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KIPP Cofounder Feinberg C'91 at Penn Law: Break the Education Monopoly

February 25, 2011

Mike Feinberg C’91, cofounder of the Knowledge Is Power Program
By Jenny Chung C’12

Mike Feinberg C’91, cofounder of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the largest charter school network in the nation, addressed an audience of students from Penn Law, the Graduate School of Education, the Fels Institute of Government and the Wharton School of Business at the Levy Conference Center Feb. 23, saying that education reform is critical so that “demographics don’t have to define one’s destiny,” for low-income students.

Comparing the prevailing problem with education reform to a “kindergarten soccer game” in which players are constantly looking to “move on to the next new shiny thing,” Feinberg cautioned against prioritizing quick fixes over incremental, long-term solutions. “There’s no 100-percent lever to pull, but there are 100 one-percent levers,” he said. “Unfortunately we keep looking for the one lever that will transform [the current system].” 

Feinberg identified school leadership as the “critical path” to facilitating education reform. “Any school will work well if there’s great teaching, and more of it,” he said. “It’s the secret sauce—what goes into the culture will motivate kids, parents and teachers.”

After joining Teach for America (TFA) upon graduation from college and completing three years as a bilingual teacher in Houston, TX, Feinberg collaborated with fellow TFA alumni Dave Levin to launch KIPP, a national network of free public schools that has since garnered national acclaim for preparing students in underserved communities for success in college.

With 99 schools in over 20 states, the program currently serves 27,000 students nationwide. Eighty percent of KIPP students come from low-income families, and 85 percent of KIPP alumni enroll in college.

To bring “great teaching” and qualified leadership to KIPP classrooms, the program hires outstanding instructors from around the country, provides them with one year of training and equips them with the resources to found a school of their own based on the KIPP definition, which encompasses five key tenets.

The first, according to Feinberg, is “more time on task.” While the average school day lasts for seven hours and the school year about half a year, KIPP offers 9.5-hour school days and holds classes both on Saturdays and throughout the summer. Although “more time in the classroom may not guarantee success,” Feinberg asserted that it “sets students up for success” by ensuring two solid hours of language arts and math courses a day while leaving time for other subjects like history and fine arts. The time constraints imposed by a typical school day, he said, pressure teachers and principals to be “miracle workers… especially if kids come to school already two grade levels behind.”

Feinberg then emphasized the necessity of empowering parents and teachers to choose their commitment to a given school. “Choice does exist, but only for people with resources,” he explained. “Low-income kids and families are often locked into one choice, and if they don’t have a choice there’s a monopoly [in the school system].”

According to Feinberg, once a school district establishes a monopoly over the education options in a community, it no longer has the incentive to improve.

“Within public education, it’s important to break that monopoly mindset,” he said. “If people have true choice, that’s a game-changer… schools have to realize students and parents are customers they’re there to serve, and who have options.”

In addition, Feinberg asserted, for effective reform to occur, schools must grant staff members the freedom to implement necessary changes without facing bureaucratic limitations. With such freedom “comes accountability for results,” he said, stressing the importance of the “human” resource. “The basic premise is that people make a difference, and we often lose sight of that at the policy level. We start thinking, what little gizmo can we invent to improve education in the classroom? That makes sense for cooking popcorn, not for teaching children how to read.”

He named “high expectations” and a “focus on great results” as the final two pillars of the KIPP approach. “Is college for every single child? Not necessarily,” Feinberg said. “But the skills necessary to go to college are for everyone. Let’s have the doors of opportunity all open—if [students] choose to do something else, let’s give them the skills to do that.”

Feinberg voiced his confidence that while public education currently confronts a wide range of issues, they are “fixable if we have the political will.” He likewise called for a “mindset shift” at the societal level: “We have different expectations of our kids depending on which zip code they live in, and that’s what needs to change.”

He then read excerpts from one of children’s author Dr. Seuss’s lesser-known works, On Beyond Zebra, to the audience. The book, which details the adventures of a boy who goes “beyond the letter Z” in the alphabet, contains valuable inspiration to those working to effect education reform. “If we want extraordinary results, we can’t do regular work and planning,” Feinberg said. “Let’s push it beyond ‘Z’.”

The current education infrastructure, he pointed out, offers no real incentive for change. “The only people who would benefit from change are the children, and they don’t have a voice,” said Feinberg. “We have to question whether the public education system exists to serve the children or the adults.”

Feinberg concluded by encouraging students with advanced degrees across all disciplines to get involved with education reform. “Take your legal, policy or business background and come teach—there’s a need for everyone to jump in and help,” he said.

Amy Feinman L’12, said Feinberg “really spoke to the different types of graduate students in the audience,” and effectively “put charter schools in perspective within the grand scheme of education reform and promoted collaborative efforts among students and practitioners to move them forward.”

Erin Staab L’12 added that the speaker “did a great job explaining his goals, initiatives and where education reform can go and where we can help it.”

Both Staab and Feinman helped organize the event on behalf of the Leaders in Education Advocacy and Reform Network (L.E.A.R.N.), a student group which aims to create a cross-disciplinary discussion among law and business students about the role they can assume in education reform. Comprised of three core components—community outreach, pro bono initiatives and career-based initiatives—the group enables students from Penn’s graduate and professional schools to assist local schools, provides a venue for law students to perform pro bono work for parents and students and holds events designed to help students at Penn Law navigate their future career paths.