Last Thursday was Valentine’s Day for couples, but was also a day where members of Teach For America showed love for alum and KIPP schools co-founder Mike Feinberg, who was in town last week speaking on education.
The event took place at the Motorola office downtown at 233 N. Michigan.
Teach For America recruits and trains highly-touted college graduates to work as educators in lower-income communities.
Feinberg, and his teaching partner Dave Levin, founded KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) in 1994. The charter school system has grown to 57 schoolS throughout the country, including KIPP Ascend Charter School, 715 S. Kildare, on the West Side.
Feinberg was in Chicago last week to speak on Teach For America’s principal belief: that there is a fundamental inequality in schools.
He also talked about KIPP and why he decided to start the charter school.
After graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School, Feinberg attended the University of Pennsylvania to study law.
He later realized that teaching was his true calling.
“My goal was to take the LSAT test and move on to a law career, but when I really thought about it, my passion was not really there,” said Feinberg, who is currently the superintendent of KIPP in Houston.
After receding his educational training at TFA, Feinberg taught for two years at Garcia elementary in Houston.
It was during that time where recognized the cycle of underachievement affecting certain community schools, mainly low-income and minority. That inspired Feinberg and Levin to open the first KIPP school in 1994 in Houston, which today has nine schools.
The KIPP schools are touted for being high-performing schools in communities statistically behind in grade point averages and basic-skills testing.
According to Feinberg, 90 percent of KIPP’s middle school students go to college.
He quickly adds that his goal is to get the level even higher.
“I want the rate to be that of the body temperature – 98.6 percent. I would be very happy with that,” he said.
Feinberg also gave his five theories for providing a successful elementary education.
Longer school days is a staple of KIPP with students attending school from 7:25 in the morning to 5 in the evening.
The other theories involve eliminating the monopoly in public schools and giving school leaders the “power to lead.” Preparing children for college while in middle school and presenting measurable results round out KIPP’s philosophy.
“It’s shocking how short the school days are for public schools, some are like 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., which is awful,” said Feinberg. “When you take out recess, lunch and bathroom breaks, we’re talking, at best, four hours of instruction a day.”
Feinberg insists that a longer day allows teachers to put together a comprehensive lesson plan on all of the work they are teaching. This, he said, creates a better atmosphere for learning.
Regarding the monopoly of public schools, Feinberg used the U.S. Postal Service as an example.
“When FedEx started next-day mail, many predicted that the U.S. Postal Service would be unable to compete. Today, the postal service offers overnight mail. It’s the competition that made the change happen. This needs to happen in public education.
“When KIPP reaches full-size in Houston, we will be serving 10 percent of public school-age children in Houston, and, we hope, reach a ‘tipping point’ in public education,” he said.
The KIPP also ascribes to the theory of having school leaders instead of “principals.” This has the dual effect of holding them accountable for the success of the school, but it also gives them a level of control not found in public schools, Feinberg stressed.
“The principal does not hire staff, or decide the school’s budget. That’s why you get the shoulder shrugs when their school is failing. At KIPP, we want to give them the freedom to run the school. The school leaders decide the budget, staff and who is hired.”
Feinberg responded to critics of having longer school day hours, which they claim will eventually wear down teachers.
“Well, there are many jobs in the public sector that require a ten-hour work day,” he said. “In any other job that is considered reasonable, why don’t children deserve the same level of attention that you would grant a computer software firm?”
As a capper to his speech, Feinberg presented a photograph on the screen projector. It was a scene from the 1924 Tour de France. The picture showed one cyclist placing a cigarette in the mouth of another as they rode. Feinberg explained that during this time cigarettes were considered by some to be healthy and helpful with endurance for physically-exhaustive activities.
Now, of course, the idea seems absurd, he said.
“What we need to ask ourselves is: What will be the photograph that symbolizes our school system now? And in 80 years, will it be considered absurd?”