Three Things That Help Schools Around the World to Thrive

As a parent, my deepest wish is that my children will have it better than I had. In the US, we call this the American Dream. But, as I’ve learned, there’s nothing uniquely American about it.

Over the past several years, I’ve been talking to parents in India, Mexico, South Africa, Chile and Israel – and I’ve learned two important things. One, all of these parents have the same hopes and dreams for their children that we in the US do. And two, these parents believe, correctly, that education will help their kids get where they want them to be.

Now more than ever, a quality education – especially a college degree – can help determine a child’s lot in life. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), people with bachelor’s degrees can expect to earn 50% more than those with high-school diplomas. And while a college degree might not be right for all children, the skills that can get you into college certainly are.

Wanting to give underserved students the sort of education that leads to better opportunities in life, Dave Levin and I founded the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP) 20 years ago. We started in Houston, with a single class of fifth-graders, but the programme has since grown into a national network of 141 public schools serving more than 50,000 kids. Our alumni are graduating from college at four to five times the rate of their socio-economic peers. Recently Aaron Brenner and I founded The One World Network of Schools, to support educators around the world who are starting KIPP-inspired schools.

Our challenge is to figure out what sort of educational system will help students everywhere get into college. No one has cracked this nut yet. But through my work I’ve seen how we might be able to.

Take the 3-2-1 School in Mumbai’s Crawford Fish Market slums, for example. It’s a One World Network School founded by Gaurav Singh, an alumnus of Teach for India. Gaurav is passionate and dedicated, with a clear vision of where he wants his students to go. The school is bursting with great teachers who offer rigorous research-based instruction and create a culture of high expectations, with a strong focus on student independence and joy. As a result, the school is in great demand. Despite enrolling more than four times the number of students of other primary schools in the area, it still has students on its waiting list.

When I look at successful institutions like the 3-2-1 School, I see they have three factors in common. First, there is generous investment in talented teachers. Great teaching is the single most influential factor in a child’s education, and the best school programmes recognize that. They go out and win the marketing war to get the best teaching candidates into their classrooms, and then they develop the teachers’ skills and keep them in the classroom for the long term.

Secondly, the best school systems have a framework of bottom-up change. By this I mean letting solutions bubble up from within the educational community, instead of having one-size-fits-all policies imposed from above. This might mean nurturing charter schools or public-private partnerships, as in the case of Mumbai’s 3-2-1 School, and giving all public schools – traditional and charter – the freedom to innovate.

Finally, rather than treating college as separate from primary and secondary education, successful systems see them as different stops on the same journey. At the 3-2-1 School, students know from the day they walk through the door that they will be attending university, and their entire educational experience is structured to help them get there.

These three things are clear and proven to have an impact in communities around the world. They aren’t the whole solution, of course, but can help bring us closer to the day when all children, everywhere, will succeed in school and in life. :)

This is part of a series for the launch of the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 Awardees.

Post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum’s blog, March 26 2014.

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Setting the Record Straight

At KIPP, we believe in having a free and open debate about public charter schools. But when the facts are misrepresented, it’s important to set the record straight.

This week, the San Antonio Express-News ran an op-ed by UT Austin professor Julian Vasquez Heilig, which included some misleading claims about KIPP charter schools. These claims are entirely based on an outdated and discredited report. As one of the co-founders of KIPP, and a 22-year veteran of public education in Texas, I want to clarify the facts.

First, the attrition data Dr. Heilig cites is inaccurate and heavily biased. According to the New York Times, the Western Michigan University researchers “use[d] questionable data sources and analytic techniques to push a position that is antagonistic to KIPP.” A 2013 report by Mathematica Policy Research found that KIPP’s overall student attrition is not higher or lower than that of neighboring district schools, and that KIPP’s results could not be explained by attrition. In fact, Mathematica found that KIPP middle school students made significant learning gains in all grades and subjects, even when factors like attrition and parental motivation were taken into account.

Second, the claim that KIPP spends $5,600 more per student is simply untrue. The WMU researchers arrived at this number by cherry-picking financial data from only a handful of KIPP schools. They also didn’t account for the money KIPP spends on securing and renovating school buildings, since—like all charter schools—KIPP schools receive little or no public funding for facilities. When fully grown, KIPP schools have about the same per-pupil spending as neighboring district schools.

For more information on the WMU report, you can read KIPP’s full statement here. For more on the 2013 Mathematica report—the largest and most rigorous report on KIPP to date—click here.

Plow on,

Mike Feinberg :)

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Message From Vanessa Ramirez

I just received an amazing newsletter from KIPP Alumni Association Director and my former 5th grade student nearly 20 years ago, Vanessa Ramirez.  As you can read for yourselves, Vanessa kept it very real – and inspiring.  Thank you, Vanessa, for taking the road less travelled and now helping others on their journey, too!

Man, I’ve thought a lot about what to write as there was a lot of inspiration this month; but, ultimately, everything led to labels, labels, and labels. I’m currently STUCK on the 9 seasons of One Tree Hill… don’t ask me why, but that show makes me feel damn good about my ultra-simple life. During one of their Season 4 shows, a KIPP-like English teacher brings up the topic of labels and why we often rely on them to tell us more about the people they represent. He wrote your typical high school list of labels on the board: “Jock”, “Homecoming Queen”, “Geek”, “Nice”, “Very Nice”, and I know I’m missing one more. Anyway, these kids are all paired with someone representing a life polar-opposite of his/her life. They then spend 50 minutes discussing the intricacies of their high school life and label, the fear of the unknown awaiting them after that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk across their high school stage, and breaking down misconceptions. For an introvert like myself, those kinds of shows, actually any of the decently-written ones, always make me reflect. And that brings me to stories about a sex worker, Home Depot, and Vanessa.

Let’s start with Lauren, a sex worker I met two weeks ago. I don’t know how much you have been following human trafficking news, but the U.S. Justice Department ranked Houston “as one of the top destination cities for human trafficking”. I, of course, follow anything impacting women, but, most importantly, children. One of my favorite organizations, Children At Risk, is doing amazing work around this issue and recently published an article stating that “on average, both Houston and Dallas have about 6,000 runaways each annually. According to National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children, an estimated one out of every three children that run away is lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home. Even more frightening is the fact that the average age of entry into sex trafficking is between 12 and 13 years old”. SOOO, Vanessa being, well, Vanessa, was nosy and attended awareness sessions, but NOTHING could have prepared me for my 4-hour conversation with Lauren. My other jobs pull me into several different conversations with people from all walks of life and that’s exactly how I met Lauren. I was reading something in the CPS waiting room and I heard someone say “hella”. That’s a Bay area thing, so I looked up, made eye contact with Lauren and asked her where she was from. She said “Oregon”, I said “cool”, and then went back to my article. About 3.75 minutes later, I heard a “why?” I have a tendency to get lost in my reading, so I looked up a bit startled, and realized she was talking to me. “Oh, I lived in the bay for a while and “hella” is a bay thing… thought maybe you were from there”. “Oh, baby, that was my second home”. Now, I definitely must have looked confused because Lauren looked like she was no older than 16 or 17 years old, but look who’s talking… Anyway, Lauren then proceeds to sit right next to me and asked if they were taking my baby away from me. I don’t know what got into me, but I probably stared at her for one solidly-awkward minute, got teary-eyed, shook my head and explained what I was doing there. She was hooked. She asked about my other jobs, asked about me and my life and offered to do anything she could to support me and my vision; but then she said “actually, I better not. I’m only going to be here for one more week and then I’m gone”. Lately, I’ve been too direct, so I flat out asked “what about your baby?” She looked confused and asked “what baby?” Hmmmmmm… And then proceeds to tell me “oh no, baby, my pimp has a no-baby policy”. I didn’t even ask what she was doing there as I was stuck on the pimp comment. I am embarrassed to say that all the questions that followed were based on the media’s inaccurate portrayal of prostitution. Think ignorant, think misconception, think labels. I started asking Lauren ridiculously phrased questions about her life and she eloquently answered all of my questions. When I pushed on her need to rely on a pimp since she was clearly capable of speaking for herself, she, again, eloquently made a beautiful case for how hers was different, needed, wanted, and fill in the blank with anything we’ve ever said about our own poisonous relationships. I could tell she didn’t want to talk about him anymore, so I took a chance and asked her “why do this? You are capable of doing anything in this world…why this?” What followed has left me seeking more answers, but I stopped here. “I don’t know. Ever since I can remember my mom’s boyfriend was always touching me and doing other things to me, so when I asked my mom if I could do this, and she said ‘why not, you’re already one’, I said ‘why not’, too. 6 years later, I’ve visited 17 states, and then I meet you, little V. And you’re no different than me… you have four jobs because you like to feel needed. And I do, too.” Dammmmmmmmmmmn Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiina, or better, yet, Lllllllllllaaaaaaaaaaauren. I’m not so sure why I have four jobs, but I told Lauren I would tell her story, but, most importantly, she wanted me to tell you that she is “smart, big-hearted, and proud of [you]”.

This leads to Home Depot. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, I’ve been working on my relationship with my dad, whom I have ALWAYS described as an alcoholic. There is no speech, or interview, or piece of writing that I’ve not used the word “alcoholic” right after the word “dad”. I guess I’ve always used that as a crutch: “my relationships with men suck because my dad is an alcoholic”, “I am weird because my dad is an alcoholic”, hell this one’s next, “I don’t comb my hair because my dad is an alcoholic”. Stupid. For the last 29 years, my relationship with my dad has suffered, yes, because of what I saw and experienced; but MOSTLY because of the baggage that comes with such a label. Well three weekends ago, I spent 10 back-to-back hours with my dad as we were putting sheetrock in my bedroom. Back in the early 1990s, we had this program called “take your daughter to work day” during which I would either paint houses or clean them. Well, that experience paid off because I was a pro with that quick set.  Dad and I were getting ready to apply the next coat when we realized we needed to make a quick run to Home Depot. As soon as we stepped in, my dad walked towards the Paint department, but I stopped by the toolset display. My dad, noticing that I had stopped, turns around and asked me if I had a toolset. I said no and he then proceeds to grab a cart, throws in a box and says “Ven”. I realized then that my dad has the same love for tools that I have for office supplies. He was so giddy, describing what this and that was for, mind you, I’m clueless, but mastered the “Ahhhh, okayyy” response. That day marked the FIRST day in my adult life (or ever) that I’ve allowed my dad to be my dad. I then start telling him about my doorknob not working, my showerhead leaking, and you could tell he loved every second of it as he excitedly grabbed the tools he’d need to fix all those things. We get to the cash register and I pull out my debit card, but my dad beat me and handed his to the attendant. The attendant says “ooooooo, you lucky” to me and before I could say anything, my dad, in his broken English and with a big ‘ole smile, says “she my baby”. The attendant politely smiled and handed my dad his card and receipt. As we begin to walk out, my dad grabs my hand. With my heart beating really hard, I tightly grab ahold of his and to break the awkward silence hovering over our way-too-long walk back to the car, I asked about lunch. As I say this, my dad points out the ‘Tamales’ sign hanging on a truck in the parking lot. I look over and see a lady and her two baby girls inside the truck. We walk over, the lady comes out and sweat is pouring down her cheek… I try to look into the truck to make sure the babies are breathing. They were. My dad places his order, the lady hands us our order, and my dad pays. As we get to my dad’s truck, he takes a Tamale bite, and then I take a bite. Those freaking things were disgusting and I was about to tell my dad that when he asks, “aren’t they good?!” I turn to look at him and I say “daddy, I know you’ve had better tamales”. But then he says, “I have, but knowing we helped that lady makes them taste so good, don’t they?” Woah- talk about meeting someone you’ve known your whole life for the first time. I’ve shared that story with a few people and they all said the same thing, “V, you got your heart from your dad”. So I’d like to re-introduce you to my dad. My dad is a very kind man that probably had kids too soon. He lives in Cleveland, TX (about an hour and a half from downtown Houston) and drives in to work every morning at 4 in the morning… he’s been doing that for 20 years and his job is off of 610 and Woodway. Talk about grit and hard work. My dad doesn’t get a lot of calls from his daughters, mostly because we allowed his early life to define him, but he now gets weekly calls from one :) . My dad is a baker, and so was my grandpa, so he makes all kinds of Mexican bread- Rosca de Reyes is his thhhaaang, though :) . He LOVES his four grandkids because they don’t know him as anyone other than Papa Toño, a silly, silly grandpa who buys them mangos every Sunday and goes to every soccer game he’s invited to. My dad has made a lot of mistakes, but he is a great man and the only dad I’ll ever have.

And last, but not least… Vanessa :) . My high school experience, which was NOTHING like the Tree Hill High too-grown experience, jumpstarted my first experience with labels. I stuck out like a sore thumb at Episcopal High School and I thought that if I put my guard down, my peers would judge me based on what they saw; so, I made every attempt to prove them…well, right. I was SOOOOO committed to not “selling out” that I forgot I was there to learn from others, which led to all sorts of negative perceptions of me. When I left Episcopal, I made sure to go to a college where I could reinvent myself to show “them” that there was more substance to me- beyond the cover. And I did just that. However, anyone that knows me knows that one of my pet peeves is hypocrisy and the last two stories proved that I had become exactly what I detested… a hypocrite. For years I have fought labels and have discouraged others from using labels because of how dangerously easy is to live up to or judge others based on them. It was until this past weekend, though, that I found out just how much of a hypocrite I was being when I heard myself say “but you know I’m stubborn, why are you surprised by [my actions]?” I had clearly embraced the not-so-self-imposed :) label of stubbornness and was using that label to justify why I did what I did and why I was going to continue to do what I did. Boooooo. Me. Or how about those times we change our ways only to “show them”? That always happens after a break up, in the personal and professional sense.

I was talking to someone I consider a best friend a couple nights ago, this past Monday to be exact, about this and our inability to change things for the better until we need to “show” others. For whatever reason, we never say, “I’ll show me”, when we criticize ourselves or live up to our self-imposed labels. Why not surprise ourselves every now and then?

Alumni- I challenge you not to step outside your comfort zone, but instead expand it. So you’re adventurous, great! It’s okay to be a homebody today. So you’re a jock, it’s okay to make going to the library everyday your new sport… trust me, girls/boys love the studious ones, no matter what they say :) . So you “always speak your mind”, great, just listen tomorrow. So you’re shy, agree to do public speaking for KIPP :) . So you’re always messy, cool, be extra-clean next Monday (through Sunday). And if you’re “cautious”, completely understand… but live a little and be vulnerable. My activist mindset got really good about identifying when “the man” was putting my people in a box. Little did I realize then that “the man” had nothing on Vanessa when it came to putting things, people, or myself in a box. I’m surprising myself today by not telling you how I’m going to surprise myself. :) Do the same, but do tell ME. :)

Vanessa Ramirez ’02

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Powerful Words from the Peanut Field

Below are great stories and pics from our school leader and co-founder of KIPP Gaston, Tammi Sutton.  Gaston is 1.5 hours northeast of Raleigh, NC and off of I-95 just south of the VA border. Gaston has a population of 800 – it’s not as rural as it gets as the town does have one stoplight:)   KIPP Gaston was one of the first schools we helped start in 2001 when we started replicating KIPP.  It’s located in a peanut field, and as we can read below, the peanut field is also growing hope and transformative change.
Plow on,
Mike :)
From Tammi……

Two weeks ago I was able to attend Morehouse College’s graduation with the Jackson family (Tyra Jackson -mom, Kayla Jackson – Pride of 2015, Maya Jackson – Pride of 2018 and Randi Jackson - Pride of 2020), and Myles’ grandparents) and see Myles Nicholson earn his college degree.  Remove the pouring rain, our drenched clothing and the thunder and rain that punctuated President Obama’s Commencement Speech, and the Morehouse graduation was still unlike any other.  The beautiful way in which a rich history and legacy of tradition is interwoven with a charge for social change makes a Morehouse’ graduation one that I wish everyone could witness.  Seeing 500 African American men earn their college degrees in a city that had such a powerful role in the Civil Rights Movement is indescribable.  I felt so honored to sit between Myles’ grandmother and mother and feel their immense pride and joy as Myles Nicholson graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Computer Science. Understanding that almost 25 years ago Ms. Jackson was forced to leave Spelman after a successful freshman year of college because of financial constrains and knowing the tremendous sacrifices and life choices she has made so that her children would be able to earn their college degrees is such a testament to the power of a high-quality education.  Being able to witness a mother’s dream deferred became her son’s reality is what all of this work is about.  Myles, now a Morehouse Man, will continue his education as he pursues his PhD at Ohio State (after spending the summer working on our campus) and continuing to follow his passions and continue his mother’s strong legacy of strength, commitment and purpose.


Before Morehouse, I was able to travel to UPENN.  Sitting in the Franklin Field with Vice President Biden and Denzel Washington (his son was graduating), I was most amazed by Brooke, Chevon Boone’s 8 month old niece.  Brooke is the daughter of her older sister Stancheka, a student in my first class at Gaston Middle School 16 years ago.  Chevon has four siblings – all of whom I have now worked with – either at Gaston Middle School or on our campus.  Holding Brooke during Chevon’s graduation, it was so crystal clear the generational, transformational change that a high-quality education is causing in the Boone family (and so many of our families).  The first three Boones have now graduated from college: NC A&T, Morehouse College and now Chevon with a degree from UPENN.  Ebony and Shannon, her younger sisters, will soon follow.  For all five kids who struggled growing up in a single wide trailer in rural NC, their lives and the lives of their children, starting with Brooke will be so different.   Spending the day with Chevon, I was reminded so many times of how she just embodies our mission – she has succeeded at one of top universities in our country, she has continuously strengthened  our peanut field, the UPENN campus, the larger Philly community, and as a 2013 Teach for America Corp member, she will spread  her gifts to her own middle school students this fall.  Walking around UPENN with Chevon, I was struck over and over by the ways she has left a mark on her campus – whether it be with the dozens of younger students who found her to say thanks for being such a powerful mentor or the fact that she knew the cafeteria workers and security guards by name and stopped to thank them and hug them for adding such value to her four years. Two of the guards asked me to take a photo of them with Chevon and with tears in their eyes made it very clear that she was the only student in the 24 floor high rise that greeted them by name, asked about their day and found time to tutor anyone interested in improving their own education.  Chevon is amazing, but, I was most proud of the ways she has remained grounded, humble and grateful.

Graduating with Chevon was Katrese, another member of our founding class.  Katrese is so many ways has modeled growth, and while there are many stories that illustrate this, I’ll choose a seemingly “small” one.  One quick bit of context:  during her junior year in high school, Katrese and I had the opportunity to travel to India to visit schools and provide professional development to educators.  For both of us it was our first time in a developing country, and we had some struggles acclimating to a new environment.  While there were many challenges, Katrese’s biggest was trying new food, and I am not exaggerating when I say that she was sustained for almost 10 days with only ice-cream sundaes, which she could locate in almost every place we visited. J   Now, fast forward to 2013.  After her graduation, I took her out to lunch and asked her to pick the spot.  What did Katrese want?  Yep, Indian.   She quickly explained that the best Indian Restaurant was closed on Mondays so we would have to go her second favorite place.  J  Then later that night at the airport what did she choose?   Japanese. J  All of this from a kid who would only eat chicken fingers – even as a college freshman. J  While Katrese wouldn’t try my Sushi (YET), in so many ways, these “small” events represented so much about how college can change everything.  In fact, this once reluctant traveler spent her spring semester enrolled in African language classes so that she could spend time with one of her college friends in Ghana after college.


I could keep going because seeing the growth of our students over time is amazing in so many ways.  As a first generation college graduate I know how transformational the degree is, not just because of the diploma and not just because we can have the career of our choice, but because it changes everything about our world.  Having the opportunity to work with KIPP for the last 12 years and seeing the lives of our alum transform is beautiful.

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Be The Change & Teach at KIPP Houston Public Schools

My 3rd and 4th grade teacher, Ms. Schweickert, was one of my favorite teachers. She taught me how to take risks, be ok with learning difficult new concepts, and how school could be fun and not just demanding.

And as an adult, I continue to learn from many teachers and mentors. During my early days as a rookie teacher in Houston 21 years ago, I was blessed to meet Harriett Ball. Harriett had the gift of reaching both the hearts and minds of everyone in her classroom, instilling in all her students to believe in possibilities.

KIPP Houston Public Schools is looking for great teachers, like Harriett, who will be long-remembered by our students; teachers who believe individually that one person can make a difference in a child’s life and, collectively, great things can happen.

As an educator, I know first-hand that a great teacher matters more than class size, more than the curriculum, more than money, and more than circumstance. A great and caring teacher changed my life, and I saw great teachers change lives of the KIPPsters 20 years ago.

Since then, KIPP teachers have touched the lives of thousands of students across the U.S. In Houston, we’ve grown to 21 schools, embarking on a major expansion to create a powerful prekindergarten-through-college continuum of support and services for our children. We’re building new schools, adding more grade levels to existing schools, and have more students hungry to learn and become a part of our team and family. And we’re having fun along the way! Our newest school, KIPP Courage College Prep, opened its doors in 2012. KIPP Northeast High School is set to open in fall 2013, and we are positioned to open a new elementary and middle school in 2014 to put a dent in our 8,000-student waitlist.

We’re continually looking for talented, committed, and passionate teachers and leaders who are ready to teach, lead, and inspire students. We are looking for educators who believe that all children, no matter their background, can and will complete college, contribute to the global workforce, help make the world a better place, and become self-sufficient and happy. As Mahatma Gandhi observed, as a teacher at KIPP, you can “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I know it takes only one Harriett to make a difference in a child’s life! If you’re that great teacher or want to become that great teacher, I encourage you to join KIPP Houston Public Schools’ Team and Family by applying for a position with us. Visit

Teach, lead, and inspire at KIPP Houston Public Schools. :)

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Guest Blogging

I’m taking a vacation from this blog to guest blog for Rick Hess, who wears jeans and sandals to conferences.  Very cool:)

Here’s a link to the first entry:

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South African education—inspiration & tragedy

Last week I was in South Africa with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, helping build a better tomorrow.  They asked me to write a guest blog for Dell Foundation, which I’m including here as well.  And related to this blog entry is the release of our 2013 Global Fellowship application to help  educators from outside the US study school leadership at the KIPP School Leadership Program:

Inspiration and tragedy. Those are the two words I wrestled with over the Atlantic Ocean this past weekend as I flew home to the US from South Africa. Taking the negative first—so we can end on the positive :) —my visit to South Africa was tragic as I learned about the current reality: just one percent of black children get all the way through the South African education pipeline and graduate from a university.

And I didn’t just learn about it; I saw it. I saw teachers’ work rooms in schools in townships where the teachers were beaten-yet-present at best, and asleep at worst. What was the most tragic was that the beaten feelings, or lack of belief and action among teachers, was not matched by what I saw among students: I met children HUNGRY to learn, HUNGRY to do well on the matric to be able to study in universities, and HUNGRY to provide their families and themselves with a better life in the future.

And that’s where the inspiration began. The children. Wow! The children have fire in their bellies and songs in their hearts. Children have proven to us over the past 19 years of KIPP just how resilient they are, and this US lesson has the potential to play out the same way in South Africa.

At a crossroads: The South African dream of equal opportunity
There is a dream that is alive and well in South Africa. From the rural village boy who walked to the nearest town that had internet to learn about universities and is now studying at University of Cape Town (UCT) to the kids from Khayelitsha who dream of becoming astronauts, accountants, doctors, and lawyers to the UCT girl from Alexandra Township who goes hungry because she sends her meal subsidy home to help her family eat, I could see it.

It is this dream of equal opportunity for happy futures for ALL South African children that apartheid-era reformers told me was the source of their conviction and belief during those trying years; and it is this dream that is now at a crossroads. If only the adults can find ways to help children achieve their aspirations, then the sky is the limit for South Africa!

Schools as a hub for impact
Schools are the natural focal point for such direct action with children – particularly the public education system, which is supposed to exist to benefit children. It’s hard to find people who argue with that point. But if we truly look at the laws, rules, regulations, and policies that are in place in South Africa, it is too easy to wonder if the system is truly set up to benefit the children, or if it has turned into a jobs program for adults.

This is not to say caring, skilled adults aren’t critically important in the school system; children do not reach their educational potential without helpful adults. The larger question, however, is whether the system itself sets up learners, teachers and principals for success—or whether it makes failure the norm and success the exception.

The challenge for government
The challenges in South Africa post-apartheid are vast, so it is unreasonable to imagine a government-mandated, top-down approach to education where only one magical way for the provinces to deliver education to every community is THE answer for ALL children.
But government—by definition a top-down structure—is ultimately responsible and accountable for the South African education system. Which brings us to a riddle: How can a top-down entity provide the flexibility and quality to allow for different (and better) solutions in different schools for different children, all focused on one extraordinary outcome—helping learners achieve the dream?

There is no single correct answer to this riddle, but there is definitely one wrong answer: Doing the same thing and expecting different results. That, as is so often said, is the definition of insanity.

A way forward for South African education leaders: Freedom to change + accountability for quality
One different approach that has shown promise in other education systems is for government to give freedom to extraordinary educators and other qualified operators to implement their own ideas about what their learners need to improve outcomes and reach new levels of excellence. The South African department of education could allow nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to compete for the privilege and honor of operating their own government schools, but release the teachers and principals to do what they know needs to be done. After all, it is the country’s great teachers and principals who are closest to the challenges and therefore in the best position to think of solutions. And if the government allows these bottom-up solutions to flourish, then government will be in a position to harvest the innovative and successful ideas to help replicate them throughout government schools nationwide.

The key to managing this transition would be ensuring that all schools were held to high standards of quality. The government would have to set and maintain such accountability standards; schools who meet them would earn the freedom to innovate to meet their learners’ needs. Does this model have a precedent? Yes, there are several around the globe. The one closest to my heart is public chartering in the US. The experience of US charters, particularly those that have scaled and provided quality across multiple schools in multiple states, has valuable lessons to share with South Africa’s education leaders as they seek to improve the quality of education for all of the nation’s kids.

Last Thursday night, I listened to Professor Jonathan Jansen on a panel about models for quality education in South Africa. He closed the session with a belief that we share at KIPP: promises to children are sacred. All of us, whether in South Africa, the US or any other country, have made an implicit promise to our children to help them have better lives than we who came before. In the case of schools, and all who care about or work in them, this promise should be explicit. Children are our greatest resource. Children are our greatest hope. Children are our dream. It’s time to wake up and help our dream become reality.

If you have interest in more happenings in South Africa, you can learn more at Dell Foundation’s blog:

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Let’s invest in a better future for all our public Schools

By Mike Feinberg, Sehba Ali, and Jason Bernal from the Houston Chronicle on December 14, 2012.

It has been a challenging couple of years for public education in Texas. The cuts to the state’s PreK-12 education system have eliminated key sources of support for getting students college- and career-ready.

But money alone does not ensure that public schools will deliver results. While public education spending has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, student achievement has remained relatively flat. To really make change possible, funding must be combined with innovative approaches, visionary leadership and policy support.

As the leaders of KIPP and YES Prep public charter schools, we have dedicated our careers to improving educational outcomes for children from low-income backgrounds. Our schools have a six-year college completion rate that is more than four times the rate for low-income students nationwide, and even exceeds the national average for all Americans. Achieving these results requires a commitment to doing whatever it takes – not just from educators, but from elected officials as well.

As the Legislature takes a fresh look at how we educate children in Texas, we have four recommendations:

Restore education funding for all public schools. In this challenging economic climate, we have to choose wisely where we spend our public dollars. Public education has to be at the top of our priority list – our schools cannot produce results without resources. Yet for the past two years, district and charter schools alike have struggled to provide a high level of instruction on a very thin shoestring. Restoring our lost funding would go a long way towards getting Texas schools and students on track to excellence.

Hold low-performing schools accountable for their results. When low-performing schools are the status quo, our entire education system suffers. This is especially true for public charter schools, where “freedom in exchange for accountability” is the rallying cry. This month, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) announced a campaign to crack down on underperforming charter schools. Texas must also embrace accountability, by closing low-performing charter schools and helping struggling district schools restructure and innovate.

Level the financial playing field between districts and charter schools. When it comes to state funding, district schools have an advantage over charters. According to a new report by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, KIPP and YES Prep receive several hundred dollars less in public revenue per student than the Houston Independent School District. But even though KIPP and YES Prep get no facilities funding from the state, and have to raise about $600 per pupil from private sources, we are still spending less per pupil overall than the district while our schools grow to full enrollment. It is vital that the state correct these imbalances, making sure that all public schools are on the same financial footing.

Promote resource sharing among district and charter schools. In Texas, charter schools struggle with the cost of building, leasing or purchasing school facilities. Meanwhile, many districts are saddled with vacant or underused buildings. Recently, educators have found ways to bring the two together. For example, the SKY partnership between the Spring Branch Independent School District, KIPP and YES Prep allows the three organizations to share district buildings and school resources; KIPP and YES Prep students participate in Spring Branch’s extracurricular programs, and Spring Branch administrators and teachers attend our professional development conferences. The state Legislature is ideally positioned to promote this kind of collaboration all over the state, in areas where it is needed the most.

When the new legislative session begins, Texas’ elected officials will have to choose whether to invest in a better future for public school students across the state. We hope they will choose wisely.

Feinberg is co-founder of KIPP, Ali is superintendent of KIPP Houston and Bernal is president of YES Prep.

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Tikkun Olam

In early October, Penn and KIPP held a ceremony to celebrate an agreement (MOU) that memorialized the partnership that has been in place since we first took KIPPsters to Dear Ole Penn in the spring of 1998. That campus visit has always been one of the most inspirational tours we have done, as not only do the KIPPsters get to see what a beautiful campus can look like in the heart of a big city, they also get a taste of college  life, listening to a lecture on American Diplomatic History by Professor Walter McDougal, getting grilled Socratic style on a law school case by Professor Regina Austin, and oh ya…visiting the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house and eating cheesesteaks. :)

Our partnership got even closer in 2006 when our first KIPPsters started to enroll at Penn. To date a dozen have gone to Penn and are joining KIPP leaders who are also Quakers such as Elliott Witney (KIPP Houston), Jason Botel (KIPP Baltimore), Josh Zoia (KIPP NYC), 10 KIPP teachers, former KIPP leadership recruitment director Allison Rouse, and yours truly (although friends from back in the day still dispute my alumnus status and wondered if I really graduated…diplomas, like hips, don’t lie :) )

At the October ceremony, the KIPPsters at Penn and several of us Big KIPPsters got to hear from KIPP Foundation board member and Penn-KIPP partnership funder Martha Karsh, Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, and Penn President Amy Gutmann. Dr. Gutmann focused her remarks on “Tikkun olam,” a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world”. What a beautiful phrase that sums up why Penn is partnering with KIPP, why KIPP is partnering with Penn, and not to mention why we are getting out of bed in the morning to work very hard and be very nice.

I have now travelled all over the US where we have schools and where we do not yet have schools but there are needs for great schools, and I have also visited underserved communities in Mexico, India, Israel, New Zealand, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil. Dr. Gutmann is absolutely correct:  we…all of us…humanity has a responsibility to ensure that demographics do not determine destiny. As we move into the 21st century and more and more countries around the world embrace the concept of the land of the free and the home of the brave, and as our American Dream becomes a shared dream that all parents all over the globe have for their children, we cannot tolerate gross disparities that indicate children do not have the freedom to pursue their passion and interests simply because of the circumstances of their birth.

Thank you, Penn; thank you, Martha; thank you, KIPPsters big and small; and thank you, Amy! Tikkun Olam indeed…Plow on!

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The Thinking Behind Texas Families First

This post is from a guest blogger, Leo Linbeck III. Thanks to Leo and the educators and business leaders who huddled up with him to think beyond Z about our upcoming legislative session!

Texas Families First is a different kind of education reform.

I can hear the collective groans after reading this sentence. “Yeah, sure, a different kind of reform. Great. That’s what we need, is another ‘reform’ that confuses everyone, makes teachers’ jobs harder, and ends up hurting kids.”

If that’s the kind of skeptical response you have to YEARP “yet another education reform proposal,” it’s with good reason: the past 40 years, the state has lurched from one major reform to another, but never solving the underlying problem. Through it all, the state has driven the process, trying to fix a system that they, by and large, were responsible for breaking.

TFF took a different approach. The core team behind TFF is comprised of educators and parent advocates – people who have spent many years working in schools (both districts and charter), educating children and educators, and advising families on how to find the best school for their kids. The approach was informed by real-world experience in the challenging world of P-12 education.

And this “bottom-up” perspective resulted in an agenda unlike any other that has been proposed in recent memory.

How is it different?

First, TFF was developed with an understanding that the shortcomings of the current system of public education in Texas are systemic. The problem does not have a single cause, and therefore cannot be solved by a single change to the system. Often, education reform proposals have tried to find a “silver bullet,” the one change that would magically fix everything for every kid. These “silver bullet” approaches have come in many different forms:

  • Accountability. For a number of years, we’ve been told that the problem is that schools are not held accountable for the performance of their students. To fix education, therefore, all we need to do is create a system of tests that measure how schools are doing, and the underperforming schools will be forced to change their ways.
  • Vouchers. Proponents of this reform have pointed out that since most schools are run by monopoly districts, they are not subject to the forces of competition. The solution, then, is to give money to families and let them attend private schools. The resulting competition for resources will drive innovation and improvement across the entire system.
  • Expand charters. Similar to vouchers, charters are often held up as the solution. Add more charters, create more competition, force traditional districts to compete for students, and the market will take care of everything else.
  • Merit pay. Since teachers are the most important factor in the performance of schools, we were told that creating incentives – and in particular tying pay to performance – were the way to fix the system.
  • Parent trigger. One of the latest innovative ideas in education reform is the “parent trigger,” which allows parents to petition for a change in the management of their school. This innovation has gotten a lot of attention lately due to a the movie “Won’t Back Down,” which chronicles the efforts of a Los Angeles mom to change the leadership at her child’s public school.

Now, all of these ideas have merit – after all, who can argue against accountability, choice, parent control, and rewarding great teaching? And this is just a partial list – there have been many more attempts to find that elusive “silver bullet.”

There is one common element of all of these reforms: they were all state-wide reforms. They were designed, debated, passed, and administered at the state level. Passing those reforms resulted in a transfer of power and authority from local entities and families to a centralized state bureaucracy. Those who were actually responsible for their implementation – school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, and families – ended up being subject to more control out of Austin.

The cumulative effect of these reforms, then, resulted in an educational system that was more bureaucratic, less responsive, and larger scale. We evolved from a distributed, localized system to a system of central control.

This reality leaves us in a situation where incremental reforms cannot address the underlying problem. The existing system is so complex and interconnected that attempts to make change at the margin are bound to be ineffective. As I said above, the problem is systemic, so a systemic solution is what is needed.

The Texas Families First Coalition therefore set out to create a systemic solution. We worked to develop an alternative system of regulating public education in Texas. This system is built around the two principles of local control and family empowerment. These two principles, in turn, create a sort of balance or creative tension. Both are needed, and in their proper proportion.

A reform program that only provided local control would fail, because we would only be substituting one state-wide monopoly for many local ones. Many of the state regulations that have accumulated over the years have been in response to the dysfunction that has occurred within some of these local monopolies. Freeing a monopoly to behave like a monopoly would not improve the system. That is why family empowerment must be coupled with local control – families must have the rights and privileges needed to hold local districts accountable for their performance. It is only when families are empowered that local jurisdictions can be trusted with local control.

A reform program that only provided family empowerment would fail, because the vast majority of the capacity in is the public school system, and without freeing that capacity to respond to the needs and wants of families, the result would simply be anger and frustration. For families to have a real choice, they must have options, and that requires freeing districts from burdensome state regulations. That is why local control must be coupled with family empowerment – districts must have the freedom and flexibility to respond to families. It is only when local districts are free to respond and innovate that families will enjoy the benefits of choice.

There is more to say on this topic, which I will do in a future blog post.


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