellent education. And so we joined
Teach For America knowing we were going to get placed in school districts around
the country that were working with underserved communities and there was a need
for more excellent teachers to be there.
Smith: So you're a missionary, an educational missionary.
Feinberg: Am I an educational missionary? I'm certainly a man on a mission
and I'm one of many people on a mission, but I don't view this as missionary
work. Missionary work, to me, conjures up images of going out there in the New
World and creating missions to save other people. I'm not trying to save anyone,
I'm trying to level the playing field and equip people with the necessary skills
they need to save themselves.
Smith: And what is your mission, then? Is that it?
Feinberg: To provide kids with the academic, intellectual, and character skills
they need to succeed in high school, college and the competitive world beyond.
Smith: Why were you drawn to Teach For America? Why did you want to go work
in underserved communities in the first place?
Feinberg: My parents must have raised me well, with a sense that it's important
to be appreciative of what you have and then give back to others as well.
Smith: Mike let's be honest, there are a lot of people in this country who
say public schools don't work. There are a lot of people in this country who
either say or believe, without stating it quite directly and openly, that a lot
of these kids of color who come from poor homes, across the track so to speak,
can't learn, they can't be reached, it can't be done. What drove you to do it?
I mean, you're an enormously energetic guy, you're pouring absolutely your heart
and soul into this thing, so are a whole lot of other people. I think people
need to know straight from the shoulder, what's moving you.
Feinberg: (laugh) I think it's a combination, Rick. You right, there's so many
people out there who still have a mindset that because of a zip code you're born
in or the color of your skin or something like that, that there's limitations
to what one can achieve in this world. And there might be exceptions to the rule
but there's still a rule. And that drives me nuts. At the same time, there's
lots of people who want to be part of the solution to all that. The people who
want to contribute and want to fix things are missing the target. It's still
out there, the flavor of the month, the flavor of the year, looking for shortcuts
as solutions, focusing on one piece of the puzzle.
You walk into the teachers' lounges in elementary schools and you hear the
teachers ponder, “What happened to our bright, motivated children? How come we
see them out in the community now acting like such punks?” And you go then to
the high school teacher lounges and there the teachers are wondering how come
they get kids every year who can't read, can't write, can't compute and can't
walk down a hallway without causing trouble every two minutes.
You just observe all this finger-pointing going on. And so no one's working
on the solution, they're just finger-pointing. The people that are working on
the solutions are out there saying, “All right, the answer is pre-K. We get great
pre-K, everything'll be fixed.” Or, “All right, the answer is high school. We
address our high schools and fix our high schools, everything'll be fixed.” Or
it's, “Oh, the answer is, we're so behind in utilizing technology well in the
classroom. We get computers in all the classrooms, we put hand-held devices in
the kids' hands, magically all that knowledge is going to filter into their brain
and that'll fix everything.” Everyone's looking for the magic bullet instead
of just getting after it and realizing this is extremely hard work.
It is something that's not easy, it's something that our schools are being
asked to do more so today for their kids and their communities than we've ever
asked schools to do in our history. And as hard as it is, it's still possible
to succeed but the answer is not found in any shortcuts or gizmos or quick fixes,
the answer is looking at it from a 3-year-old to an 18-year-old problem and rolling
up our sleeves and working very hard at it. And I think because of the frustrations
from that, people are not willing to look at the entire problem and address it
from that standpoint. Instead they try to cherry-pick which parts to fix, which
at the end of the day doesn't work.
Smith: So what is it we need to roll up our sleeves and do? What do we need
to believe and what do we need to act on?
Feinberg: Well, we need to believe that all children can learn. But then what
we need to act on is changing the word “can” to “will.” And so we need to act
on the fact that all children will learn. We need to have an attitude that every
day there's 101 reasons why the kids come into the school not set for success,
not ready to learn. Some of those reasons are ridiculous, some are very legitimate.
And I think we have to act on the fact that, as a school, we do have the potential
and we do have the power, if we want, to eliminate those variables and do whatever
it takes to help the kids learn.
Smith: So what you're saying is the failure of the kids is the adults' responsibility.
Smith: And the adults can do something about it.
Feinberg: Adults can do everything about it. One of the things on our front
window when you walk into KIPP is that – to be the constant, not the variable.
Once again, there's lots of variables out there for why the kids are not going
to learn but at the end of the day, like any good science experiment, we should
eliminate all the variables but one. And I think the one variable that we cannot
directly or indirectly affect is the kids' hearts, how badly they want it, the
gannas, as we say in Spanish.
Smith: Okay, when you're recruiting a new crop of teachers and you're bringing
them in to KIPP, what do you tell them they need to do? What is it they need
to focus on?
Feinberg: We need to focus on making sure that kids are mastering what we want
them to master. And there's a whole set of academic skills and there's a whole
set of character and life skills that we want kids to learn. I think we need
to focus on making sure that the teachers in those classrooms know very clearly
what it is that they need to teach at that grade level in terms of the academics
and in terms of the life skills, and that they are very good at teaching that.
And then from an administrative standpoint, we need to make sure that they are
set up for success so whatever they need to do a great job in that role, they
Smith: What do you look for when you recruit teachers?
Feinberg: I look for three things. I look for teachers that are very smart
and very passionate in the subject matter they're going to teach. The type of
teachers that don't need the teacher's edition to teach and the type of teachers
that also are going to bring a wealth of outside resources to the classroom.
You know, if a teacher loves history, the kids are going to love history in that
room, too. Second, I look for people and teachers who can take all that knowledge
and passion from their brain and heart and transfer it into the brain and the
heart of a nine-year-old or a 12-year-old or a 15-year-old – which on the rare
occasion is a gift, but for most of us mortals, it's a skill which has to be
acquired and refined over time. And lastly, I look for teachers who have that
gannas, who have that desire to work really hard and do whatever it takes to
help the kids learn.
And those three things – the knowledge and the passion, the ability to reach
and teach in the classroom and the desire to roll up your sleeves and work very
hard – if that's found with someone that has a piece of paper that says they're
a certified teacher, terrific, and if it's found with someone who doesn't have
the piece of paper and they're not certified but they still possess all those
skills, I still want them in front of my babies.
Smith: People will have knowledge by going through good schools; people will
have passion because they care and they love what they're interested in, whatever
it is, science or history or you name it. But the ability to reach and teach – does
that mean you essentially hire only experienced teachers who have demonstrated
the ability to reach and teach kids?
Feinberg: No, it means that we're looking for people who possess either the
ability today or certainly possess both the potential and willingness to learn.
Early on when Dave and I first started, when there were only just the two of
us at KIPP and when there were just two KIPP schools in Houston & New York,
it was pretty easy to find people that were already doing this. KIPP does not
have a monopoly on hardworking, great teachers. There is a hardworking great
teacher in every single school in this country. Every single school in this country
has a teacher car in the parking lot at seven o'clock in the morning and that
car is still there at five, six o'clock in the evening.
What's different at KIPP is that all the cars are there at seven in the morning
and all the cars are there at five o'clock in the afternoon. We could go out
there and find those teachers pretty easily. As we've started to grow once again,
you know, growth creates some interesting problems. One problem is that finding
the great teachers easily is no longer possible, it takes a lot more effort to
find them. Or in some cases where we can't find them, we have to find teachers
who possess the potential to do that, and teach them and train them, and give
them the skills they need to be able to do that.
Smith: Where do most of your teachers come from? Do most of your teachers come
from the surrounding school systems in the cities where KIPP is already established
or is establishing schools? Do most of your teachers come from Teach For America?
Young people moved by idealism, with a few years of experience in the school
of hard knocks. What are the demographics on your teachers?
Feinberg: I'd say the average teacher in a KIPP school has probably been teaching
three to six years, even though the range goes from a brand new teacher to someone
that's been teaching over 35 years. So you know, we certainly have the whole
range in there as well. A lot of our teachers are Teach For America alumni. After
they do their Teach For America two-year commitment, they still want to continue
to raise the bar on the impact they made and so they come work in KIPP schools.
In general, I think we're finding teachers that also feel that feeling of failure
and frustration and want to do something about it. They're sick and tired of
being the only car in the parking lot at seven, the only car in the parking lot
at five and they're feeling like Sisyphus, the Greek myth of the person that
had to push the boulder up the cliff every day and when it fell back down, he'd
do it again. They're sick and tired of being in the one classroom at the end
of the hall that's trying to bring order to the chaos and get the kids up from
three grade levels behind. And they're sick and tired of trying to figure out
how to do that all by themselves and they want to be part of a team, they want
to be part of a movement that will be part of taking the “all children can learn” and
turning it into “all children will learn.”
Smith: When you hire teachers who are in this three to six year experience
level, and you're hiring people coming out of Teach For America, what are you
getting from the experience?
Feinberg: Well I think certainly what you get is energy. What you get is creativity.
What you get is people who are part of that mission that want to make a big impact
and want to watch their kids not just succeed at that grade level, but in the
future walk across the stage, get their high school diploma and go off and succeed
in college. And because you're getting also energy and creativity, they'll also
make sure that KIPP continues to grow and doesn't stagnate.
The way that I taught the three's times tables back in 1994 might have been
version two of what I learned from Harriet Ball; today the way a lot of schools
are doing their three's times tables is probably version 85. There have been
so many new ways that people come up with of how to teach creatively so that
the kids learn it, the kids are mastering it and the kids are enjoying themselves
in the process. And I think that's what you get from bringing in the Teach For
America alumni and these other teachers who are coming in with a wealth of ideas
and finally feel like the shackles are off and they can teach in the way they
see fit, they can experiment, they can try new things and they can do what's
necessary to get the kids from where they are to where we want them to be.
Smith: You're a fifth grade math teacher by experience, isn't that right?
Feinberg: Yes, this is my favorite title.
Smith: Okay. Does KIPP have a fifth grade math curriculum?
Feinberg: No, KIPP does not have a fifth grade math curriculum; it has a fifth
grade math philosophy, it has a fifth grade math scope and sequence but not a
curriculum. We realized early on that trying to view the solution as reinventing
the wheel and creating a brand new curriculum didn't make a lot of sense. There're
a lot of smart people in this country who've already spent a lot of time working
on what is good curriculum at first grade, fifth grade and ninth grade. The issue
is not that we don't have good curriculum; the issue is that we're not getting
the kids to learn it.
Smith: But what's that all about then, getting the kids to learn?
Feinberg: Getting the kids to master the material.
Smith: No, I understand that but what's the key to that? If the curriculum
is reasonably good, then what's the key?
Feinberg: Instructional delivery, being very good at teaching in front of the
room, very good at using those resources. Being very good at assessing the students
and where they are and re-teaching and whatever, doing whatever is necessary
to get the kids to really, truly master the material.
You know, talk about curriculum, if I put in front of you a fifth, sixth, seventh,
and eighth grade textbook in math and opened up to page 200 and I jumbled them
up, and said, “order them from fifth through eighth grade in order,” you'd have
a very tough time because they all look the same. That's because, unfortunately,
we have this national strategy of “we're not really going to teach to master,
we're going to teach to exposure and over lots and lots of years of kids seeing
page 200 in the math book, eventually somehow they're going to learn it. We're
going to teach them how to reduce fractions in fifth grade, in sixth grade, in
seventh grade, in eighth grade, in ninth grade and continue until finally somehow
magically they're going to get it.” Instead of thinking, “let's teach the kids
how to reduce fractions at a mastery level in fifth grade, maybe spend a little
time reviewing it in sixth grade but let's move on to pre-algebra and let's move
on to algebra then.” And that's been our take and so it's not that we have a
different math curriculum as much as we have a different math strategy and a
different math philosophy.
Smith: So it's about teaching methods. It's about engaging students, is that
Feinberg: That's it, and once again it comes down to people make the difference.
Another neat way I ask people to look at this is to imagine that you're choosing
between two classrooms for your own child. And the classroom over here on this
side doesn't have a bad teacher in it, it has a mediocre teacher and there's
every resource to the hilt. There's a great curriculum, there's great textbooks,
there's science equipment, there's computers, there's math manipulatives, there's
reading books, everything you can imagine. Classroom over here is a bare room,
not even desks in it but it's a master teacher. Where do you put your child?
You know, most people asked that question will tell me instinctively they know, “I'm
going to put my child with a master teacher.”
But then I guess, society gets in the way and we get group think going and
we start thinking what extra little gizmo can I try to cram into this classroom
or how can I write a better textbook so that magically all these kids are going
to go from a low level to a mediocre level or from good to great. We know that
people make the difference, but at the same time I guess it's because we live
in this microwave generation where we want everything quick and easy. Microwaves
are great for cooking popcorn but they're horrible for teaching kids how to read.
And that's what we want to get away from. It's about people making the difference.
It's not about the curriculum, it's about the delivery of that curriculum.
Smith: Well, what kind of training and development do you give your teachers
first when they come on board and then as they carry on?
Feinberg: Not enough. I think that's certainly one area where we have to get
a lot better, especially as we keep growing, and, as I said, it's getting harder
to find the teachers that are already at the master level, and it's plug and
play and off they go. As much as we're big at KIPP on instruction, we're also
very big on culture, and creating and teaching the values of the schools that
we want the kids to learn. And, of course, before the kids learn it, the teachers
need to learn it. And so at KIPP schools there's a lot of very good things early
on when they first bring teachers in to KIPP-notize those teachers and teach
them about the values and operating norms that they want to have in a very consistent
way happen throughout their building, in the science room, in the math room,
in the bathroom, in the lunchroom. I think where KIPP needs to keep improving
is once we teach the values, we've got to get continually better at teaching
the delivery of those academic skills so the kids, once again, are truly learning
at a mastery level.
Smith: You began as a middle school; you've now gone into, elementary, I guess
at the pre-K level.
Feinberg: Baby KIPP.
Smith: Okay, Baby KIPP, and you've now gone into the high school. Why are you
branching out and going both higher and lower than you did initially?
Feinberg: Well there's two different answers to that. I'll address the high
school answer first. The high school is a necessity. When we first recruited
these kids into KIPP in fifth grade, we sat in the living rooms or at the kitchen
table with the kids and the parents and we all signed the ‘Commitment to Excellence'
form where we agreed to teach in the best way we know how and do whatever it
takes to help our students learn. And we made a promise that we wouldn't make
them smart fifth graders or we wouldn't make them smart eighth graders, we would
make them smart students in general all the way up through high school and into
college and beyond college so they could do in this world what they wanted to
do. That was our promise. And at KIPP we believe that promises to children are
Up until this year, our strategy has always been that we could keep that promise
by keeping kids for four years, from fifth grade through eighth grade, and by
the end of eighth grade with a lot of great teaching and all the extra time on
the clock our kids would be ahead of grade level and they could compete and gain
acceptance at the several good public high schools that don't give me nightmares
to send the kids to, as well as the local private schools that are doing an excellent
job of getting the kids to college and, of course, boarding schools as well.
And they would be so well-wanted at all these schools that they would also compete
for scholarship dollars. That was our original strategy when it was just Houston
and New York, sending 120 kids a year up to the high schools – it worked. Our
kids were getting into the good public schools that had a good track record of
college preparation, and they were also getting into all the local private schools
and they were getting into the boarding schools. Kids in our two schools in the
last 7 years have earned over 20 million dollars in scholarships to attend these
great college prep high schools, which is all well and good – it's worked.
Of course, once again, growth creates interesting problems. Another interesting
problem is that as we keep adding more KIPP schools that are now up through eighth
grade, where are all these kids going to go, because as I said there's only a
handful of public schools in Houston that don't give me nightmares to send the
kids to. The other high schools are not improving fast enough to assure us that
they're going to get a great education there. The private schools are not going
to increase their seats or their scholarship dollars, so we have a problem.
And in KIPP fashion, when there's a problem, we look for a solution. And the
solution is to increase the seats at great college preparatory high schools,
so we're going to start high schools ourselves. And the first one is in its second
year here in Houston. And as the other KIPP schools mature up to eighth grade,
if there's not enough local great high school options, they will add high schools
as well modeled after the original high school program we started here in Houston.
On the other end of the spectrum, Baby KIPP has basically been a wish of mine
and a dream of mine ever since I started teaching fifth grade back in 1992. And
that is, once again in a perfect world kids should not come into fifth grade
where day one is spent teaching the three's times tables, as well as teaching
them that a short “a” goes “ah.” It shouldn't work that way. We should be much
further ahead so we can truly address the fifth grade curriculum and off we go
So as much as we figured out how to win the game from the fourth quarter and
the two-minute warning when we're down by a touchdown and we've succeeded at
that, for long-term sustainability we can't depend on that being our game plan
every single time to win every game, by waiting until the very last minute then
coming up with a heroic victory. We need to get a little bit more proactive and
so I see starting with pre-K as we're still down by a touchdown, no doubt because
kids from underserved communities come in with a word gap vocabulary in the millions
by the time they start at age three or four. So we're still down, we're still
losing the game at the time but now there's enough time on the clock where we
can win that game and we can also stick to our original game plan and don't have
to go to a heightened sense of urgency.
I'm looking forward to the Baby KIPP we just started. When those kids are ready
in six years for fifth grade, it will be a great day, and we'll have another
great problem. We're going to have to take our current curriculum and scope and
sequence and take it out on the field and burn it because it won't apply anymore
because the kids will have learned everything we normally teach in fifth grade.
We're going to have to teach them how to split the atom.
Smith: Let me go back to the teachers. How much do you pay your teachers? There's
now beginning to be a more competitive race all over the country for better teachers
and people are talking about differential pay.
Feinberg: We follow the local teacher pay scale, but our teachers also get
paid extra on top of their base pay for all the extra hours they're working during
the day, during the week and during the year so they make about 20% more than
their peers in the other Houston schools. Plus, potentially on top of the 20%,
there's about another up to 4% they could earn as bonus depending on their level
Smith: Okay, so what does that mean just in Houston here, in practical terms?
Feinberg: It means instead of coming in and earning around $38,000 dollars,
they're earning somewhere between $45 to $50,000 dollars.
Smith: Okay. So that would be coming in the first year here?
Feinberg: It would be like a third, fourth or fifth-year teacher.
Smith: Okay. So now you've opened up the high school, you've opened up this
elementary school. Where is KIPP going? Do you have any idea? You have 38 schools
around the country now, what's your target?
Feinberg: Our target's not a number of schools as much as our target is an
outcome. And the outcome is that we are chasing the “yes, buts.” We are hunting
them down and we are getting rid of them one by one. And by “yes, buts,” I mean
all the people that come and visit KIPP and tour the schools and in the end think
it's great, it's one of the best schools they've seen. But when I get to the
door with them I hear, “This is great, it's the best school I've seen, but there's
no way it would work in Chicago. There's no way it work in the Mississippi Delta.
There's no way it would work in Washington, DC, there's no way it would work
in Los Angeles, California.” And I hear wherever they're from, they tell me
all the different political, socioeconomic, financial or legal reasons why their
place is the most screwed up place in the planet and no, nothing can work there.
And I realize I can't win the debate at the door. There's nothing I can do to
convince people that yes, this can work in the Mississippi Delta, yes this can
work in Chicago.
So now when I hear people say, “This is great but it can't work in Chicago,” I
get out my notes and write down “all right, we have to start a school in Chicago”,
because the actual proves the possible. And so wherever people are making excuses,
we want to prove what can actually be happening there so we eliminate them, because
the day the excuses end are going to be the day the solutions start.
Our country is not yet a place that truly addresses the problem because, as
we talked about earlier, people are not yet ready to really agree that there
is a solution to this problem. There are still a lot of people out there who
think there is a barrier to what the kids can achieve. The ones who think that
it is possible have such a very narrow focus on trying to come up with a shortcut
solution. So we have to first get rid of all of the excuses. It's an important
variable to eliminate so then we're really ready to address solutions.
I don't think that all 50 million kids in public education today should be
KIPP-notized and be in KIPP schools. But I do think that we can contribute to
the whole by getting rid of the excuses out there and by empowering other people
to think “well if those KIPPsters down the block can do it, I can do it, too;
I'm going to improve my school, or I'm going to start a new school that's also
going to do great things.” Or if they're not going to be motivated intrinsically
like that, at least they'll be motivated from a competition standpoint. You know, “I
don't want to lose all my kids in my bad school to that KIPP school that just
opened up down the block so now I got to compete with them. I got to run with
them. What am I going to do to catch up?” Either way we're going to raise the
bar on everybody.
Smith: So how many out-of-state and out-of-town visitors do you have here at
the school a year?
Feinberg: We probably are somewhere in the neighborhood of around a thousand
people a year.
Smith: From how many different communities?
Feinberg: All over the country and usually several different countries around
the world come through here as well.
Smith: So maybe 200 communities, 300 communities?
Smith: and what percentage of them say, “but” at the end of their visit?
Feinberg: Probably about 90 percent.
Smith: So we're at somewhere around 200 or 300 communities you've got to go
to. You have 38 schools now, you've got to go at least 10 times that high, something
like that to get rid of all the yes buts.
Feinberg: Right. We don't necessarily have to go to all the communities, but
we have to go to a lot of them.
Smith: I'm just trying to give it some notion of dimension. I think one of
the questions here that's got to be addressed is, we've got to not only do effective
school reform in America, we've got to do effective school reform at scale.
Smith: So the question is, what kind of scale can this model go to? Can a charter
school which has been recruiting master teachers, particularly from a corps of
teachers who are pretty idealistic and young, continue to recruit enough teachers
and generate enough of the extra financing that's necessary to keep these schools
afloat, to really go to a much larger scale?
Feinberg: The alternative is we should all move to Canada quickly because our
country is going to go down the tubes. We're talking about investing in the future
of our country, investing in our children. The gap between the haves and have-nots
is just continuing to grow and it's not something that's sustainable. Maybe it
is in our lifetime right now but this certainly is not something that long term
can continue to exist. We have to address this challenge, providing all children
of this nation with an excellent education.
We have 38 schools today and we'll be up to 46 schools shortly and we'll grow
by ten or 15 schools a year. I think within the next five, six years, we can
be up over 100 schools. That certainly won't address a chunk of the need but
what we're doing is helping to motivate others to start their own network of
ten, 25, 50 schools as well. We can also motivate the traditional public schools
to raise their bars and get better as well. And I think that's how we're going
to address the needs of all 50 million kids.
I don't think we can look at any one model to serve as the answer for everything
across the board. I think as Howard Fuller talks about so eloquently, school
systems need to evolve into systems of schools. And I think that we need to stop
having “one size fits all” and have lots of models out there that parents and
children have the freedom to choose what's right for them and that have a proven
track record of success. And I think that's how we can contribute to raising
the bar on everybody.
Smith: What's the deepest motivation here? To provide parents choice, or is
it something else?
Feinberg: The core motivation here is to set the kids up to succeed in this
world. And we feel that choice is one way to help get at that. It starts by making
sure that the kids and the parents and the teachers are all choosing to be in
that classroom together and choose to be on this mission together. It's not just
learning what's necessary to be a smart fifth grader, but it's learning what's
necessary in fifth grade so that you're climbing the mountain to college. Choice
is one of the inputs for the ultimate output around here and the ultimate motivator,
which is having freedom to do in this world what you want to do.
Smith: One of the things you said just a couple of moments ago was “the gap
between the haves and the have-nots is not sustainable. It may be sustainable
for our lifetimes but it's not sustainable overall.” When I heard you say that,
I thought I heard the core idea behind Mike Feinberg. You're reaching out to
kids from have-not communities. You're not doing it accidentally, you're doing
it on purpose. You're trying to give them a choice and you're trying to give
them a path to excellence.
Feinberg: I think I'm just trying to do what I think is fair and just, and
that is that I think people should be in charge of their own destinies. It should
not be a situation where people are going down the river of life which flows
in the wrong direction. The river of life in a fair and just world doesn't flow
downwards, it doesn't flow upwards. You shouldn't just be able to go with the
flow and you wind up in a good or bad place. You should have some control over
your destiny and wind up where you would like to see yourself wind up. I guess
what drives me is to make sure that the children we work with are in a situation
where at the end of the day they wind up somewhere where they can probably say, “I'm
here because I put myself here. I had a lot of people who helped me get here,
good, bad, indifferent, but the main reason why I'm here is myself.”
Smith: But when I hear you speak about your anger and frustration, it sounds
as though – and you have to correct me and tell me whether I'm right – but it
sounds as though you're saying you're angry and frustrated that “have-not” kids
don't have a level playing field with “have” kids and it's the fault of the adult
world or it's the responsibility of the adult world to fix it.
Feinberg: It certainly is. It bothers me that there's a difference between
the haves and the have-nots for reasons other than what people can directly control.
What angers and frustrates me is that no one seems to be addressing it. There
are some people out there that either might not care or the ones that do care
and are addressing it are missing the key trigger points to truly address this
in a successful way.
Smith: Talk about “have-not” kids and “have” kids. What bothers you?
Feinberg: What bothers me is the fact that a lot of the solutions out there
at the end of the day are not working and we don't seem to be really doing anything
about it. And we keep missing the simple boat, which is that there are no shortcuts.
Smith: But isn't what bothers you is that have-not kids aren't getting a fair
Feinberg: Yes, that's fair to say.
Smith: But you've talked about it as an educator. Talk to me as a citizen,
talk to me as the guy who signed up for Teach For America. What bugged you?
Feinberg: What bugged me is going to school at the University of Pennsylvania
and living and working and studying in West Philadelphia, and realizing that
the kids who were growing up in West Philadelphia did not have nearly as many
opportunities in this world to succeed as I did growing up in Oak Park and River
Forest outside of Chicago. And it wasn't because they didn't choose to take advantage
of opportunities, it was because those opportunities just simply did not exist
in the communities where they grew up. And I think everyone should have those
opportunities to take advantage of if they so choose.
Smith: And you're working 24/7 to do what?
Feinberg: To provide those opportunities and to open the doors for kids and
families who want to take advantage of this American dream. To try to fix an
inadequate education system, an inadequate socioeconomic system that exists today
that prevents children from growing up in this world and succeeding in whatever
Smith: Going back to the question of the teachers and going to your issue of
ten or 15 new schools a year. How tough will it be for you in the years ahead
as you expand, to get and retain the quality of teachers that are so important
to your system?
Feinberg: It will be very tough. That's probably one of the most important
things that we do. Our success goes back to the people who make the difference.
We're betting the ranch on great people to start and lead KIPP schools, and then
those great school leaders to go out there and recruit and select and train great
teachers to be in those schools. That's not an easy thing. It would be much easier
if we thought we should just pick the good software program, or try to reinvent
a whole new curriculum. That would be a lot easier than going out there and finding,
cultivating and training great people. But at the end of the day that is the
answer, that's what every other industry has discovered along the way, and that's
where education is lagging behind.
Smith: So are you going to get more heavily into teacher training so you can
take the existing corps of teachers and upgrade them?
Feinberg: We're going to have to heavily man ourselves. We're going to have
to partner with organizations out there such as Teach For America, such as the
New Teacher Project, which are already working to motivate more talented college
students to want to go into education, as well as motivating and training talented
people out there in the workforce to switch careers and come into education.
We have to get good at that ourselves, and we have to work with these other organizations
that are out there already doing that so there is a scalable number of quality
teachers out there wherever there's a need.
Smith: As co-leader of KIPP, what do you see as your personal biggest challenge
in the years ahead?
Feinberg: I think my biggest challenge is probably to keep us focused on our
mission and keep us focused on the strategy to achieve our mission. As we get
bigger in size, it is easy to start being pulled in different directions, off-mission.
I think as we get bigger in size it also becomes more of a challenge to make
sure that everyone who's part of the organization – whether they work for KIPP
Foundation, whether they're teaching in the schools or whether they're driving
the buses to get the kids to and from school – also understands that mission,
understands the culture, understands the operating norms and believes in all
those same values as well. And I think as we continue to grow, making sure everyone
keeps their eye on the prize and understands what it means to be a KIPPster,
remains our biggest challenge.
Smith: What does it mean to be a KIPPster?
Feinberg: It means to work hard and be nice.
Smith: Well that sounds nice but what does that mean?
Feinberg: Well, it sounds nice, but I think it really boils things down to
a very simple level. I think what it means to be a KIPPster is to realize that
there are no shortcuts, that you're going to do whatever it takes, and whether
you're a teacher or student or bus driver or the lunch lady, you're going to
work very hard at your job and take pride in it. And I think being nice refers
to the life skills. At the end of the day it's about being nice to yourself and
being nice to your neighbors and being a responsible and respectful and contributing
person in this world.
Smith: And as you look at the years ahead
and you think about expanding, is there any part of your brain that worries that
going both in the direction of high school and in the direction of pre-K, however
good that might feel to have a complete system from pre-K to 12th grade here
in Houston, but as you think about staying focused on your mission do you have
any fear at the moment that you're already starting to sprawl?
Feinberg: You just called me on it, didn't you? I think that it's remaining
focused on our mission, but also evolving our strategy to address the new environment
and new factors that are out there. We talked about the fact that the number
of great high schools has not grown at the same pace with the number of great
middle schools we're starting. So, therefore, to keep focused on our mission
which, once again, is not to crank out smart eighth graders but crank out smart
college graduates, the high school end is important.
Also, we don't want to become a flash in the pan and we don't want to become
referenced in the index of whoever writes the next history of education
in the early 21st century. If we want this to become a sustainable movement,
then starting with the heightened sense of urgency in the fourth quarter with
fifth grade when you're trying to fix everything at the last minute, that's not
long term sustainable for 50, 100 years. And so, therefore, I think for the sake
of the mission, we need to evolve the mission. Now that we've succeeded, how
can we continue the success and build upon it and not let it just fade away.
And so therefore, that's the reason why we should be starting early and going
all the way through twelfth grade.
Smith: So what does it take, in terms of money, to run a KIPP school?
Feinberg: It takes the same amount of money that it takes to run a public school
in whatever community those public schools are operating. We do not believe in
trying to run schools on more money than what already is out there because that
would be the biggest “yes, but” of all. No matter what kind of results we got,
people would say, “Well they did it because of the money.” Money is, certainly,
an important factor but money is not going to guarantee success. There are too
many school districts out there that are spending twice as much money as they
get here in Houston, that are just failing the children miserably. So money is
obviously not the ultimate answer.
Smith: Yes, but you are, in fact, getting foundation grants and you get buildings
that are either rent free or highly rent reduced and that kind of stuff. So is
there really a strict adherence to the local school budget per capita?
Feinberg: Not very many of our schools are getting the same per people dollars
that the traditional public schools are getting. Because we're starting either
as charters or we're creating a school in a school under contract. Most of our
schools are getting somewhere around 80 to 90% of the public revenue that the
traditional public schools are getting. So the fundraising that goes on is to
make up that difference, and to go from getting 80 to 90% of the funding to 100%
of the funding.
But we will not spend over, and we've also figured out how to run KIPP and
run all these extra hours on that same nickel. The way we do that is simply by
being very lean on the administrative side. You're looking right now, in the
first couple of years, at not just the school founder and school principal, but
the fifth grade math teacher, the bus driver, the lunch lady, the custodian and
a few other things. That's how we save all that money. We're very lean on the
administrative costs so all the money saved gets pumped in the classroom mainly
to pay the teachers for doing the extra hours during the day, during the week,
and during the year. That's how we're able to run the KIPP schools very efficiently.
Smith: You ask a tremendous amount of your teachers. You pay them more, they
work longer hours, but you ask them in particular to be available almost 24/7
by cell phone to their kids. Is that asking too much of teachers?
Feinberg: I don't think so, because it depends how they're going to make themselves
available and depends what they've done to get calls. I used to tell my staff
back in the day that if you were getting 70 calls a night you didn't do a very
good job of teaching that day. In a perfect world, if someone did a great job
of teaching a lesson, they're not going to get calls that night. Or they're only
going to get the one or two calls for the extenuating circumstance for why a
child cannot finish their homework because there was a family emergency. So it
actually serves as a little bit of a motivator to make sure that the teacher
is doing a good job of teaching that lesson during the day and giving clear directions
on the homework.
The other part of that is that it's also just a motivator. I think the teachers
that wind up teaching at KIPP schools would rather deal with the few minutes
of getting a few calls a night than the frustration that occurs the next morning
when you realize that only half the kids completed your homework. One of the
ultimate excuses out there why kids don't complete their homework is that they
didn't understand it. That is a variable. And the way we eliminate that variable
is by giving kids an opportunity to do something about the fact they don't understand
it when they're at home and not with the teacher – they now have the ability
to call at night.
Smith: From experience, can you say that the better teachers don't get many
calls at night and the teachers who are having a struggle themselves get more
Feinberg: Oh absolutely. I learned over the years how to just do a better job
of teaching the lesson. Year to year, you learn. My lesson that I would teach
on long division, I learned how to break it down into very manageable parts that
kids could understand easily so that their skills would be built upon themselves
instead of sending them into a land of confusion trying to learn too much in
one night. I also learned how to give very clear directions so the kids understood
it. I learned how to teach kids how to write their homework down the way we showed.
And over the years you learn, like any experienced teacher, how to anticipate
the problems and how to anticipate the questions before they come.
Smith: Talking about the land of confusion, in KIPP it's the land of chants.
Now, are you personally a creator of mathematics chants?
Feinberg: (laugh) I'm a creator of a couple of them. Most of those chants came
from one of our greatest mentor teachers, Harriet Ball, who has the creative
musical ballpoints, who learned how to teach in this multi-sensory, whole body
style where the kids are singing, chanting, dancing, moving around the room in
a way where they're learning from mastery and they're enjoying themselves. And
she taught us a lot of those songs and chants. Once you learn her philosophy – how
you make the learning relevant and how you make it fun, but also how you make
sure the kids are learning what they need to learn – that opens up a whole new
world of how to both reach and teach. And we owe that to Harriet. I don't have
a lot of rhythm, but I've learned over the years how to come up with some neat
chants and songs.
Smith: You said a moment ago that the gap between the haves and the have-nots
is not sustainable over a long period of time. What does that have to do with
education and with KIPP?
Feinberg: Knowledge is power. I think education is the greatest way we can
fix the gaps that exist between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” I think that
the “haves” are continuing to get great education and educate their children.
It's how they make sure they keep it at a “have” level. The “have-nots”, the
biggest way they break out of that and get into the “have” level is through education.
Education is the greatest way to eliminate those barriers, eliminate those gaps
and allow people to do what they want to do in this world and to be able to contribute
back to society as well as support themselves and support their families.
Smith: And are the “have-nots” not getting a decent break in education at this
point by and large?
Feinberg: Most I don't believe are. There are some great public schools out
there, there are some mediocre public schools out there, and there are a lot
of lousy public schools out there. And under the current delivery of public education
where it's one school down the block that you have to send your kid to, whether
it's performing awesome, mediocre or poor, there's really nothing that families
in underserved communities can do about it. So there has to be some sort of choice
open to them and there has to be other alternative deliveries of public education
that raise the quality that they can get for their children.
Smith: So are you saying that the “haves” have a choice? They can leave, they
can go to a private school, they can move neighborhoods, and it's the “have-not” kids
who are left with the lousy public schools?
Feinberg: That's the scenario that, unfortunately, too many communities face
today. And that's a challenge we have to figure out a solution to.