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Mike Feinberg: The TT Interview

The co-founder of the KIPP charter school network on why its approach to education reform has flourished in Texas, whether the model can work for any kid or any family and if teachers' unions are really the villain they're made out to be in Waiting for Superman.

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Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin were probably not the only twentysomethings to spend a sleepless night in Houston in the early 1990s talking about work and listening to U2’s Achtung Baby album on repeat. But out of their particular brainstorming session in 1993 came an idea for a network of charter schools that, more than 17 years later, may be changing the face of public education.

The two teachers, who at the time were both going through the Teach For America program, called their innovation the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP. In 1995 they opened charter schools in Houston and the Bronx (as they continue to do today, Feinberg ran the former and Levin the latter) with longer school days, weeks and years, more focused instruction time and a strong emphasis on college-readiness. Today, with 99 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, KIPP is the largest chain of charter schools in the country.

Students at KIPP begin the day at 7:30 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. They attend school every other Saturday and well into the summer. Their teachers are available via cell phone well into the night. Even the youngest students spend each minute at school surrounded by college paraphernalia.

KIPP’s presence is especially felt in Texas, where it operates a total of 27 schools in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Galveston. How are they doing? Quite well, at least judging by 2010 state test scores in the Austin area. Students come to KIPP in fifth grade — often from the poorest neighborhoods — underperforming their peers in Austin ISD. By seventh grade, they are outscoring those same peers in every subject.

Recently, a KIPP school in Los Angeles became part of the focus of filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for Superman, which follows kids and their families as they try to win admission at public charter schools rather than suffer the neglect and inadequacy of their local public school system. The catch: Because of high demand and a low number of vacancies, charters admit students through a lottery system, leaving dreams of a better education entirely to chance.

Feinberg is quick to point out that it’s not just KIPP that's spearheading this style of education reform. He says other charter school operators and school district superintendents around the state are brothers and sisters in arms. “At a basic level,” he says, “it’s people trying new and different things, admitting that there’s a problem, that we need to get better, and not burying their head in the sand.”

This weekend, Feinberg talked to the Tribune by phone about charter schools in Texas, teachers unions and Waiting for Superman. An edited transcript and full audio follows.

TT: Take us back to your pre-KIPP days, when you were a teacher in the Houston public schools. What were some of the problems you thought you could tackle if you had control of the program?

Feinberg: We recognized the need to do more with our students: to have kids come before the day actually started, to keep them after school, to have them come on weekends. There would be school rules in place that kids weren’t allowed into the classroom until a certain time in the morning. We’d be kicked out of the building in the afternoon. We would try to do things on Saturdays, and almost half the time the building would be locked. Basically, we’d find shade under a tree and teach there. It was very frustrating to realize as teachers that we wanted to do more with our kids but that there were individuals or bureaucratic rules in place that seemed to prevent us doing what’s right for children.

We were watching our former students go off to middle school and fail. At first we fell into the trap of finger-pointing and blaming the other schools in the district and the kids and the parents and the community and everyone else. Then we had an epiphany in late ’93 that all that finger-pointing wasn’t doing anything to contribute to solutions — it was just adding to the problem.

Audio: Mike Feinberg

TT: You have schools in many states, and you have a stronghold here. Why has KIPP managed to flourish in Texas in particular?

Feinberg: I think it’s a convergence of a couple different factors. One, it’s KIPP’s birthplace. This is where we’ve been around the longest, had the most time to grow and expand — simply, word got out. In Houston alone, we had 4,500 kids and parents sign up for our lottery last year. Even with our crazy hypergrowth in Houston, which is the most anywhere in the country, we can only accommodate about a quarter of those kids and families.

Texas, at a lot of levels, is very fertile ground for education reform and for entrepreneurship in education, too. That’s whether we’re talking Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, the Valley — and it’s not just KIPP. There are lots of people doing interesting things because there’s something in the Texan DNA that allows entrepreneurship to happen. There’s a lot we could do to make it even better, but there’s been enough support for new ideas from our policy leaders to make KIPP and other things like KIPP grow.

TT: Are charter schools the answer to our education problems? 

Feinberg: Mindset is our biggest problem right now, and mindset is going to be our biggest solution. The premise that charters are the answer is baloney. There’s nothing inherent about a charter school that makes it great or makes it bad. What a charter school represents is an opportunity — that’s it. Where great people take advantage of a great opportunity, great things are going to happen. And when crooks take advantage of an opportunity, fraudulent things are going to happen. There’s lots of examples of excellent charters out there, and there’s also, unfortunately, examples of low-performing, horrible charters out there. The one premise of a charter school is that the good ones flourish and the bad ones go away. I’d like to see our policy leaders do more of both: let the good ones flourish and make the bad ones go away.

We can talk about charter school policy that needs to be updated, facility issues, school finance issues, textbook issues, curriculum standards. But to me, the No. 1 challenge we face right now is the mindset — that collectively, as a society, we still do not believe that any child from any ZIP code can succeed in school and succeed in life as well as any other child from any other ZIP code. We live in a politically correct world where we don’t talk about it openly, but I’ve been to enough conferences and talked to enough people to realize in their heart of hearts, people don’t yet truly believe. We have to get past the notion of saying all children can learn. That’s really nice, and that’s kind of fluffy. We have to have the mindset that if our children can learn, it’s up to us, the adults, to make sure all children will learn. That is the missing element right now both in Texas and around the country.

TT: People ask if this is an anomaly or if it's a system that is scalable to the state of Texas.

Feinberg: Look at the basic ingredient of why KIPP works: great teaching and more of it. Is that scalable? I believe so, and I think we absolutely have to believe it’s possible. Do we have enough great teachers for every single one of the classrooms across Texas? The brutal fact is no, but there’s no reason why we can’t.

If you go a step further beyond great teaching and more of it, what’s the basic framework?

More time on task, having a longer day, week and year. That’s scalable. Any district in Texas can choose to have a longer day, week, and year, depending on how they allocate their budget dollars. It’s choice and commitment — the fact that the parents and the teachers choose the school and choose to make commitments to each other. There are districts that are already becoming choice districts anyway. It’s not in any legal rule that you have to have boundaries around any school and only people in a certain neighborhood can go to that school. A school district can have open enrollment inside of its boundaries.

The power to lead — the fact that KIPP school leaders have control over staff and budget. That’s something that any school board, tomorrow, could say: “You know what? We’re going to let the principals allocate a majority of our budget dollars. And we’re going to give principals the ability to truly decide who’s teaching in their building and who’s not teaching in their building.” Of course, we’re not taking away things like due process. But everyone has a boss. Those bosses, at the end of the day, should be able to decide if we’re doing a good job or if we need to be replaced.

High expectations. Any school district in Texas can choose to focus on barely passing the [Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills] test or preparing our kids to be ready to go to and through college. 

The last pillar is great results, which are measurable. We set our bars. A district can be happy, let confetti fall from the ceiling, because kids passed the TAKS test. Or they can decide to wait on that confetti until we truly see that kids are college-ready.

There’s nothing about KIPP that isn’t scalable. We need some proof points. We need to get people to believe. And we need some very courageous leaders at the classroom level, the school level, the superintendent level and the school board level to put in place these sorts of reforms to set everyone up for success.

TT: Do you foresee a time when access to that caliber of education is greater and we don’t have to rely on lottery systems?

Feinberg: We hope so. That’s what we’re working towards. Our theory of change at KIPP is that we want to impact the public education system the way FedEx impacted the post office. I like to use that analogy because it shows that we, at KIPP, do not think that we are going to be able to educate all the children or even a majority of the children. But we feel that we can find a tipping point where, if we get to a certain size and if we continue to do a great job educating our children, we’ll have an impact on the rest of the school system, which is where the majority of the kids are going to be.

TT: Can this model really work for any kid, or does it only work for kids and parents who are motivated?

Feinberg: The last thing I want to do is make KIPP the monopoly, the single choice for kids and families. So, no, I don’t think the specific way we’ve set up our model is for all the children and all the parents. However, in general, the idea of having a no-excuses, high-expectations, partner-with-the-parents-and-the-kids approach to education — can that work for all kids and parents? I absolutely believe so.

For the people who think that what KIPP is doing only works for rock star kids and rock star parents, I have an answer coming from my heart and an answer coming from my head. The answer coming from my head is, we’re letting Mathematica do a long-term study on our wait list. If there really is something extra special about the kids and parents who want to come to KIPP, then that something extra special is on our wait list. Long term, we’re tracking the kids who get into KIPP and don’t get into KIPP, and we’ll see if there’s a difference.

My heart of hearts response is: I’m just wondering, what percent of children and parents in any community do we think cares about education and wants a brighter future? Do we think it’s 5 percent, 10 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent, 90 percent, 99 percent? My worry is that people think it’s somewhere in the 5, 10 or 20 percent range — that people think a kid in a certain community or a parents in a certain community who love their child and want the best for their child is something rare. I believe that also is baloney. A vast majority of kids and parents want a great education and want a future.

TT: In Waiting for Superman, teachers’ unions come out as the villain. I was wondering if that was fair — if there are other barriers to turning around education in this state and this country.

Feinberg: If we want to start handing out prizes for who are the villains who created the situation we’re in with public education, we would quickly run out of prizes. I mean, everyone gets the blame — everyone. That does include the unions, but by no means did the unions create the problem. Districts have created the problem, school boards have created the problem, the textbook publishers have created the problem, the teachers have created the problem, the parents have created the problem, the children have created the problem, the legislators have created the problem — it goes on and on and on. It might be an interesting debate for some at a cocktail party to try to figure out who gets most of the blame for the problem. I’m more focused on the solution.

TT: How much bigger do you plan on getting in Texas?

Feinberg: We’re chasing that tipping point. After we were able to give kids seats in all of our schools, we still had 3,400 on the wait list, which tells me we need to keep growing. I know that there are 3,400 names with 3,400 stories, and every one of them are heartbreaking. I think about that when I close my eyes and go to sleep every night.

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