Compliments and challenges for Minnesota educators / Joe Nathan’s Column

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg and Alvin Abraham, executive director of KIPP North Star Academy in Minneapolis, stand next to the KIPP motto, "Work Hard, Be Nice."  (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Joe Nathan

One of the country’s most honored educators offered compliments and challenges at a Minnesota statewide charter school conference July 28 in Minneapolis. As we move toward a new school year, Mike Feinberg’s insights can help.

Feinberg co-founded the country’s largest and one of the most respected charter public school groups: KIPP. The letters stand for Knowledge Is Power Program. From one Houston, Texas, school, started in 1995, KIPP has grown to 183 schools in 20 states, including Minnesota and the District of Columbia. These schools serve more than 70,000 students in urban and rural areas. Virtually all “KIPPsters” are from low-income families. Minnesota has one KIPP School, in Minneapolis.

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg and Alvin Abraham, executive director of KIPP North Star Academy in Minneapolis. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

KIPP has been featured on “60 Minutes.” Feinberg has received several national awards for his work.

KIPP’s results help explain why many journalists, educators, foundations and government officials listen to Feinberg. He cited research showing that more than 80 percent of students from the most affluent American families have earned a four-year college degree, compared to 8 percent of students from the lowest income families. For Feinberg, “that’s disgraceful.”

But 51 percent of KIPP’s graduates, 96 percent of whom are from low-income families, have earned a four-year college degree. He’s not satisfied, he said: “We are hungry to get better every day. And I don’t have all the answers.”

Feinberg urges educators to be clear about the purpose of public schools, whether district or charter. For him, the central goal is: “Help students have the freedom to do what they want to do when they graduate.” I think that’s a great goal. I hope schools also help students learn how they can and should help create a better world.

Mike Feinberg (Photo by Joe Nathan)

One of KIPP’s goals is to help students be well-prepared for higher education. Feinberg agreed, “A four-year college or university isn’t for everyone.” But he said the skills needed for college, both academic and personal, “are right for every kid.” He stressed the importance of helping students develop persistence, responsibility and the feeling that “I can set and accomplish important goals.”

Feinberg described one of the great debates in American education and was clear where he stood. “Some people believe we won’t do much better in education until we alleviate poverty. Others think education is a game changer – the single best way to reduce poverty.”

He described himself as in the second group.

I agree that schools can have a huge positive impact. I also think we need to work on problems outside schools – helping improve health care, helping increase the number of good jobs, etc. I don’t think it’s either-or. But I strongly agree that schools can have a huge positive impact.

What happens in great schools, whether district, charter, private or parochial? Feinberg believes it comes down to two things: “Good teaching, and more of it!” That can occur when a school has a culture where learning is prized, honored and rewarded. “That’s what great leadership produces,” Feinberg said.

KIPP schools are not identical. But they share five basic principles:

–Longer school day and school year.

–Choice and commitment of students kids, families and educators.

–Power to lead: hiring a well-trained school leader who can make critical decisions.

–High expectations of all students.

–Great results that are measurable.

Feinberg said his experience convinces him, “We can make a difference!”

Feinberg presented two challenges.

First, if educators are not satisfied with teacher preparation programs, create a new one. KIPP has done this with several other groups.

Second, learn from the Dr. Seuss book “On Beyond Zebra.” For Feinberg, that means: “Don’t accept everything we’re doing now. Continue to question, challenge and create new, more effective ways to help students learn.”

Feinberg opened and closed his presentation by explaining that Maasi tribe members in Africa greet each other by asking, “And how are the children?” He pointed out that some of our children are doing well, but we can and should do better with all of them.

That seems like great advice for the coming school year.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.