The other day I read Rick Hess’ interview with KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg and inched closer to figuring out what bothers me about the TFA-pipeline-turned- “real reformer” crowd (as distinguished from the rest of us who have been working diligently for 30 or so years to ensure rich educations for all young people in this democratic society of ours).
I really do like the TFA educational entrepreneurs I know. I respect their intelligence, energy, entrepreneurship and commitment. I appreciate the way they grab hold of openings (like charter school laws) and turn those openings into educational edifices (institutional as well as bricks and mortar). They are opportunistic in apparently constructive ways, turning public money into personal accomplishments. I’m just not always sure that their commitment is educational. I think what is bothering me is that their commitment seems to be more about those personal accomplishments than about developing students’ greater selves. Kids who graduate and go on to four-year colleges feel like notches in someone’s belt. School founder/leaders who are barely out of college appoint themselves “CEO” of whatever they create. I realize that I am growing old and crotchety but is a 27 year old CEO a good thing? Isn’t it at least a little immodest?
I used to think that what bothered me was that these folks didn’t know what they didn’t know. But now I wonder if they just don’t care what effects their “success” will have on those left in “the system.” And they don’t want to take responsibility for educating all students, just those who buy in to their program.
The Hess interview came on the heels of Feinberg’s announcement that his role in KIPP Houston would change. As KIPP continues to go “Turbo” (with a goal to enroll 10 percent of all the students in Houston), Feinberg will shift from operations to fundraising, advocacy and external relations. His new role smacks a bit of “empire-building” though Feinberg describes it differently.
Using FedEx and the USPS as an analogy, Feinberg argues that once KIPP claims a 10% market share, the schools in Houston will reach a tipping point and have to become more like KIPP. His theory is that folks in Houston will become more vocal and demand better schools as they get left out of the KIPP lottery. And that once the public demands better, the public schools will find a way to improve graduation rates, etc. (The implication of course, is that they could do better now; they just don’t because ….?)
Feinberg notes that KIPP schools in Houston turn down 80 % of those who want to come. He seems to think that this is indicative of near universal dissatisfaction with the public schools but his numbers don’t match up. He says that “winning the lottery to come to KIPP is literally winning the lottery.” The undermeaning seems to be one’s life chances are severely diminished if one doesn’t get KIPPed.
I don’t dispute Feinberg’s figures, but I do wonder if those figures say what he thinks they do. If things are so bad and KIPP is so good, why don’t the other 170,000+ parents in Houston want their kids in KIPP schools? I can think of two reasons: 1) parents are generally happy with their child’s education, or 2) KIPP has already tapped the activist get-the-edge-for-my-kid parent population and will stop before they encounter the reality that public school educators know only too well – that too many parents are too busy or too scared or too unprepared to take an active, constructive role in their child’s education.
Of course, Feinberg’s job shift reveals something very important about these publicly funded private schools. They rely not only on state charter subsidies but also governmental grants (“advocacy”) and private donations (“fundraising” and “external relations”) from folks who support the breakdown of the public school system. In an age of decreased governmental spending, Feinberg’s new job is to take a larger piece of the pie away from public schools.
[This is one not so secret secret of Teach for America’s success as well (besides skimming off the cream from the top of the academic jug). Funding from private sources and federal grants has enabled TFA to offer candidates intensive coaching, something that all teachers need but most graduates of traditional programs don’t get.]
So we are left to follow KIPP’s progress toward 10% enrollment and Feinberg’s progress toward his vision of educational success. I wish him well in finding the “right people” to lead and staff his schools. I agree with him that the key to strong schools is inspired leadership and inspirational teachers. But after 30 years in the business, I know how hard it is to find and identify those people. And I am not yet ready to cede the fate of the Houston public schools to his empire. I wish him well as he pursues his career path, but I see no reason to shift public money away from the other 90% of school students to make his dream for himself come true.