Let Teachers Teach

The co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program explains how charter schools may solve bureaucratic red tape in the American school system.

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Seventh grade students at a charter school in New Orleans. Reuters

While education reformers in America may have different approaches and philosophies, they all share the same goal -- opening doors of opportunity for students, especially those from underserved communities. After 20 years of teaching and leading in public schools, I've seen firsthand what happens when you free up teachers to teach and principals to lead. In my experience, giving educators the freedom to innovate is the key to setting up underserved students for success in college and in life.

As the co-founder of KIPP -- a program that started in a district classroom and has grown into the nation's largest public charter school network -- I learned how frustrating it is when teachers' and administrators' hands are tied. My co-founder, Dave Levin, and I started out as public school teachers, teaching fifth grade in Houston's impoverished Northside community through the Teach For America program. Although we often struggled as first-year teachers, we worked hard to improve, seeking out veteran teachers as mentors -- including the dynamic Harriett Ball, who taught students math by creating memorable chants to the beat of their favorite songs.

Over time, Dave and I became better teachers and our students began to experience success. Once they left our class, though, the students struggled through a bewildering and under-resourced school system that just couldn't meet their needs.

During our second year of teaching, Dave and I came up with an idea to create a fifth-grade program called the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP. Fifth-graders would get prepared for college by attending school from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm, half days on Saturdays, and three weeks in the summer. Teachers would be available for homework help after school hours, while setting high expectations in the classroom. Parents, students, and teachers would all sign a pledge, called the Commitment to Excellence, which outlined the hard work needed for our students to reach their potential.   

But when we tried to convince the Houston Independent School District to let us try our idea, we ran into the brick wall of a bureaucracy that had absolutely no idea what to do with us. In our initial meeting, we pledged to foster student learning gains using the existing curriculum. The conversation went something like this:

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"So what new curriculum will you be using?"

"There isn't going to be a new curriculum. We're just making sure the kids are learning the existing curriculum."

"Well, if there is no new curriculum, then how is this education reform?"

"Well, we'll have kids come to school at 7:30 am."

"Okay, we understand. This is a before-school program."

"No, we'll have them stay until 5 pm."

"Oh...so it's an after-school program."

We were talking in circles. It wasn't the administrators' fault; they were stuck within the confines of a rigid framework, and our idea didn't fit in the narrow parameters of that system.

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Mike Feinberg is co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a charter school system. He is currently the superintendent of KIPP Houston schools and serves on the KIPP Foundation board of directors.  More

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991, Feinberg joined Teach For America and became a fifth-grade bilingual teacher in Houston. In 1994, Feinberg co-founded the Knowledge Is Power Program along with fellow TFA corps member Dave Levin. In 1995, he founded KIPP Academy in Houston. Feinberg is currently the superintendent of KIPP Houston schools and serves on the KIPP Foundation board of directors.

Feinberg was named an Ashoka Fellow in 1994, awarded to leading social entrepreneurs with innovative solutions and the potential to change patterns across society, and along with Dave Levin was awarded the National Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen in 2006.

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