Frank Convo with KIPP’s Mike Feinberg: Do you call BS?

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I had a coffee conversation with Mike Feinberg yesterday. About two weeks ago Mike Feinberg contacted me via email about one of my posts on Cloaking Inequity. He related that he wanted to clarify the conversation about KIPP’s funding. I agreed to meet with him at the Blanton Museum Café at UT-Austin for a coffee conversation.

Sidenote: I am not the traditional media, I am a tenured Associate Professor moonlighting as a blogger. This means that I semi-daily provide my subjective reflections of current education and public policy issues. For some reason, when I am out and about at conferences, community meetings, the Texas Legislature— people now identify me as “the blogger.”

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So who is Mike Feinberg? Wikipedia:

Mike Feinberg is the Co-Founder of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Foundation and the Superintendent of KIPP Houston, which includes 125 public charter schools in twenty states: seventy middle schools, thirty seven primary schools, and eighteen high schools. More than 87% of the KIPP students come from low-income families. To date, more than 90% of the KIPPsters graduated high school and more than 80% have gone to college. Feinberg graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and later joined Teach For America where he taught fifth grade for three years.

In 1994, he co-founded KIPP with Dave Levin and established KIPP Academy Houston a year later. In 2000, Mike Feinberg, Dave Levin, and Doris and Don Fisher co-founded the KIPP Foundation to help train school leaders to expand KIPP by opening more KIPP schools. Today, KIPP is a network of 125 high-performing public schools around the nation serving more than 41,000 students.

See CI’s full set of posts on KIPP here.

Some have been disappointed with recent interviews of Michelle Rhee in the news media. I didn’t want to toss out softball questions to Feinberg. I sought to ask informed and probing questions based on research, data, and the common critical discourse surrounding KIPP. I also asked my Twitter followers (@ProfessorJVH) to tweet questions to me for Feinberg. I will give Mike credit— he was a good sport and took on every question I asked. He rarely avoided a direct answer.

To be fair, I have done my best to render his answers accurately without excluding context. Noone wants to be “misquoted” as often happens often in the media (I will soon post a misquote from a media source that I support tracking). To make the conversation more interesting, I have provided a subjective reflection to most answers. I have also concluded the interview with a BS poll. The poll is a measure to represent reader beliefs about the level of BS in Feinburg’s answers— he said he has “thick skin”. :)

Without further ado, my coffee conversation with Mike Feinburg:

Do you prefer Downton Abbey or Shades of Gray?

I love both!

Reflection: Okay, I didn’t really ask this question.

How do you keep what I call the efficiency reformers happy (those that are mainly focused on spending less and getting more) relative to social justice reformers (those who care less about spending and more about equity)?

The worst place to be in a fight is in the middle. In all these debates people go to the poles. It has to be about balance. Are we spending enough today in public education? I would argue no. Is money by itself going to fix this? Should we just throw money at the problem? It is not all an efficiency thing. You can’t keep squeezing schools to get great results. Everything needs to be in balance.

Reflection: See my thoughts on “reformers” here. I can imagine the challenge that KIPP has rustling efficiency reformers. They have to make the argument to them that they are getting more “results” for less. More on KIPP’s funding stream later in the interview.

What question do people ask you most about the film Waiting for Superman?

What happened to Daisy? Please don’t let her be the one that doesn’t get in to make everyone cry. [She was one of the students who did not get into KIPP via the lottery in the film] Can we engage the family to figure out what we can do to help? She got into another highly regard charter school for middle. KIPP follows up with Daisy on a semi-annual basis.

Reflection: Did the fact that Daisy didn’t get into KIPP besmirch them? To the contrary, Waiting for Superman was trying to use tears to make the case that we need hundreds more KIPPs/charters because she didn’t get in.

So a UT-Austin faculty colleague and buddy of mine was a TFA teacher in Houston in the 1990s. He tells a tale of you carrying a TV out of a house. Is that a true story?

Yes. Abbey, one of the original KIPPsters, lived on the 3rd floor of an apartment in Guflton [South Houston]. I went to do a home visit. Mom said she agreed TV was a problem. Abbey was addicted to TV, like Mike from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She would even watch snow on the screen. How about we create a system where we take away TV for a week. A trade system of doing homework in exchange for work. Abbey came to school the next day without homework. I went to her house and Abbey was watching TV.

I know what you are going to do, you are going to give me the TV. If you can’t prevent her from watching it, let’s get rid of the TV. Its either that or she won’t be in KIPP. Abbey let out a loud wail and stumbled down the stairs. Was it mean or brilliant? I put the TV in the classroom for the next three weeks and she put her homework on top of the TV at KIPP. Three weeks later all homework done, and I took the TV back. Abbey went on to a boarding school and then Texas A&M.

Reflection: Um, Feinberg don’t play. You want to go to my school, I am walking out the door with your tube TV. I bet it was heavy.

Can the state figure out who the KIPP kids are in the data from the new hallways approach in Spring Branch Texas?

No. Intentionally the state can’t tell in their data who the KIPP students are. There is a wing of the building that is KIPP. In an overly simplistic way, we are just another strategy to improve achievement in the building. We are more than just Read 180, it is a larger choice program in the building. If you walk left you are at Landrum, if you walk right you are in KIPP. [What makes the wing different?] KIPP student come 7:30 to 5. Come in the summer. They can do all the extra-curricular. KIPP is a vendor, and there is a $6,000 per pupil cost charged to the district. In the KIPP wing, they run the school day, and hire the teachers. KIPP does not pay for facilities, transportation, or food. We also don’t pay for Special Education diagnostic work or extra-curricular.

Reflection: Could KIPP get a sweeter “vendor” deal from Spring Branch? You pay us $6,000 to hire teachers, extended the school day, and the district does everything else? Wow.

Diane Ravitch once asked KIPP to take over an entire district. Do you want that to happen anytime soon?

We’re not crazy enough. We’re too smart. We differentiate between what we do for schools. We don’t turn around schools. We make good schools.

Reflection: ***This only applies under the KIPP name, he has a spinoff 501c3 called Philo that will handle this for KIPP. More later in the interview.

What about the critics that say KIPP does not serve Special Education students? Do you turn Special Education students away from KIPP?

[From the early days of KIPP] we now have a different situation with Special Education. Since starting with Pre-K, we had a whole bunch more Special Education kids. Two months later, we know why you child is running into walls, they are blind. At the middle school level we now have full spectrum autisms. Parents are looking for a specialized schools later in life so we didn’t used to see as many Special Education students.

When we had two middle schools, one parent whose child was blind who looked into whether KIPP would be a good spot. We were honest and said and certainly try to sign up and come. We don’t have any staff or any other blind students. The parent looked at Houston ISD and chose to go there. [After a pause, he said this last happened in 2001].

Reflection: For context, after my conversation about KIPP data and disagreement with Jonathan Alter on Melissa Harris-Perry, I received a letter from someone in Houston on KIPP and Special Education. See Another “Dirty Little Secret”?: KIPP, Charters, and Special Education

What about non-corporate community-based charters and Special Education students? 

It is very hard for a mom and pop charter with 300 kids to do that. It is fair to ask KIPP Houston to do all this. We don’t have a choice. Its open enrollment.

Reflection: Amy Williams, one of my doctoral students, has nearly completed her dissertation. It focuses on Special Education spending in charters of different types (Corporate, Community-Based and Intergovernmental). We will post a series on the findings about Special Education students and funding from this dissertation once she graduates.

Can you tell me about your proposed KIPP, IDEA and Harmony partnership in North Forest ISD?

KIPP is not going to do turnaround. Its not the same thing that we are really good at. Not clear we would be good at it.

We set up a c3 called Philo. It is a firewall between the charter and the private sector. Philo will try education innovations that go well beyond KIPP.

Philo will do turnaround work— using the principles and pillars of KIPP and training in change management. These are skills and training that KIPP does not do today.

We can turnaround all schools in North Forest with Philo. However, I am not going to overpromise because I want to deliver.

Reflection: The idea of a charter consortium taking over North Forest, an entire district, has been very prominent in Texas media and Legislature. Mike Feinberg’s smartly setup a 501c3 to do school turnaround and firewall the KIPP name. Philo would be an umbrella management organization that would partner with KIPP and Yes and other charters. Why is this approach necessary to protect the KIPP name? School turnaround is difficult work in Texas (and elsewhere). In fact, how many turnaround schools have you seen on TV? Exactly my point. We have a peer-reviewed study of the failed school turnaround efforts in Texas that will be released soon by the Urban Education journal. See CI’s posts on turnaround here.

Are the higher attrition rates from charters that you see in the Texas data and just a representation of market approach of charters— that is that students vote with their feet? For example, the recent article in the Washington Post about the Basis charters in DC? Is attrition that is a standard deviation or two more than local traditional districts ok?

It is not okay for charters to have high attrition. No one can be a worse critic than ourselves. Colleen [his wife] is the #2 critic of KIPP.

Promises to kids are sacred. I don’t give a flying fat rat if 100% of students are going to college if a huge chunk of kids leave. Otherwise we are fake phony and fraud. However, attrition can’t be answered just by the numbers.

Reflection: I have discussed KIPP’s (and charter) attrition extensively in Is choice a panacea? An analysis of black secondary student attrition from KIPP, other private charters and urban districts and Exiting: A sample of charter chains vs public district’s student attrition

Do you see KIPP raising more or less than the $400 million that they raised from private sources over the past ten years in the next ten years?

We fundraise an addition ten percent. Houston ISD principals get $3400 and KIPP get $6,000. I worry allot of philanthropy for charters. I don’t think that philanthropy is sustainable. We have been able to fund that 10% gap above and beyond.

Reflection: KIPP rolls in the dough. See The Teat: Be a little more honest KIPP Charter Schools

Edit 4.25.13 Feinburg commented via email:

HISD vs KIPP funding – we were talking about the allocations given to the schools to budget but they way its written here makes it look like that’s the revenue, not the expense side. We allocate more to schools even thoguh we start with less overall govt funding and slightly less even when we add in philanthropy for operating costs. Big chunk of the dollars we’ve raised goes to facilities, which is fine for apples to apples as long as you compare to the ISD bonds

How do you see the government funding of KIPP increasing?

I don’t see federal funding increasing. For all public education is going south. It was great to get $50 million from I3.

Reflection: See Top Ten List: Why “choice” demonstrates that money matters

What if a parent says they won’t sign the KIPP contract? Who typically says no?

Noone says no. You have to sign the enrollment form to be that in a KIPP school.

Reflection: You play by our rules, or you don’t play.

What are your thoughts about the state data that shows that on average KIPP intakes students with higher test scores? Backfills with higher test scores? Is it just by chance?

We don’t do that. There is very little attrition. Take a look at the Mathematica study.

Reflection: We discussed the Mathematica findings in our peer-reviewed publication in the Berkeley Review of Education here.

Has Mathematica ever given you a study you didn’t like?

It was insanely expensive. Funders paid for it. There were parts of the studies I didn’t like.

Reflection: I guess not.

Is there anything about Relay Graduate School of Education that you think they could do better?

Not plugged in to Relay. I am excited they are coming to Houston to set up shop.

Reflection: He is clearly a fan of Relay. He did mention a variety of aspects of the program he liked. I honestly don’t know much about Relay. This was a reader submitted question.

What’s the Kids in Prison Program moniker all about?

In the Bronx in the 1990s, KIPP was on the third floor. They then would move a block away. The neighborhood kids would make fun of the students in KIPP schools because they were there for so many hours.

Reflection: This question was tweeted to me from New York. If there was a question that I felt he was annoyed by, this was probably it.

What do you think about the infamous CREDO national charter study that showed that only 15% of charters are better than traditional school in their neighborhood?

Charter schools are all different. You can’t paint charters with a brush stroke. Some are going a great job and should reach more kids. Some should be shut down.

Reflection: I also discussed the CREDO study on MHP: MSNBC Education Nation 2012 Part II: Demanding accountability from charters

Should a CEO of a charter management organization make $400,000? The same as the president of the US?

No, but we have people that are doing a great job, we want to make sure they are getting paid well. We look at data across the state to make that decision.

Reflection: Take note IDEA charter management board.

Should charters be able to buy unused schools building for $1 and be able to sell them later for a profit?

Selling them is ridiculous. However, the fact is that the buildings don’t belong to the district. It’s the public money.

Reflection: So KIPP won’t sell the buildings, but they really want them.

Would KIPP come in from a parent trigger?

KIPP does not do turnaround. We would go in and start a brand new school. Because we want people to choose the school.

Reflection: So KIPP will come if the students and parents signup for the KIPP model. Philo is the management organization who it appears Feinberg would wants you to turn to in a parent trigger situation. BTW. His wife Colleen is a proponent of Texas HB300, which is a parent trigger bill.

Who would you hire first: A University of Texas at Austin UTeach teacher or a TFA corp member from the University of Texas at Austin?

In February, they are both at the bottom of the pile [because they are new teachers]. Now its May, both would get interview, we would determine who to hire based on their classroom teaching session. Lower quality education schools, such as TSU, are harder to employ.

Reflection: He didn’t want to say who he would hire. He hedged this answer in my opinion.

What about TFAers who only teach two years, go off to grad school, and then want to be educational policy advocates?

We make fun of you when you leave the room. You only did two years then went to Harvard for two years.

Reflection: Ouch. You rock on this one Feinberg.

Should TFA teachers stay in the classroom beyond two years?

To go from rookie suck will serve you well regardless of your future profession.

Reflection: Teach For American attrition approaches 80% in years 3-4. See Teach For America: A review of the evidence (The research that TFA loves to hate…)

In his concluding comments. He stated that SB 2 should pass the Texas Legislature because “charters are a mess.”

Edit 4.25.13 Feinberg commented via email

SB 2 – charters are a mess didn’t remember saying that – as we discussed one can’t paint one brush stroke across the whole group of charters

He also relayed that, “There is nothing inherent by a charter that makes it great.”

So you have made it this far. Rate Mike Feinberg’s answers in our frank conversation below on the BS meter.

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Categories: Charter Schools, KIPP, Parent Trigger, School Finance, School Turnaround, Teach For America

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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7 Comments on “Frank Convo with KIPP’s Mike Feinberg: Do you call BS?”

  1. Kimberly Reeves
    April 25, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    From the perspective of someone who thinks public schools ought to do their job… To rely on KIPP to rescue a public school system is lazy. Charters are an alternative to public schools, not a replacement for public schools. Hal Guthrie and Gary Mathews led Spring Branch to be a leader in accountability….. It appears these days SBISD just waits for someone to rescue them. Sad.

    My mom used to tell people she retired from Spring Branch. Now she doesn’t bother saying anything other than, “I’m retired from teaching….”

    • April 25, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

      Kimberly, I think we have to dig deeper before we assume the public school system is lazy. After looking at Census data, Spring Branch ISD is a great example of the haves-and-have-nots. For instance, Bunker Hill Elementary and Spring Branch Elementary, which are about 3 miles away from one another, show stark differences in income. The percentage of families whose income was below the poverty level is as follows: 2.3% in the Bunker Hill Elementary neighborhood, to 34.7% in the Spring Branch Elementary area. Even more disheartening are the comparison percentages for families with female householder with children under 18 whose income was below the poverty level: 0% in Bunker Hill Elementary area to 61.3% in Spring Branch Elementary area. Studies have shown the negative affect that poverty has on student achievement (such as Analyzing Poverty, Learning, and Teaching Through a Critical Race Theory by H.R. Milner). KIPP and other charter schools that handpick students, further divide the school communities that have already been affected and divided by systemic poverty. So, I don’t think the public school system is lazy, rather the systems in place have disabled it.

  2. Teresa
    April 25, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    Sorry I missed this! I would have liked to ask him if they offer any fine arts at KIPP, and if they don’t, why not.

  3. Chiara
    April 26, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    As a parent of a public school student and a citizen, I’m really bothered by the careful legalistic parsing of these “firewalls” between the various charter entities.

    I think these contracts are written by sophisticated parties backed by big bucks philanthropists and I really shudder at the thought of our under-funded, rural district having to hire a team of outside counsel to evaluate the contracts.

    There seems to be a basic misunderstanding in reform circles on the make-up of elected school boards. Members are ordinary people. They’re retired, or they ran small businesses, or they are engineers. Our single legal hire is the county prosecutor who is paid a small stipend to do the contract work that the district requires. Is he negotiating with a national charter or one of the “firewalled” spin-offs?

    If KIPP comes in here, I want a lawyer who is as experienced on these contract issues as the KIPP lawyer. I’m not going to get one, am I? If I do get one, does the money come out of our already depleted educationl budget?

    Thanks but no thanks. I think I’ll keep the 22 minutes of art, music or gym we have managed to hang onto.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Frank Convo with KIPP’s Mike Feinberg: Do you call BS? ← NPE News Briefs - April 26, 2013

    [...] Click here to read the article. [...]

  2. Charter Operator Stunned at 2013 National Charter Schools Conference | Cloaking Inequity - July 2, 2013

    […] frank message to be sure. My mind keeps going back to something that KIPP’s Mike Feinburg said about inexperienced TFA alums thrusting themselves into education policy and reform. I asked: What […]

  3. Naughty List?: Thoughts on Texas Legislature, KIPP, Carstarphen, and College | Cloaking Inequity - December 5, 2013

    […] There is no doubt that KIPP is a darling of the school reform movement as they have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over the years (See The Teat: Be a little more honest KIPP Charter Schools) What has bugged me is their attrition, especially for African Americans. Their discipline policies have also caught the ire of Cloaking Inequity (See Punitive and Unsympathetic: Mathews is SOOOO Wrong on KIPP) I discussed many of these issues in a sit down with Mike Feinberg (See Frank Convo with KIPP’s Mike Feinberg: Do you call BS?) […]

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