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Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith school by school reform
 
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Success For All Comer School
Development Program
KIPP High Schools That Work

Mike Feinberg

Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program.

 
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KIPP:::MIKE FEINBERG INTERVIEW

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 extremely frustrating.

Smith: And why did you start a school system and why did you start it at fifth grade?

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?

Feinberg: Yes.

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?

Feinberg: 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 children.

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 hits.

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 at home?

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 KIPP schools?

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.

Feinberg: Yes.

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 get.

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 it?

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 sacred.

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 from there.

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 of performance.

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?

Feinberg: Sure.

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.

Feinberg: Right.

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 break?

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 they want.

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 calls?

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.


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