Michael Feinberg, cofounder of the Knowledge is Power Program, told audience members at a charter school conference in Detroit that the best way to hold schools accountable is through school choice. (Photos by Josh Nunez)
The first question Michael Feinberg fielded was not about
requiring school on Saturday, not about his schools’ high test scores and not
about his budget.
The first question Feinberg fielded after his presentation about
the Knowledge is Power Program was when and if it is coming to Detroit.
His answer? Detroit is welcome to get in line, just like
A KIPP cofounder, Feinberg said that demand for KIPP schools has
grown so much in the past 10 years that rather than scout the country for
potential school sites, the program now requires applicants to come to it. With
57 schools in 17 states, two more scheduled to open this year and a growing list
of philanthropic supporters, KIPP is becoming selective about its future.
In an address at the 10th annual Michigan Charter Schools
Conference sponsored by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies in
November 2007, Feinberg explained the KIPP model and how the foundation plans to
"tip" public education.
KIPP sponsors a national network of free, open-enrollment public
schools that offer a college preparatory program primarily to low-income
minority populations. Most KIPP schools are fifth- through eighth-grade
operations known for long hours, academic rigor and discipline.
High math scores in Houston and New York, the first KIPP sites,
brought the model national attention. The day after a "60 Minutes" program about
KIPP was broadcast in 1999, Feinberg received a telephone call from a California
school administrator who said, "We want to order 15 KIPPs for next year,
Shortly after, Feinberg and cofounder Dave Levin partnered with
the founders of Gap Inc., to establish the KIPP Foundation. Today the foundation
works with groups to establish KIPP schools, and it also trains school leaders
KIPP’s goal, Feinberg told the an audience in Cobo Hall, is to
move into cities where detractors say the political, social and economic
obstacles are too much for school systems to overcome and then to overcome those
"We know we aren’t capable of KIPP-atizing all 50 million
children in public education today. But we think we can contribute," Feinberg
said. "Wherever people are making … excuses, we want to start schools there
under the same conditions, to prove what can and should be happening across the
KIPP succeeds by opening locally controlled schools resting on
five tenets: time on task, choice and commitment, power to lead, high
expectations and measurable results.
The typical KIPP schedule requires students and teachers to be
in school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Students spend two to three hours
on homework nightly and attend school on alternate Saturday mornings as well at
least four weeks each summer.
"I don’t care if everything else is figured out perfectly,"
Feinberg said. "Wonderful teachers. Wonderful school leaders. Brand new
buildings. If everything else is fixed and we still put on the clock (only) four
or five hours a day for half a year, we’re setting the whole thing up for
It’s not difficult to find teachers willing to put in those
hours, Feinberg said, because the best teachers already are. For the extra time,
KIPP pays teachers 15 to 20 percent more then the average surrounding districts.
"Every single school here in Detroit — and I don’t care how bad
the school is — has at least got a handful of great teachers. There are a few
cars in that parking lot at 7 in the morning and a few cars … at 5 in the
afternoon. At KIPP, all the cars are there at 7 … and at 5."
Choice and Commitment
KIPP won’t open a school in a community without favorable
charter school laws, Feinberg said, because parental choice is the surest way to
improve a school.
"The most important accountability measure, beyond any test
score … is the pitter patter of the kids’ feet," he said. "If they choose to
come to our school, what are we doing to view the kid and the parent as our
It’s tough to find the balance between academic rigor and
customer satisfaction, he acknowledged.
"We’ve got to push in a way that we aren’t pushing so hard that
we’re pushing them out the door."
Some critics have said KIPP is doing just that, pointing to high
attrition rates at some KIPP schools. If the students who leave KIPP are low
achievers, then the program is not serving who it claims to serve, they said.
Rather, it is serving motivated low-income students who already are higher
Other education researchers say that attrition is common among
urban minority populations in any school because those populations are more
transient in general. They also point out that KIPP’s highest attrition numbers
are found, not unexpectedly, during the first year in new KIPP schools and that
the attrition rate decreases over time. KIPP is now doing its own national
analysis of attrition.
Power to lead
Too many school principals today are not school leaders; they
are babysitters, Feinberg said.
"They’re told who will teach in their building. They cannot get
rid of people. … They don’t have any real control over their budget dollars," he
said. "No wonder they’re frustrated."
Every KIPP school is led by a director who has completed a year
of KIPP training. That person has the freedom to hire and fire staff and make
budget decisions, and then is held accountable for results, Feinberg said. In
the few cases when a KIPP school has failed, it was because the wrong person was
chosen as leader, he said.
"Great people make or break it, so what are we doing to attract
great people … and what are we doing to find a quick exit strategy for the
people who are not even mediocre?"
In return, KIPP teachers and leaders are expected to bring
underperforming students up to and beyond grade level within two years. Every
KIPP student is expected to attend college.
Overall, Feinberg said, KIPP has made its mark on education, but
"we haven’t really tipped anything."
"We want to have an effect on the public education system the
way Fed Ex had an effect on the U.S. Post Office," he said. "When Fed Ex got to
10 percent market share, that’s when the Post Office, a government monopoly,
learned to do next-day air. So at the end of the day, Fed Ex didn’t hurt the
Post Office. They made them better."
The charter school movement overall has not "tipped" education
either, Feinberg said, in part because of quality control.
"The fact is that several of our brothers and sisters in the
school movement have not started very good schools, and they’ve not been held
accountable," he said. "It can’t just be about growth. It’s got to be about
KIPP itself has revoked permission to use its name in five
schools. Of those, three are now operating under other names and two have
Asked about bringing KIPP to Detroit, Feinberg said that any
group can file an application for a KIPP license, but they have to meet three
core requirements — funding, facilities and freedom.
KIPP schools typically do not take in enough local and state
revenue to cover the cost of running the school. One reason is that charter
public schools typically receive less per-pupil funding than conventional public
schools. Another is that KIPP has added costs due to the extended school day and
school year. To make up the difference, which KIPP estimates at roughly $1,000
to $1,500 per student, KIPP schools must develop a fundraising plan and seek out
additional revenue through public grants and private donations.
Even with the additional fundraising, however, KIPP spends less
per student, on average, than most urban districts, according to the foundation.
Regarding facilities, Feinberg said they don’t have to be fancy,
but zoning and other regulatory questions have to be resolved in advance.
"Freedom" means there is a legal way — preferably a "healthy charter law" — for
the school to open.
In Michigan, getting a charter would probably be the biggest
obstacle for a group interested in opening a KIPP school, said Dan Quisenberry,
president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. Michigan law
caps the number of charter schools that can be authorized at state universities
to 150. As of mid-December, he wasn’t aware of any organization planning to
The KIPP Foundation confirmed that is has not received an
application from Michigan to date, but said that it has been approached for
information by a number of business and education leaders here. In any case, the
earliest the foundation will accept new applications is this spring, for schools
that would open in 2010.