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Straight Up Conversation: KIPP Co-Founder Mike Feinberg on KIPP Turbo and His New Gig

By Rick Hess — July 07, 2011 9 min read
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Mike Feinberg is co-founder of the KIPP Academies and superintendent of KIPP Houston, which serves more than 6,000 students in 18 schools. In 2007, KIPP Houston announced its “KIPP Turbo” plan, under which it aims to grow into a Pre-K to 12 network of 42 schools. The goal is to enroll 10 percent of the students in Houston, making KIPP Houston by far the largest network of charter schools in one city. As part of this effort, Mike recently announced that he’d be shifting roles to focus on fundraising, advocacy, and external relations, while handing the superintendency of KIPP Houston off to a successor. If you’re not familiar with Mike’s story, you can check out Jay Mathews’ KIPP book, Work Hard, Be Nice for an immensely readable, if pretty syrupy, account. Anyway, with Mike changing roles and with KIPP Houston well into its ambitious growth plan, I thought it’d be interesting to chat with Mike about looming challenges and lessons learned.

Rick Hess: Can you tell me a bit about the KIPP Houston growth plan?
Mike Feinberg: We cooked it up back in 2006. We call it KIPP Turbo. The goal is to try to find the tipping point. What would happen if we get about 10 percent of the neighborhood in a large school district to be in a high performing system of schools? Is it possible to keep our current college matriculation and graduation rates at a very high level and even improve them? What would be the impact of the other 90 percent [of schools]? In Houston, that 10 percent represents about 42 schools and 21,000 kids.

RH: How did you pick the 10 percent target?
MF: The analogy we use is what FedEx helped do with the US Post Office. FedEx had about a 10 percent market share when the Post Office started doing overnight shipping. Our theory of change is that something similar to overnight shipping can happen in public education, and 10 percent just seemed to make sense to us. At that size...most people in the city will know someone who’s in [KIPP]. And I think part of the tipping point is that we’re not just creating competition, we’re creating a lot of passion and possibly rage on the part of the consumers, the parents.

Right now we have an 8,000 kid wait list to come into KIPP in Houston. We can only serve 1,200 of those kids and parents, so we’re saying “no” to well over 80 percent of the kids who want to come. Winning the lottery to come to KIPP is literally winning the lottery. We don’t get mad when someone wins the lottery on TV--we think they’re really lucky. But think what would happen if not only do you see someone on TV that wins the lottery, but if your neighbor wins the lottery, if your coworker wins the lottery, if the person you sit next to in church wins the lottery--then you’re not going to think it’s lucky, you’re going to start to get mad and say, “Wait a minute, where’s mine?”

RH: Are you guys on target in terms of the KIPP Turbo targets?
MF: We certainly slowed it down a bit in 2008 when the world changed because of the financial crisis. We’ve been growing very aggressively since 2005; we’ve grown 1,500 percent, which is why there’s no hair on my head. In 2011-2012, we’ll be up to twenty schools serving 7,800 kids. If we don’t go to any new locations and simply let all of our current locations grow out by adding the rest of their grade levels, by 2015 there will be twenty-three schools and 12,000 kids. And that’s assuming that we don’t add any brand-new campuses. But we are still trying to raise dollars and add more campuses for the 6,800 families that want to come to KIPP and to whom we’re saying, “Sorry, there’s no room.”

RH: What has been the biggest challenge in executing the growth plan?
MF: The biggest challenge is the same with twenty schools, and will be the same at forty-two schools, as it was with one program with forty-five kids in the classroom--it’s what we need to do to be effective teachers in the classroom so our kids learn what they need to learn to go to and through college. It was the hardest thing in 1994, and it’ll be the hardest in 2011...That’s why the basic recipe of KIPP is great teaching. Beyond that, the two biggest challenges, in order, are finding talented leaders...and having the dollars we need to start new schools.

RH: You recently announced you’re taking on this new role. How does that fit into all this?
MF: Over the last year or so, as KIPP Houston has grown to be the largest [KIPP] region, it has become apparent to me that my job is really two jobs--KIPP co-founder and [then] superintendent of KIPP Houston. Normally I use those titles strategically, depending on who I’m in the room with. As co-founder, there’s a lot of pressure to be raising dollars, advocating in Austin for better charter laws and for public education in general, finding more people who can help us, making sure the KIPP plan is out there so that great people want to come to us...I’m happy to do that work, but I get tense because I keep thinking I should be back in the schools, working with our teachers and school leaders. And when I’m in the schools, I get tense because I’m thinking, “If I’m in the schools, I’m wondering who’s out there hustling for bucks and doing the advocacy?” I can’t be in two places at once, which is why, as we get bigger, it’s only going to get tougher. It would be unfair for me as a teammate to hang on to all of the jobs just for the sake of hanging on...Since it’s hard to find anyone else to do the co-founder work, I’ll do the co-founder work and we can bring someone in who can do a far better job of being superintendent of KIPP Houston than I can.

RH: You and David Levin started KIPP with a single grade back more than 17 years ago. Today, KIPP enrolls close to 30,000 kids in 99 schools. What have you learned along the way about growing high-quality schools?
MF: The most valuable lesson--and we thought this early on and it has been confirmed time after time--is that people make the difference. Too often, in education reform, all of us play kindergarten soccer. We all latch on to the one idea that is going to transform our entire public school system in any city, any state, or across the country, and we all pounce on it. But at the end of the day, nothing is going to replace the need for great people... If that is the basic recipe that we still firmly believe, what do we need to get great teachers? We need school leaders to bring them in and develop them, and create a culture that makes teachers want to do more. We need people who will be great heads of systems of schools that are going to find, develop, and retain these great school leaders who are working with the great teachers. At all levels, people make the difference. That’s what we have to latch onto. Not some strategy we’ll all be excited about this year and write the obituary on next year.

RH: How much of that is finding people and how much of that is training people?
MF: It’s both. It’s been fun trying to unpack the nature versus nurture question over the last ten years. What can you train for versus what do you typically need to select for? There certainly are intangible qualities that people need to bring to the table...[but] there is also a set of skills that are very coachable.

RH: As you look back then, what single thing did you guys get most right as you were building out KIPP?
MF: Thank God for Don Fisher who, beyond being our benefactor, was our mentor. He advised us to create a completely separate yet related organization that was going to wake up every day and think about replication...[Often] the same group of leaders that started the original school have to wake up every day and think about both running a school and growth. [Instead], we set up a situation where KIPP Houston and KIPP New York over the last seventeen years have woken up every day and thought about nothing but the kids and how we can get them to and through college. And at the same time, we have another organization called the KIPP Foundation that has woken up every day thinking how we can start more schools...This divide and conquer strategy was one of the most important things we did.

RH: So what was the biggest mistake you guys made along the way?
MF: I think there were seven big mistakes. This last year, we had 99 schools up and running, but we’ve started 106 total schools--so seven times in our history we started a school that we shouldn’t have. Either we pulled the name, so the school is still running but isn’t a KIPP school, or we had to work with the district or the authorizer to close it down. And each of those seven cases have been incredibly painful because embedded in each of those seven schools were sacred promises that collectively we were making to children and their parents to help them get to and through college, and ultimately we were not successful in keeping those promises.

RH: Is there a common thread when you look at those seven as to what you got wrong?
MF: We did not select the right person to be school leader, and we didn’t do a great job training those people to be school leaders. But of those two things, it’s more the selection. I think we were swayed by personal stories to go away from our competency model and selection rubric, and every time we’ve paid a price.

RH: As you grow KIPP Houston, are you concerned that you won’t find enough Houston families who want a KIPP-style education or enough talented teachers and leaders to staff the schools?
MF: That’s the $70 million question, because that’s the money we’ve raised to grow these schools. Can we find these talented school leaders and can those talented school leaders find the number of talented teachers that we need? We’re talking dozens of school leaders and a thousand plus great teachers. No one’s tried this before at this scale, and has aimed for the results that we’re trying for, so this is a situation where we can’t say it’s actually possible. We’re going on faith and confidence that it is possible--if it’s not, then we need to move to New Zealand or Finland.

RH: It doesn’t sound like you’re concerned about whether there will be enough students and families who want to fill these seats?
MF: Absolutely not. It’s not a situation of “if you build it, they will come"; it’s a situation where, if you build it and kick ass, they will come. Without a great deal of marketing, 8,000 families have said they want to come to KIPP. And even with our hyper-growth, we only have room for 1,200. That’s a sign that there is no short shortage of kids and parents out there looking for better options.

RH: What are the one or two things that supporters, policymakers, or foundations could do that would be most helpful in supporting your Houston expansion?
MF: At this point, we don’t have the ability to operate schools on the same funding base as traditional public schools. That difference needs to disappear, and public charter schools need to be funded dollar for dollar with the traditional public schools. We shouldn’t have to spend time, energy, and resources trying to make up funding gaps, given the fact that within one tax base we’re funding public schools at different levels. It’s unconstitutional, unequal, and unfair. It’s a huge policy shift we’d love to get help on.

RH: Finally, what are the most overlooked or ignored lessons that the KIPP experience holds for school districts or other charter providers?
MF: I think the biggest thing people miss is what is written on the big sign over our school doors and on our kid’s shirts: there are no shortcuts. I don’t know if it’s because we all live in the microwave [culture] and we like things quick, but we’re so caught up in trying to find quick fixes that we don’t acknowledge or don’t admit that this is incredibly difficult and challenging work. Change, while absolutely possible, doesn’t come at the snap of the fingers or a click of the mouse.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.