When Mike Feinberg, then a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate, and Dave Levin, just out of Yale, met at a 1992 summer teacher training institute in Los Angeles, they were typical of young people signing up for the Teach for America program -- smart, idealistic, confident. That summer they spent as much time playing basketball as they did learning how to handle a classroom. Yet when they got into Levin's rotting gray Taurus, loaded with soft drinks and Doritos, and headed for their new jobs in Houston, they thought they had all the solutions to the problems of educating low-income kids, and even outlined a grand strategy while they drove through the Mojave Desert.
Then they started to teach, and realized they had no idea what they were doing.
Dave Levin at the KIPP Academy New York. The Knowledge Is Power Program has produced sharp gains in test scores at schools across the country.
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
Levin's class was in chaos. His tires were slashed in the teachers' parking lot. A student sent to the office for throwing a book at Levin's head returned smiling with a Tootsie Pop. Feinberg, recruited as a bilingual teacher at another elementary school, spoke Spanish so poorly he had to keep asking his students what they were saying, especially one word he kept hearing.
"What does chupa mean?" he finally asked.
"Mr. Feinberg, it means 'suck.' "
"Oh. Thank you."
Most such stories in America end right there. Young educators intending to be classroom heroes discover that they lack the skills and energy and patience. Then they do what their mothers always wanted and apply to grad school.
But this story is different. Levin and Feinberg, more than a decade later, have invented something very rare in American education: a way of teaching low-income children that actually works in 36 public middle schools, producing the largest and fastest learning gains around the country. Even in the District, where most of the educational news has been very bad, the school they established three years ago in Southeast is beating schools in middle-class neighborhoods, and is about to expand as a model for what the poorest Washington schools could do if they paid closer attention to each child's habits of living and learning.
Their method becomes clear during a visit to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy New York, where Levin spends most of his time. One day during the most recent school year, he was standing in the aqua-green hallway of the academy's quarters on the fourth floor of a public school in a grimy, unreconstructed corner of the South Bronx, along with five frowning eighth-graders. While their classmates headed out for a day at Central Park, they had to stay behind because they lost points for misbehavior, missed homework and other failings in the incentive system that rules their days.
Levin is 34, tall and curly-haired. He leaned close to whisper words of encouragement into the ear of each disgruntled 13-year-old. He told them, as he had many times before, that they were smart and capable, but they had to focus on what is important. The school motto is "Be nice, work hard." Those who did that not only went on outings to Central Park but had other good things waiting for them.
That old-fashioned motivational blend of the bitter and the sweet has come from nowhere with no establishment support -- barely escaping strangulation at birth -- to capture the attention of school superintendents, policymakers, scholars and the president of the United States.
It is becoming the model that all other attempts to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students must measure themselves against. It is so successful that even affluent Montgomery County, which usually resists departures from its highly rated public school programs, is trying to get KIPP to put a school in one of its low-income neighborhoods.
And in the District, under the direction of Susan Schaeffler, a Feinberg and Levin protege, the public charter KIPP DC: KEY Academy has produced the highest math scores and nearly the highest reading scores in the city. Washington education leaders, such as D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, embrace KIPP, although school system administrators have not been able so far to find the organization more space.
Schaeffler wants to open two more KIPP middle schools and a KIPP high school in the District in the next three years, in every case with low-income students just like those in the lowest-scoring schools. "I am getting a head start on college," said Shakiera Mosby, an eighth-grader -- or what the school calls a senior -- at the KEY Academy. Evoking the dream of higher education is a KIPP hallmark.
Feinberg, 35, and Levin say they might have given up on teaching that first year in Houston if their egos had not gotten in the way. They were so annoyed by their inability to make headway in their classrooms that they began to devote every waking hour to turning themselves into at least passable teachers. They started visiting students' homes in crowded apartments and little houses, in hopes the parents could help them with discipline.
And right across the hall, they met their savior: a classroom magician named Harriett Ball.
Ball's classes often exploded in songs and chants, and then just as quickly, when she said the word, were silent. Her test scores were very good. Levin spent every spare moment watching her work. After school, he would join Ball for happy hour drinks -- beer for Levin, soda for Ball -- at a little club near the school called King Leo's. They would also get together on weekends at her house or Levin's apartment, with Feinberg joining them. Ball, now a popular consultant to school districts, said they were "very, very hungry" for something that would make them good teachers.
They began to borrow her chants -- such as "Rolling the Sixes" -- using a rhythm irresistible to 10-year-olds:
"Six, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36. And the spider says, 42, 48, 54, 60, 42, 48, 54, 60, 66, 72. How do you do? How do you do?"
The two neophyte teachers kept visiting the homes of their mostly Hispanic and African American students. A child would open the door and then slam it in shock at seeing a teacher. After much whispering and laughter, the door would open again and parents would invite them in.
They would get home about 6 p.m. and religiously watch "Star Trek: The Next Generation" "because in the 25th century, everyone was literate," Feinberg said. "Everyone walked around with this little tricorder, and the 15-year-old was doing nuclear fusion. That was always our escape. Then we would eat dinner."
They would be up until 11 p.m. comparing notes and preparing lessons for the next morning. Gradually, they improved. Each is 6 feet 3, already hard to miss, and they became classroom dynamos, full of games and demands and rules and standards, sweetened with pizza parties, dramatic productions and a year-end trip to the AstroWorld theme park.
Levin became so confident of his progress at Bastian Elementary School that he defied a principal's order to exempt several of his low-scoring Hispanic students from state tests, a popular technique for getting the school's average scores up. Passing the test was the children's only chance to get into a good middle school, and he thought they could do it. When school administrators told the parents to sign a form exempting their children from the test anyway, they declined on instructions from that nice Mr. Levin, which got him on the principal's troublemaker list.
Levin was voted teacher of the year by his school's faculty. Ninety-six percent of his students passed either the math or reading test, and 70 percent passed both. But at the end of the 1993-94 school year he was fired for what his principal called insubordination. It was a bad omen because he and Feinberg were starting the Knowledge Is Power Program that summer for 50 fifth-graders stuffed into one classroom in Feinberg's school, Garcia Elementary.
From the very beginning, homework was crucial. They gave each student the telephone number of their apartment, and told them to call if they had any homework questions. Feinberg said to a student he dropped off at home: "I don't want to hear tomorrow that you didn't understand it. I want to hear from you tonight." They only had one phone line, so they took turns fielding calls, as many as 20 a night. There was no more time for "Star Trek."
They jumped on misbehavior immediately. "We are not drill sergeants, we are not babysitters and we are not behavior correctors," Levin shouted after an early hallway scuffle. "We are teachers, and we're busting our butts to prepare you for Miss Such-and-Such's class in that middle school so that when all hell is breaking loose, you'll be the one who's still learning."
And it worked. At the end of the first year of KIPP, a class in which about 53 percent of the students passed the state fourth-grade tests suddenly had a 96 percent passing rate in fifth-grade math and a 93 percent passing rate in fifth-grade English.
That meant little to the Garcia principal, who became increasingly impatient with what she saw as their disruption of her school. Levin said she didn't change her mind even when Levin, willing to try anything, asked her out on a date.
A Program on the Move
Levin thought his home town might work better for KIPP. Armed with the first-year scores, he persuaded the New York City school district to let him open the second KIPP school in the Bronx. But it had the same ugly beginning. His new principal verbally flayed him to show her staff she wasn't playing favorites, he recalls. To find more students, he had to sneak into a parents' meeting from which he had been barred, and whisper invitations to take a look at KIPP, before he was escorted out.
Back in Houston, Feinberg was being forced to move the original KIPP school every year, even when he was about to add a seventh grade to a thriving fifth- and sixth-grade operation, with a growing young staff and still-impressive test scores. There was no room anywhere for that, he was told. He would have to tell some kids to forget it.
Such resistance was typical of big-city school district administrators, who had little patience with innovators, particularly novices like Feinberg and Levin; rookies with big innovative ideas have a habit of disrupting comfortable routines and often fail to deliver. Feinberg's attempts to see Superintendent (and later U.S. Education Secretary) Roderick Paige were rebuffed. So at about 2 p.m. one sweltering April day he sat on the rear bumper of Paige's maroon Acura in the parking lot outside the ornate school district headquarters and graded papers until Paige, heading for home, showed up four hours later.
"Dr. Paige!" Feinberg said, using the excited voice that worked so well with fifth-graders. "I'm in a pickle. You've got to help me. They are trying to take away my babies!" The superintendent arranged a meeting the next day with the aide who had been the roadblock. Feinberg said she looked as if she wanted to fry him in oil, but he got the space he needed.
By 1999 Feinberg -- with fifth- through eighth-graders in trailers on a school parking lot -- and Levin -- with the same grade levels on the fourth floor of a public school surrounded by housing projects -- had the best performing middle schools in Houston and the Bronx, respectively. That led to a story on "60 Minutes," and a major investment by Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing stores, who leapt to support an educational initiative that actually seemed to help disadvantaged kids. President Bush has since been to two of the schools, and Democratic and Republican legislators, including vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards, have endorsed KIPP.
One hundred percent of eighth-graders at KIPP Academy Houston passed the Texas state tests last year. KIPP Academy New York ranks in the top 10 percent of all New York city schools. Students at KIPP schools opened since 2001 averaged score increases last year of 39 percent in mathematics and 20 percent in reading. About 80 percent of KIPP students in 15 states and the District have family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies, and they are all of the hormone-addled middle school age that makes even teachers at wealthy private schools tremble. (KIPP is starting an elementary and a high school in Houston this year.)
Feinberg and Levin say they want discipline, attention and steady, measurable progress that supplants the distractions of their students' homes and neighborhoods. Their secret is what they call "the joy factor": excursions in Central Park, games, songs, trips to Disney World or Los Angeles, and music. The 180-piece orchestra at KIPP New York gives bewildered and frustrated preteens an incentive to go to school each morning. They must earn the right to play by being nice and working hard.
KIPP combines several methods -- up to 9 1/2-hour school days, required three-week summer school, regular Saturday sessions, close teacher cooperation, regular parental contacts, consistent methods of punishment and reward, and keen attention to test results -- that each have proved to be effective in isolation. It then tells young principals and mostly young staffers -- paid somewhat above regular public school salaries for their extra hours -- to make it work in ways that make sense to them.
At the end of each week, students receive up to $40 in virtual cash that can be redeemed for snacks and other favors at the student store, and also count toward day excursions like the trip to Central Park or what KIPP calls year-end "field lessons" to Washington, D.C., California, New England, Utah, Florida or Tennessee. Each grade is known by the year that its members will be going to college. Each classroom is named after the college that its teacher attended. Graduating KIPP eighth-graders are usually placed in private schools or magnet schools that can be counted on to maintain the same high standards. On average, a new federal study shows, charter schools are no better and in some cases worse than regular public schools, but KIPP's test scores show it to be a glaring exception to that general rule.
There is no active opposition to KIPP, although some skeptics say they want to see how the achievement gains hold up, and note that it will take many, many more such schools to make a dent in the problems of low-income neighborhoods. They also suggest that KIPP might be doing well because it attracts the most motivated parents, to which KIPP teachers reply that their students had the same parents when they were doing terribly in regular public schools. KIPP schools have many students with disabilities, and expulsions are rare, their enrollment figures show. KIPP accountants calculate that the longer hours and trips increase per-pupil costs by about 13 percent in their schools across the country. In some expensive cities like New York, however, KIPP is still spending less per student than regular public schools are.
Feinberg, married now to a former Teach for America teacher, has left his post at San Francisco headquarters to go back to Houston and be with kids again, supervising two KIPP middle schools and the new elementary and high school. Levin, still looking for the right woman, resisted attempts to move him to San Francisco and remains at KIPP New York, helping the new principal, Quinton Vance, while focusing on KIPP principal and teacher training and the development of KIPP curriculum materials.
The real work, they say, starts every summer with the new fifth-graders, and requires regular reinforcement. The New York fifth grade recently had an afternoon of miniature golf, and Levin remained behind with the dozen or so who did not earn the trip to plant the seeds of future achievement. "What are the choices you made that left you in this situation?" he asked them. "Are you going to be ready for the next trip five or six weeks from now? We will probably go to the movies, or whatever, but will you be ready to earn that?"
The sixth-graders had come back from their miniature golf excursion the day before. Levin watched them closely to gauge their mood. They were happy and energetic, 11-year-old batteries recharged by the joy factor. "They came back much more motivated for the academics," said Levin. "So it works."