Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 2: Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg

Links to the rest of this series here

In part one I wrote to Whitney Tilson who is the ‘reformer’ I have known for the least amount of time (less than 2 years and never in person).  For part two I am writing to the reformers who I’ve known for the longest, over twenty years.

Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg are the founders of the KIPP charter school network.  They were both TFA Houston 1992, and since I was TFA Houston 1991 I first met them, probably at a TFA induction event.  Back in Houston in those days (this is probably still true) there were a lot of TFA house parties on the weekend.  Since ‘first years’ and ‘second years’ in TFA are living completely different life experiences, there wasn’t a whole lot of mingling between the two cohorts in 1992-1993.  But as I stayed in Houston for four years, I would run into them a lot during my third and fourth years in Houston.  We always seemed to be at the same parties and had some mutual friends as well.  I don’t recall hanging out much with Dave or Mike other than TFA events, but when we’d see each other, we would definitely get along.  Back then Dave would usually talk to me about what I had written in my monthly column in the TFA newsletter.

After I left Houston in 1995, I had lost touch with them for a few years as KIPP began to grow.  There was a short time in 2001 where I nearly worked for KIPP as a Chess teacher.  I would see Dave and Mike every few years at the various alumni summits.  I’ve been to the 5 year (Washington D.C.), 10 year (NYC), 15 year (D.C. again), and the 20 year (D.C. again).  (At this rate I won’t go to the 25 unless I’m allowed to participate as some kind of presenter.)  Dave and Mike have always been enthusiastic to see me.  When I moved back to New York, I’d see Dave at parties now and then, and even have run into him on the street from time to time.  He’d sometimes suggest that I meet with some of the KIPP high school people, possibly to advise them, maybe even to transfer there.  About two years ago, just before I went to the 20 year and while I was still pretty ambivalent about ed reform, I had contacted Dave to see if KIPP might have a job for my wife as a social worker.

But it was at that 20 year summit that I got fed up with the direction that TFA is going in.  During Duncan’s keynote speech I had an epiphany when I realized he was lying about a ‘turnaround’ he led.  I started reading up and soon ‘saw the light’ about the destructive influence of TFA-led ed reform, which, unfortunately, included the inflated claims of charter schools.  KIPP, as the highest profile charter network, became, for me, a subject of investigation.  Though my research I’ve come to the conclusion that it is unfair to compare the results they get to the results of the nearby ‘failing schools’ because they have a somewhat ‘better’ crop of students.  More motivated families apply for the lottery and when you put that together with the attrition rate, they are bound to have better results.  Now of course for the students who make it through KIPP, it is good for them.  But the reason I’ve gotten so concerned is that KIPP has been ‘weaponized’ recently.  It is used by politicians to ‘prove’ that “poverty does not matter” and that “great teaching” (the kind made impossible by unions) will overcome all.

KIPP is actually more honest about their attrition than the other charter networks.  KIPP publishes an annual report which gives the attrition rate for each of their schools.  They say that the rate is around 10%, which doesn’t sound that bad until you realize that this is 10% per year so nearly 40% of students who start as 5th graders don’t graduate as 8th graders.

This doesn’t mean that KIPP is not a good thing.  It just means that it is not good enough to justify the school closings across the country and the witch hunts for the ineffective teachers who are managing to get good principal evaluations despite their low value-added scores.

Except for a recent email to Dave before I visited a KIPP school, I have not had any contact with them since seeing them at the 20 year TFA event in February, nearly two years ago.  I’ve resisted contacting them since I’ve been in a mode of thought where they are not Dave and Mike, but just Levin and Feinberg and where KIPP doesn’t represent schools where a lot of young teachers are trying their best each day, but a symbol for the reform movement, something I think is a diversion which is making things worse for teachers AND for students, ironically.

I suppose that they have heard of my ‘conversion.’  Dave wrote to me recently that he thinks that having discussions about these issues is important, so he didn’t seem to upset by my view of what is going on.  I haven’t been in contact with Mike at all since I saw him at the 20.

Dave and Mike are two guys who I respect a lot and who I’ve been friendly with for twenty years.  I think of them as two of my TFA-friends (as opposed to mere TFA-acquaintences) I also am pretty sure they like me and hope they respect my ability to analyze things related to education.  Though Tilson did not respond to my open letter, I would be surprised if Dave and Mike were to completely ignore this.

25 November 2012

Dear Dave and Mike,

I know it’s been a while.  I saw both of you briefly nearly two years ago at the TFA 20th thing.  Before that, it must have been 2008 when Mike and I met for wings when I was in Houston or when I ran into Dave on the street on The Upper West Side.

I don’t know what you may or may not have heard about my ‘conversion’ from a TFA cheerleader to a current outspoken critic of both TFA and of many things now called ed reform.  As charters are a big part of the discussion on how to improve schools, and any conversation about charters is going to lead to something about KIPP, I found myself feeling a little strange as I’ve needed to do research challenging the claims by an organization founded and run by two of my long-time TFA friends.

I want to let you know that it would be a great oversimplification to say that I’m ‘anti-KIPP’ or ‘anti-charter’ or even ‘anti-TFA.’  I think that everything has its place in improving education, but that when a strategy is used beyond the purpose it was intended for, I get concerned.

I’ll get straight to the point:  I think that KIPP is too defensive when responding to critics.  Now of course people and organizations get defensive when they feel they are getting attacked, but I’d like to encourage you to look at it a bit differently.

The reason KIPP is under such a microscope, recently, is that the results that you claim to get with the ‘same kids’ and the ‘same funding’ as nearby ‘failing’ schools has led politicians to shut down schools and fire teachers who are not measuring up to the KIPP standard.  This concerns me a lot.

As far as the ‘same funding’ goes, there was some recent report that KIPP schools had a lot more funding per pupil and then there was a KIPP response that the report was misleading.  They then said that it wasn’t.  Now I do think that a lot of schools, district and charters alike do not make the best use of their money so ‘throwing money at the problem’ does not always work.  But if you are really spending more per student and you are doing it wisely, why not just say that being efficient with money AND having more money is something that would help all schools.

But what I consider to be the biggest issue is that KIPP, like all schools, surely is somewhat limited in the percent of students that they are able to make, as TFA likes to say, ‘transformative change.’  When a politician gushes about KIPP they seem to imply that KIPP is the, so-called, silver-bullet.  That you have figured out how to reach even the most difficult to teach students.  Now the attrition rate of KIPP (around 10%) is no secret.  You publish it yourself in your annual report.  And though you are not obligated to put a spotlight on what you haven’t been able to accomplish, it is important that when you have a group of 5th graders and you lose 10% each year, you end up with nearly 40% of the original cohort leaving.  In a speech that Mike made which I saw on YouTube he said that this was a better attrition rate than the neighborhood schools.  I think this is misleading.  The neighborhood schools take the kids who leave the charters, though charters generally don’t get the kids who leave the neighborhood schools.  I’m going to write something very obvious here, yet something that is not often said:  Not every school is a good fit for every kid.  And this is true for KIPP also.  There are some kids who, for various reasons, aren’t able — or willing — to do what it takes to get through KIPP.  Now this isn’t something to be ashamed of, but it is a reality that the politicians and other ed ‘reformers’ who seem to love nothing more than shutting down schools to make space for more charters are not willing to admit.

I actually visited my first KIPP recently, a high school in NYC.  I did not see all the teachers, but from what I saw I’d say the school was ‘fine.’  I didn’t see much that was particularly innovative.  In one English class I saw kids on laptops practicing reading short passages and answering multiple choice questions.  I know you don’t micro-manage your schools to conform to a particular KIPP philosophy, and trust them to do what they think they need to do for their kids, but I still can’t get too excited about those kinds of activities.

Though I think KIPP stays out of the larger ‘ed reform’ debate, many KIPP supporters are very enthusiastic about the use of data to sort, rank, and, if necessary, punish schools and teachers.  I’m interested on what you think about the various different types of measurements and whether or not you think they are accurate enough to comprise a large percent of a school or teachers rating.

If you guys are willing to respond, here are three things to think about:

1)  What do you think about schools getting closed and teachers getting fired because they are not living up to the KIPP scores?

2)  What do you think about the accuracy of school report cards in various states?  There are some KIPPs that have gotten very low scores on these.  Does this mean that these schools are ‘bad’ or does it mean that the rating system is flawed?

3)  What do you think about the value-added metrics that have given your own superstar math teacher who has been with you since the beginning (omitting his name for privacy purposes) just a rating in the 40th percentile for 7th grade math and in the 67th percentile for 8th grade?  Is this not proof that the value-added ratings are very flawed?

You both know that I have a lot of respect for you as teachers and also for being some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met.  My attempts to put KIPP results into a more of a context is not an attempt to discredit you, and I hope you don’t see it that way.  I think that as far as charter networks go, KIPP is probably the most transparent of all.  Still, I think you can lead the way and be even more transparent about what sorts of things you have not been able to do yet.

I hope I’m not putting you in a position where you have to either ignore my open letter or say things that might upset some of your allies.  Figuring out what will best help schools is very difficult.  I don’t claim to have many answers myself, but open discussion is definitely better that discussion controlled by few.

Your early  90’s Houston TFA brother,


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6 Responses to Open Letters To Reformers I Know. Part 2: Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg

  1. Donna Mace says:

    I really hope you get a response. I teach in Jacksonville, FL. The KIPP school was rubbed in our faces by Gov. Scott, but then received an “F” grade its first year. But because they promised to improve their score, our school board approved their request to open a second school. It will be interesting to see what they think about grading schools and VAM scores.

  2. Steve M says:

    Well, Gary, how can you respect someone that you say “…was lying about a turnaround school that he led”?

    Do you justify respecting him because you think that he means well, but is simply delusional?

  3. Matt Cinelli says:

    Would it be possible to take successful practices from charters and implement them to public schools? Could charters be “incubators” for developing best practices that public schools could adopt, in a partnership??

    • Katy Z says:

      I believe that was the original intent of charter schools. But, it seems as though the focus on high stakes testing has produced an environment that is not conducive to schools working together.

  4. Rob R says:

    Well said. I am so glad I was sent the link to our letters. I plan to read on.

    Best practices are best practices wherever they are found. The biggest factor in the success of a school is still the students.

    Part of the reason for this is the degree, internship, and testing required of teachers. Most teaches who jump through these hoops are good teachers. A lot of the weaker ones leave the profession on their own.

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