What are the most effective measures we can take to improve the quality of K-12 public education in an era of declining government support and changing demographics?

David Levin

David Levin

- Co-founder, Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)
- Superintendent, KIPP Academy New York

David Levin came to Elon's convocation wearing a shirt bearing the words “Work hard, be nice,” the motto of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a network of schools he co-founded in 1994. The 99 KIPP charter schools serve 28,000 students in 20 states. With an emphasis on character and academics, the schools are making an impact in low-income areas where other public schools are failing.

“It’s life-changing, it’s fantastic. KIPP can only be experienced with a visit to a classroom,” said Williams, noting the music, rhythms and spirit that are the hallmarks of this innovative approach to teaching.

“Once kids like coming to school, anything is possible,” Levin said. “Demographics should not determine destiny. Our attendance is about 98 percent and our kids go to school from 7:25 a.m. until 5 p.m. They go home with a couple of hours of homework. They go to school on Saturday and they come for a month during the summer.”

Levin said KIPP schools have doubled the high school graduation rate, tripled the college matriculation rate and quadrupled the college graduation rate for its students. He said American public schools are falling behind those in other countries because “we let it get that way.

“As a society, we are not taking our promises to our children as sacred,” Levin said. “The big thing to change about education is our national view about what it means to be a teacher. You see organizations like Teach for America significantly making a dent in people’s career choices. That’s why I’m optimistic. You’re starting to see a trend, it’s no longer ‘you’re just a teacher.’”

More from David Levin

How do KIPP schools differ from traditional public schools?

There are 99 KIPP schools in 20 states serving about 28,000 kids. There are five things common to all KIPP schools:

  • high expectations for academics and character
  • more time, so we have an extended school day, an extended school week and an extended school year
  • it’s a choice and commitment on the part of all or our students, parents and teachers to be there
  • the power to lead for our principals and our regional leaders, and
  • a focus on results.

Because of these principles, what we call the “Five Pillars,” we’ve doubled the high school graduation rate in our neighborhoods. We’ve tripled the college matriculation rate and we’ve quadrupled the college graduation rate.

How do you recruit the best teachers for KIPP schools?

We have two KIPP schools here in North Carolina, one in Charlotte and one in Gaston. We are always looking for great folks. This is how we recruit. If there is anyone watching who is an outstanding teacher, we’re always looking. What makes teachers? Good salaries matter, but also working as part of a team matters and getting support from your principal matters. KIPP schools work because we have outstanding principals and outstanding teachers working as a team. That's what really makes a great school work. That’s how you attract people and, more important, that’s how you keep people. If you think about why teachers leave the profession, very often it’s a lack of support and secondly there’s an uncertainty about what the future holds. You could have a great year and then the next year your work may or may not be continued. At KIPP you know your work will be continued, K through 12th grade and then through college.

Why are American children lagging behind their international counterparts in tests of science, mathematics and reading?

It comes down to expectations and accountability. We’re simply not expecting enough of our public schools. The rigor of what is expected is too low and the accountability of delivering those results is too low. Therefore, as kids fall behind there’s no accountability for them to catch up and it just gets worse over time. So you see, our fourth graders are half as far behind as our eighth graders – that gap doubles and then it continues to over time. I think it’s a combination of those two things, expectations and accountability.

Are you seeing some of the best practices from KIPP translated into traditional school systems?

Absolutely. On a basic level, kids are going to school longer. I think that’s due in large part to focusing on the success of schools like KIPP. Secondly, you’re starting to see districts try to use their data more systematically. First of all, they’re making it public, which is a great thing. Second of all, they’re using it not just to evaluate folks but more so to drive improvement. They’re asking, “what can we learn from what we’re doing?”

Those things have been sort of central to KIPP’s success from the very beginning. The other thing is that our kids go to school from 7:25 a.m. to 5 p.m. They go to school on Saturdays. They go during the summer. In order to make school fun with all of these hours, you have to do all of the co-curriculars, the sports, the music and all these things. Unfortunately schools are cutting those out and we’ve brought all of those back. You’re starting to see school districts wrestle with that, because once you cut all of that, you sometimes take away the things that make school fun.

How are families connected to KIPP schools?

Great question. All of our kids come to us through a blind lottery. So without any regard to their prior academics or behavior, their names literally get picked out of a box. Then following enrollment, we do a home visit with every family. We meet them in their homes. We have a commitment to excellence form and it outlines the expectations that we have for ourselves as teachers, it outlines our expectations for parents and outlines our expectations for kids. We give every parent and every student our cell phone numbers and we’re called all the time by people. It’s basically this natural relationship. We talk about team and family – it’s that relationship of team and family that really makes KIPP work.

How is a KIPP classroom going to be shaped by technology in coming years?

Technology over the next 5-10 years is going to fundamentally transform what classrooms look like, both at KIPP and elsewhere, in three main areas. One is this idea of what teachers are able to deliver. How teachers deliver instruction will be fundamentally changed - what you can produce on video, what you can have on an iPad in front of kids. The type of multi-media stuff you can bring in to do a science lesson will fundamentally change. Second, the idea of independent practice. No longer will kids all have to do the same activities at the same time in the same way. They’ll be able to work much more independently on a much more adaptive way, based on their own individual needs. What kids learn will change, how they practice it will change and then how teachers use data will fundamentally change because data will be much more real time. You’ll be able to get it pretty close to instantly. You’ll know where your kids need help and ideally you’ll have a menu of activities and resources that will allow you to adjust what you do. Those three things are going to happen at KIPP over the next stretch and will happen everywhere.

Are you optimistic about the America your children are going to inherit from us?

I’m incredibly optimistic. There’s plenty of reasons to be concerned, but I’m optimistic because we’ve always solved our problems. This is a huge problem, but I think what you’re starting to see is that more and more young people are committed to becoming teachers. You’re starting to see more and more young people get committed to these public causes. That’s what gives me hope for how this will be solved for my sons. That’s why I’m here at Elon. We can talk to college kids and say, “look, the solutions are for you to build - to bring to the next generation.” College kids are eager for the challenge.

David Levin is co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools that serves 27,000 mostly low-income minority children in 20 states and Washington, D.C. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in history in 1992, Levin joined Teach For America and taught elementary school for three years in Houston, Texas. In 1994 he co-founded KIPP with Mike Feinberg. The following year he founded KIPP Academy New York, where he currently serves as superintendent. Levin received the Robin Hood Foundation's John F. Kennedy Jr. Hero Award in Education in 1999 and was appointed to the New York State Commission for Education Reform in 2003. Along with Mike Feinberg, Levin was awarded the Thomas B. Fordham Prize for Excellence in Education and the National Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen in 2006.

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  • I have taught in public schools, been a volunteer tutor in public and private and now I teach at a private pre-school, so I am always interested in anything dealing with education. David's concept, in my opinion, is absolutely on the mark. Children need to know that someone cares about them and is invested in their future. Too often, money is just "thrown" at a problem, not looking at the emotional and psychological factors that need to be addressed before learning can begin. He seems to get it. The children that his schools serve more than likely come from backgrounds where education and teachers, for that matter, are not always held in high regard. If he can change their direction and ultimately give them a brighter future, then he will have done what many have tried, but few have done. Good Luck!!

  • I really enjoy hearing about an idea that has the best interest of the future of young students in mind. Being a North Carolina Resident, and completing Elementary, Middle, and High School in the Wake County Public School system I must say that the problem, from my standing, is not the expectations and accountability. I attended Wake Forest Rolesville, a school of distinction, taking alot of pride in the practice of instilling diligent, honest, hard working students. Students go to school for an incredibly large portion of the day already, having all sorts of academic enhancement and information available at their fingertips. Technology, yes, is a great way to inform students. It makes learning incredibly efficient and if incorporated properly can really help a course. I recommend a particular Professor as an example here at Elon, who incorporates Skype lessons with faculty at varying institutions and has superb efficiency using blackboard, streamlining information to students. However, the real problem lies at the roots. Parents instilling the values of respect. Not only in the classroom, but the respect of the power of learning. Children who are from a high risk or unfortunate family tend to not exactly have a focus on accomplishing the impossible in the classroom. I guess this is really enough of my soapbox, but I really feel it is a great idea and I wish I could have been appeciated with such a great tool for learning, but Parents are the cohort who should really be examined in the process. Once the problem of honoring the process of learning, the same way in which we idolize other spectacle venues in the United States, then we will be able to accomplish unfathomable goals in comparison to any country. <br/><br/>Thank you,<br/><br/>Evan Rey