Getting Mad About Schools
Tuesday, June 6, 2006; 10:30 AM
One chilly morning in January 1996 Anne Patterson, superintendent for the western region of the Houston Independent School District, picked up the telephone in her office and listened with growing puzzlement as an administrator at district headquarters began to yell at her as if she were an errant seventh grader who had just pulled all the fire alarms.
That was only the first call. There were several others that day, full of anger at Patterson and at a 27-year-old principal named Mike Feinberg. Feinberg's innovative little middle school, a favorite Patterson project, had apparently ruined what might have been an otherwise peaceful day of reading papers and attending meetings for many people at headquarters. They wanted something done about it.
It took awhile for Patterson to sort through the bile and venom spewing out of her telephone receiver, but eventually she learned that Feinberg, in the guise of a lesson on advocacy in American democracy, had instructed his 70 fifth-graders to call about 20 downtown administrators and complain that nothing had been done to find them a school building for the following year. Their school, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy, planned to add a sixth-grade on its way to becoming a fifth-through-eighth grade school, but no space had been found. The 10-year-old callers, all from low-income families, were well taught and very polite. That apparently only made it worse, since the calls aggravated the feelings of guilt that are a part of nearly every inner city school administrator's emotional makeup.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!? they shouted at Patterson. GET THAT GUY OFF MY BACK!!
How and why Feinberg fomented this crisis, how Patterson handled it and what was the result are all interesting parts of the KIPP story. But what interests me is the idea of pushing boundaries to improve achievement and getting slapped around for it. I think it is a useful lesson for educators in the D.C. schools, and several other big-city districts, as they attempt to revive their moribund schools and give their mostly low-income students the creative and challenging educations they deserve.
I have spent a lot of time in the worst schools in the District and Los Angeles and visited similarly struggling schools in other cities. What strikes me is how little anger is ever expressed about the mediocre lessons, low standards and decrepit conditions that characterize such places. When I ask good teachers why more is not being done, the common response is a roll of the eyes and a shrug of the shoulders.
It can't be helped, they say. Getting mad won't do any good. Apathy rules.
But when Mike Feinberg became angry and did something outrageous about it, in turn infuriating several headquarters officials and Patterson, his friend and protector, it did make a difference. He got the space he needed for the next year, and after several other such episodes -- one so bad that even Patterson stopped speaking to him -- he and his young and energetic staff had produced the greatest gains for low-income students anywhere in Houston, or the country for that matter.
The same thing happened with Dave Levin, co-founder with Feinberg of the KIPP schools. He taught in Houston with Feinberg and later started a KIPP Academy in the south Bronx. Levin, then 25, disobeyed orders, broke rules, was regularly yelled at by administrators twice his age and only survived because, like Feinberg, he found a savvy, experienced veteran -- Susan Winston -- in the school district administration willing to clean up his messes and show him how to get through the next day without offending too many bureaucrats.
Patterson, 61, has started speaking to Feinberg again, and she is now a consultant to the growing KIPP empire. She described herself as "Mike's babysitter," but is officially a mentor to new KIPP principals in Houston. Winston, 56, has similarly retired from the New York City school system and now mentors KIPP principals there. By this summer there will be 52 KIPP charter or contract public schools in 16 states and the District, where KIPP DC executive director Susan Schaeffer, like Feinberg 10 years ago, is fighting for space for her newest school. KIPP students in the five schools that had eighth-grade test results in 2005, including the original schools begun by Feinberg and Levin, improved on average from the 28th to the 74th percentile in reading and math in just four years.
To get such results, do teachers and parents and administrators have to be insufferable? Maybe not. Both Patterson and Winston say their favorite clients -- Feinberg and Levin -- are more mature and less irritating now. Feinberg in particular, by most accounts the more troublesome of the two, is now "quite the diplomat," Patterson said.
We have examples of some big city school systems that have made significant progress under persistent but polite pressure from above. The impressive record of Boston school superintendent Tom Payzant, retiring after 10 years, is one example. Patterson said she thinks she and Feinberg only managed to make headway in Houston for KIPP because that city had a far-sighted and intelligent school board, and an accomplished superintendent, future U.S. education secretary Rod Paige. Paige saw the value of Feinberg's efforts even when the KIPP principal waited beside Paige's car in the school district parking lot all day so that he could ambush him with a request for help in another space crisis.