On Wednesday the Texas Chapter of Students for Education Reform will co-host Mike Feinberg, a founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools, with the recruiters for the KIPP Houston system. The Daily Texan took the time to talk with Feinberg about the path to becoming a teacher, school vouchers and the character flaws he harbored in middle school.
The Daily Texan: Many UT students are interested in education reform but not necessarily interested in teaching. Do you believe teaching in the classroom gave you a significantly different perspective on the education reform movement, and if so, how?
Mike Feinberg: There are a whole host of needs in education reform. The biggest need is more great teachers, but there are certainly other needs as well. The education reformers outside of the classroom who have been the most successful at their various efforts have been those who were former classroom teachers and who have the perspective and empathy for how their work links to a positive impact on teaching and learning.
DT: In 2011, the Walton Family Foundation donated $25.5 million to the KIPP foundation. Critics have suggested that KIPP’s reliance on private donors could lead to conflicts of interest. How do you balance KIPP’s reliance on private donors with its position as a public school?
Feinberg: The Walton Family Foundation grant was given over a period of five years, and is designed to support recruitment and training of school principals. KIPP schools have their own funding sources, which are a mix of public and philanthropic sources. KIPP has to fundraise, because we receive less per-pupil funding than traditional district schools do. In Texas, charter schools also get no money or support for funding school buildings, while district schools do. Even with the extra fundraising that makes up that difference, KIPP Houston Public Schools still spends about the same per pupil as the Houston Independent School District. And as long as KIPP remains a mission-driven organization focused on helping more underserved children go to and through college, conflicts of interest are a nonissue for us.
DT: In Texas, school vouchers are expected to be the hottest topic in the upcoming legislative session. What is your position on voucher programs and how they should or should not be administered? If implemented in Texas, how would vouchers affect the Texas KIPP systems?
Feinberg: As a network of public charter schools, KIPP doesn’t have an official position on providing parents vouchers for private schools. As far as my own personal beliefs, I will say that it’s crucial to give low-income parents more high-quality choices for where to send their kids to school. At KIPP Houston, there are 8,000 kids on our waitlist. Many of those parents also tried to get their children into public magnet schools and were rejected. Unlike middle- and upper-income parents, low-income parents can’t afford to pay for private school or move to more pricey neighborhoods where the schools are better. It is a moral imperative that we give more parents high-quality educational options for their children.
DT: KIPP has started to institute “Character GPAs” that attempt to put a number to student’s character achievements in categories like ‘grit’ and ‘love of learning.’ If you had a character GPA when you were in middle school, what would it have been and why? Why prompted KIPP to start using character GPAs?
Feinberg: At KIPP, we have always focused on character as much as academics. My KIPP co-founder, Dave Levin, has recently taken this focus even farther. He has worked with researchers to help the KIPP schools in New York City develop the KIPP Character Growth Card that assesses seven key character strengths: grit, zest, optimism, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude and curiosity. We believe that you are not born with a fixed set of these strengths, but can develop them over time. The goal of the KIPP Character Growth Card is to give students, teachers and parents a way to talk about these character strengths.
I think my strongest character strength in school was grit. I didn’t always have an easy time in school, and it took a lot of grit for me to make it all the way through college. Now I’m thrilled to see our students developing that same skill because it means they’ll be well prepared for the road ahead. On the other hand, I wasn’t very good with self-control, and it’s something I still need to work on to this day.