Michael Feinberg and David Levin - Jump for Joy

Editor' Note: Last month the Fordham Foundation announced the winners of its two annual prizes: Distinguished Scholarship, and Valor. This week, we profile the winners for Valor—Michael Feinberg and David Levin, founders of KIPP Academy. Last week, we profiled the Distinguished Scholarship winner—Caroline Minter Hoxby of Harvard University.

Their story has reached near-mythic proportions in education circles. Two young Ivy League grads who joined Teach for America and initially floundered as teachers mixed rigor with ritual to produce a model for learning that became the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)-arguably the most successful, and surely the most famous, charter school brand in the country.

And while careful study played an important role in launching the duo from Penn and Yale into the rarified air of celebrity educators, so, too, did their relative innocence. "Knowledge is power," Feinberg says, "but ignorance is bliss."

Their odyssey began in Houston in 1993, where Feinberg and Levin took elementary school teaching positions as members of Teach for America. When they realized they could barely control their classrooms, much less teach students a great deal, they began looking for solutions. They turned to Harriet Ball, a teacher in Levin's school who used chants, rhymes, and games to keep order and impart knowledge, and whose success was plain to the eye. The two novice teachers spent hours with Ball, dissecting her approach and bringing it into their classrooms. They saw immediate results-and got immediate push-back from the administration.

Despite being named teacher of the year by his colleagues, Levin's principal fired him for refusing to exempt kids in his classroom from standardized tests, a common practice in schools looking to boost their achievement on paper. Never mind that Levin's pupils did well. The principal was unmoved. "Even though the kids passed the test, it was viewed as insubordination," Levin says. Lesser people might have said the heck with it and gone on to other lines of work. Not Levin. He was sure he could fight through it to create something better. "Being naïve helped," he said. "Not knowing how difficult it was going to be helped, too."

Feinberg didn't fare much better. He wanted to start a small Knowledge Is Power Program in his school, but he couldn't get the Houston Independent School District to grant him classroom space. In fact, he couldn't even get the district to hear his case. Feinberg repeatedly sought an appointment with then-superintendent Rod Paige, only to be re-buffed by gatekeepers. So he sat on the hood of Paige's car one afternoon until Paige left the office to drive home. He granted Feinberg a meeting-and the space he needed.

"I was too young, too naïve, and too mission driven not to think that sitting on Paige's car was anything but the right thing to do," says Feinberg. 

When all else failed, "mission" kept the two pioneers going. They were figuring out how to get poor, inner-city kids to achieve at high levels. Their mission was to ensure that this emerging solution wasn't snuffed out by bureaucrats who refused to alter standard operating procedures to accommodate models that, though unorthodox, worked.

Despite innumerable frustrating run-ins, today the two don't expend much energy slamming their early adversaries. "We are in a struggle against mediocrity, apathy, low expectations," says Levin, "but we're not in a struggle with the public school system." The basketball-loving teachers use a sports analogy to explain, and endure, the education establishment's opposition to their ideas. Policymakers and administrators, they say, are to teachers what sports writers are to athletes. They "can understand education as well [as teachers]," says Feinberg, much as sports writers can be knowledgeable about the contests they cover. But to understand "the day-to-day experience of doing teaching well, day in and day out, in a difficult environment," he continues, talk to the person in front of the kids. That's who is going to execute the ideas.

Through it all, they say, it's the Joy Factor ("J-Factor") that makes things work. The kids love what they're doing in school, so KIPP's long days (up to nine and a half hours) don't seem too burdensome. And the teachers are dedicated beyond belief. The kids ask much of them: teachers are essentially "on-call" day and night and students don't hesitate to call their cell phones when struggling with homework assignments or personal issues. But they also give much back, particularly respect. Feinberg says their goal is to have "18 year olds showing up on campus seeing teaching as being as sexy a profession as stockbroker or doctor." Says Levin of the KIPP faculty: "Our work is a testament to the countless number of teachers and the quality of their work."

And what a testament it is. Seventy-nine percent of KIPP graduates are in higher education. In San Antonio, KIPP Aspire Academy's seventh graders lead the district in reading and math scores. In rural Gaston, North Carolina, 100 percent of eighth graders achieved above grade level scores in all their tests. KIPP KEY Academy in Washington, D.C. and KIPP Academy New York in the Bronx are the highest achieving middle schools in their respective districts.

Such results are not anomalous. They represent the high achievement levels reached in almost every KIPP school (now 52, including those slated to open in 2006) across the nation.

Levin is still a practicing principal at his KIPP school in the Bronx, while Feinberg is working to develop additional school models (high school, pre-school, etc.) from his base in Houston. "Levin," says Feinberg, "is still the most talented teacher that I know." KIPP's main offices are in San Francisco. Jokes Feinberg, "We divide up the country (Dave gets Manhattan and the Bronx, and I get the rest)."

Despite their success, the two haven't quit striving. KIPP hopes to have 100 schools in operation within the next five years. This will happen in large part because of strong support from Don and Doris Fisher, co-founders of The Gap and philanthropists dedicated to expanding high-quality education opportunities for inner-city children. Through their foundation, the Fishers have been supporting KIPP schools almost from the beginning. Moreover, Levin is working to launch an organization that will credential KIPP teachers. "Getting permission to credential your own teachers is important," he says. Important, but not easy. But that hasn't stopped Feinberg and Levin yet.

There's a lot of joy in these men's lives. Still in their thirties, they retain the passion that launched them and made KIPP the best-known school model in America. Here's hoping they never lose their youthful, and helpful, naïveté.

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