Two guys...and a dream

By Susan Headden

Ask Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin what drove them to write one of the greatest educational success stories in recent times, and their answer seems reasonable enough: “ignorance.” Except that the ignorance they speak of wasn’t that of their students; it was their own. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” says Feinberg. “No one said how impossible this was going to be.”

That’s a good thing. Because if these two Ivy League-educated white guys had really understood the challenges of teaching fifth graders in inner-city Houston when they started out 14 years ago, they might never have had the audacity to found the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of public schools that has posted stunning achievement gains and shattered all manner of myths about the academic capabilities of minority kids.

As it was, Feinberg and Levin had confidence but no clue. For Feinberg, the realization came on the first day of school, the minute he said, “Hi, I’m Mr. Feinberg. You can call me Mr. F.” Levin, a fellow Teach for America recruit, didn’t fare much better. When the school added 17 kids to the 11 he had started with, Levin put them in groups facing each other. “What no one had told me,” he recalls, “is that they were from rival gangs.” There were bets–a running pool with odds–of whether he would make it past Thanksgiving.

Raising eyebrows. Sorely humbled, the two resolved to learn everything they could about how to connect with the 10-year-old mind. “For two years we worked really hard,” says Feinberg. “And as with anything, your skills get better with time.”

And yet, like most idealistic teachers, Levin and Feinberg remained frustrated by institutional barriers. They could get superior results, they knew, only if they had the freedom to teach the way they wanted and considerably more time on task. So one night in 1993, while listening to U2’s Achtung Baby on repeat play, they brainstormed until dawn and arrived at a plan for a fifth grade that embodied their belief in high standards, hard work, and a focus on results. Today, KIPP boasts 44 middle schools, two high schools, and one prekindergarten from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. And the results are raising eyebrows throughout the educational world. KIPP students consistently outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools on standardized tests, and more than 80 percent of KIPP students from the classes of 2004 and 2005 are enrolled in four-year colleges.

The premise of KIPP is simple: Do whatever it takes to learn. Under a contract signed by students, parents, and teachers, students go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday, every other Saturday morning, and for an extra month in the summer–over 60 percent more class time than the average school year. Teachers are on call 24-7 to answer questions about homework (the better they teach, the fewer the calls), and parents are held accountable.

Carrot–and stick. A “no excuses” culture of strict discipline prevails. Should a student forget his homework, he is banished to the doorway of the class–forbidden to speak to classmates, yet still taking in the lesson. If a single child fails to look at the teacher, the instructor will stop the whole class until he does. Once, when an exasperated Feinberg couldn’t get a student to do her homework, he went to her home and, with her mother’s permission, hauled the family’s 37-inch TV out of the living room and installed it at the front of his classroom. When the student delivered, she got the TV back.

At the same time, KIPP students are offered novel incentives to work hard and behave. They earn–or lose–points toward a weekly “paycheck,” a chit that can be cashed for books or T-shirts at the school store or the privilege of attending a weeklong field trip at the end of the school year.

The impact of this carrot-and-stick approach is dramatically evident at the KIPP school housed in Independent School 151, a dingy industrial-style building in New York’s bleak South Bronx. In the main lobby, visitors are greeted by two New York City policemen and posted tips on preventing grand larceny. Lined up for lunch, the kids are shouting, shoving, and demonstrably ignoring reprimands from a hall monitor. Upstairs, on the KIPP floor, is a very different scene: In hallways lined with A-grade work and pennants from teachers’ alma maters, uniformed students stand silent and still. What’s remarkable is that both groups of students come from the same neighborhoods and demographic.

Above all, though, it is passionate teaching that makes KIPP work. And Feinberg and Levin, no slouches in the passion department themselves, have handpicked and nurtured exceptionally smart, creative, and energetic educators who are willing to give their utmost to reach their students, even if it means leading them in silly multiplication-table raps. “Traditional education for the hip-hop generation,” Levin calls it. When a teacher asks a question, most of the hands in the room fly up.

It is a crucial part of the founders’ mission to foster a culture in which these kinds of teachers can thrive. “We don’t have a monopoly on hardworking teachers,” says Feinberg. “All over the country there are teachers’ cars in the parking lot at 7 in the morning that are still there at 5 at night. But they are often working alone. At KIPP, all the cars are in the parking lot at 7, and they’re still there at 5.”

Finding qualified teachers to sign on to this cruise, however–even with the higher salaries KIPP pays–is a growing challenge, one that Feinberg and Levin say they can’t solve without taking control of the training and certification process themselves. Already, KIPP runs a training program for principals at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley. Extending that to teachers is an ambitious goal, one that would very likely require new legislation in individual states. But Levin, nothing if not persistent, insists that anything less is just tinkering around the edges. “Teaching has to become one of our society’s most critical professions, rewarded and respected,” he says. “And the cartels that control entry–the unions, the education schools–need to be addressed.”

Certainly, when they chose the classroom, neither Feinberg nor Levin imagined he was entering a glamorous or lucrative field. “How many of those women on Sex and the City ever dated a teacher?” Levin wants to know. Feinberg, who majored in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, likes to say that he became a teacher because Mardi Gras coincided with the administration of the law school entrance exam. But both men were possessed of a strong social conscience and a wide reformist streak. “My personality is not to sit and watch a problem develop but to do something about it,” says Feinberg. “Not that I don’t sometimes make it worse, but at least I do something.”

“Moral compass.” The two met on the first day of Teach for America training when Feinberg was angling to meet another new teacher. The woman needed a ride to the store, but Feinberg didn’t drive a stick shift, so for cover, he asked Levin to come along. He didn’t know that Levin, raised in Manhattan, couldn’t drive a stick either. Friends ever since, they embarrass each other with praise. “Dave is one of the most passionate and loyal people I have ever met,” says Feinberg. “There are lots of fakes and phonies when it comes to friendship, but Dave is the exact opposite. And watching him teach … he just creates this aura around him.” Says Levin, “Mike is like a moral compass. You think that if you follow him, you must be on the right track of life.”

Although they share many traits, including refreshingly restrained egos, each brings complementary skills to the enterprise. One who has had a chance to observe the two in action is Don Fisher, the founder and chairman emeritus of the Gap clothing chain and the principal benefactor of the KIPP Foundation. Levin, says Fisher, is “a visionary,” a man with so much enthusiasm “he can’t finish his sentences.” Feinberg, he says, is a great operations man. Neither, he says, is fond of spending time behind a desk. When Fisher asked Levin to be the CEO of the KIPP Foundation, Levin said he would accept only if he could teach at the same time. (Fisher later persuaded Levin to look outside for a CEO, and in Richard Barth, Fisher says, Levin “hit a 10-strike.”) Feinberg, too, admits that “liability insurance is not the sort of thing that gets me psyched to get up in the morning.” But he sees running the business as a means to an end. And for both men, the end is a return to teaching fifth grade.

Yet as perennial students themselves, both Feinberg and Levin have relished their lessons in such business disciplines as financing and fundraising, and as they did as rookie teachers, they have learned by making mistakes. “We’d become good at managing 10-year-olds,” says Feinberg, “but we had no clue of how to manage adults.”

One of the big lessons, he says, was “how to balance a sense of urgency with maturity.” The urgency comes from the need to play catch-up with kids who are starting from so far behind; at the KIPP D.C. Key Academy in Washington, D.C., for instance, the average fifth grader enters with the test scores of a third grader. “The fifth grade is like the fourth quarter, when you’ve had the two-minute warning and you’re down by a touchdown,” Feinberg says. “You can still win, but every second counts.” Yet his impatience, he admits, has sent him into some headlong dives. He recalls the day a bad ice storm slammed into Houston. “Other schools were closing, but I demanded that the buses come and pick the KIPP kids up. Could I have let the kids spend just one day at home watching TV and not put them at risk?” he asks. “Yes.”

Critics of KIPP are hard to find, but those who have raised concerns cite the rigid discipline and its practice of paying for progress. If students are used to being bribed for performance, how will they do when the only reward is in the learning itself? In response, Feinberg and Levin say the paycheck is but one tool in a whole bag of incentives. Playing for the love of the game, they say, is simply not realistic for the whole group. “Some kids are interested and motivated from the word go, ” says Levin. “But the majority are not, so the rewards are like a crutch to get them walking on their own.”

A bigger question for KIPP’s founders, and for public education in general, is whether the success of their program can be replicated elsewhere. Some observers argue that KIPP parents, however underprivileged, are inherently more motivated than the parents of other public school kids. To which Feinberg responds: “More motivated? They have to answer a knock on the door and listen to us for an hour and sign their name? How difficult.” Levin invites doubters to compare the statistics of KIPP kids when they enter the program and when they leave. “The kids in fourth grade started out with the same low scores, the same sorts of disciplinary problems,” he says.

Final exam. Looking back over a decade in the classroom, Feinberg and Levin cite the sorts of triumphs and failures familiar to any adventurer in the blackboard jungle. “There have been so many nights being up until midnight after waking up at 5 a.m. and voice mails from parents yelling at me like I’m a little worse than the devil,” Feinberg says. Levin, too, takes an emotional beating almost daily. Even as he has grown as a teacher and an administrator, he says, “it doesn’t mean the problems in students’ lives get any easier to handle–the crises of confidence, the lack of skills, the peer pressure. Every day there are moments.” But every day, too, he says, the disappointments are canceled out by the rewards.

In the rewards department, Feinberg recalls a recognition ceremony for eighth graders at a KIPP school in Houston. (The “G” word is reserved for high school and college.) A few of the students had been accepted to parochial high schools, but they couldn’t afford the tuition. So their peers held a car wash for them: They raised $360–matched by Feinberg’s mother–and announced a scholarship fund. “There was not a dry eye in the house,” says Feinberg. “I told them, ‘You have passed my final exam, not in math or English but in the most important subject of all, and that is life.'”

Levin has no shortage of such moments of his own. But he leaves it at this: “We don’t go to bed at night,” he says, “wondering why we are on the planet.”

Dave Levin

BORN March 16, 1970. EDUCATION: B.A., Yale University. FAMILY: Single. QUOTE: “People want to replicate parts of what we are doing, but it’s the totality of the efforts that make this work, and they all pale in comparison with the personal connection; if you just had great teachers, it would work.”

Mike Feinberg

BORN: Oct. 20, 1968. EDUCATION: B.A.,University of Pennsylvania. FAMILY: Married; one child. QUOTE: “I believe that if you are passionate about making things happen and keeping the faith and working hard, then you have reason to believe that good things will happen. Not every day, but most days.”

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