David Levin
Ashoka Fellow since 2004   |   United States

David Levin

Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP)
David Levin and his friend, Mike Feinberg, have developed a new educational model based on the principle that every child can succeed. Beginning with an innovative college prep middle school, and with…
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This description of David Levin's work was prepared when David Levin was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


David Levin and his friend, Mike Feinberg, have developed a new educational model based on the principle that every child can succeed. Beginning with an innovative college prep middle school, and with a focus on redefining the way principles and teachers contribute to the success of their students, they are doing what they can to transform the public education system one school at a time.

The New Idea

Dave Levin’s Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) establishes new college preparatory middle schools for children at risk of school failure. By training principles and teachers in new ways—and by engaging students, parents, teachers, and the community to make contractual commitments to participate in the children’s academic success—Dave believes that every child can excel and go to college, regardless of their background, neighborhood, or socioeconomic status. KIPP helps teachers and school administrators design and implement the kinds of effective and engaging lessons that stay with students well beyond the year’s end. While KIPP plans to expand from 32 to 133 schools by 2010, to achieve the “tipping point,” Dave believes it must become the leading source of knowledge and training for principals and teachers. It is through these intangible elements—the quality of instruction and learning, and the attitudes of principles and teachers—that the true success of KIPP will be measured.
Dave and his co-founder, Mike Feinberg, identified Five Pillars that enable each KIPP School to increase student achievement gains and ultimately contribute to closing the achievement gap. These pillars are central to KIPP’s success, and ultimately to the improvement of our public education system:
1) High expectations. KIPP sets high academic standards for all students, who aim for college from the start of fifth grade. This is a time when many children in poverty-stricken areas replace academic interests with drugs, gangs, violence, and crime. Dave has successfully built a strong school culture that supports students through these turbulent years of early adolescence.
2) Choice and commitment. Most low-income families have no voice in where their children go to school. KIPP Schools offer them an alternative to their zoned school and to low-performing schools. Students, parents, and the faculty all make a commitment to each other to put in the time and effort required to achieve success.
3) More time on task. Most KIPP students enroll performing well below grade level. KIPP calls for over 50 percent more time on task than other schools to allow teachers to delve deeper into lessons, offer one-on-one attention, and provide enrichment activities. An extended school day, week, and year allows students more classroom time to acquire the knowledge that will prepare them for competitive high schools and colleges. To maximize the value of this extra time, Dave developed the unique and successful KIPP approach to learning and teaching that gives KIPP students a competitive advantage over children attending conventional schools.
4) Power to lead. Most administrators in a traditional school district are restricted from making decisions that solely benefit the students in their building. Dave has ensured that KIPP School Leaders have the power to lead dynamic, autonomous public schools. Through the KIPP School Leadership Program training, they develop the skills to make effective and informed decisions that optimize their effectiveness in helping students learn. They control their school budget and personnel and can quickly move funds or make staffing changes. Less time is spent on bureaucracy, more time is spent on the students.
5) Focus on results. KIPP Schools focus on high student performance on standardized tests. Students are expected to achieve a level of academic performance that will enable them to succeed at the nation’s best high schools and colleges. Public schools in low-income neighborhoods often seek exemptions from statewide exams for bilingual or learning disabled students. Although KIPP students are selected by lottery, Dave obtained a policy change enabling KIPP to give preference to children from the poorest neighborhoods. Remarkably, KIPP students already consistently outscore students from other public schools.

The Problem

Because of the lack of respect for the teaching profession in our society, very few of our best and brightest college graduates are choosing to enter the education field. When young, idealistic college graduates do teach in public schools, they encounter so many obstacles that they are quickly discouraged and move on to other fields.

One of the most notable problems is that district bureaucracy prevents school principals from making decisions that help teachers teach and students learn. Too much time is spent on official procedure, and not enough time is spent on giving the students the individual attention they need. Former teachers who become principals receive inadequate training for school leadership. Also, few support networks exist for the sharing of best practices across districts, cities, and states.

Despite decades of education reform, students from poor urban areas in the U.S. routinely under-perform compared with students middle-and upper-income areas. Poor children are not prepared to compete with children from more privileged backgrounds for spots in four-year colleges. The national graduation rate in 1998 was 74 percent; yet, only 56 percent of African-American and 54 percent of Latino students graduated. High school dropouts will face many more difficulties during their adult lives and most will become dependent on government assistance. In the 1999 U.S. Census, more than half of those over 25 years old who did not complete high school or earn a GED reported no earnings.

Public schools are the catch-all for society’s problems. Teachers in low-income schools have ever-diminishing resources and time to help students catch up to grade level and compete for spots in the best high schools and colleges. And yet at the same time, policymakers have raised expectations about public K-12 education, so we now expect all children to learn and learn well. Reality clearly does not match these expectations. In our nation’s underserved communities, failure is the norm; success is the exception. Overcoming the self-perpetuating cycle of failure requires innovative thinking, new methods, and dedicated individuals. Otherwise, as Dave and Mike point out, children’s zip codes will continue to limit their opportunity to excel in school and in life, and the very notion of the American Dream will be in jeopardy.

The Strategy

Dave Levin and his co-founder decided that the first step toward improving student achievement was to ensure more time was spent on task. They wanted teachers to have time to expand the scope of the curriculum, present instruction in a variety of ways, explore subjects in depth, and provide as much individual attention as each student needed. Accordingly, KIPP students attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the week, for four hours on alternate Saturdays, and for three weeks during the summer. The additional time gave teachers tremendous freedom in the classroom to tailor lessons and subject matter in a way that made the most of their skills while at the same time engaged their students in the fullest way.

To fulfill the commitment of principals and teachers to the long-term success of each student, Dave developed “KIPP to College.” At the beginning of fifth grade, students find out what year they will enter college and begin planning for that day. A placement counselor helps students gain admission to and financial aid for top college preparatory high schools. Many students go out of state to nationally recognized prep schools. Yet, even after they leave KIPP, they know they can call their former KIPP school at any time for counseling and advice. A second counselor on each high school campus guides former students through the college admissions and financial aid process. Teachers and principals are also heavily involved in helping each student make the best choices for high school and college—at KIPP, this is an extension of their responsibility as educators. This responsibility may involve developing close relationships with parents, many of whom are apprehensive of letting their children travel great distances to go the best schools. In this way, one of the fundamental changes Dave has brought to the education process is redefining the role and mindset of school staff to serve the child and the family beyond the school day—and beyond the schoolhouse walls—from the middle school years through college.

To prepare future leaders for great schools, Dave and Mike also established the KIPP School Leadership Program, funded by a US$15 million gift from a corporate partner. Dave designed and is the lead teacher in this one-year program for principals of new KIPP schools, which includes a residency at several KIPP schools and is the platform for expanding the KIPP network (32 schools and growing). Dave’s credibility among new school leaders derives from his experience as the founder of the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, an exemplary school, and his reputation as an excellent teacher. KIPP helps new school leaders establish their own schools, starting with one fifth grade class and adding one grade each year until eighth grade, ensuring quality as they grow and keeping schools small so students, teachers, families, and the school administrator are accountable to each other. To ensure quality, Dave is responsible for a team that audits new schools and troubleshoots problems. The School Leadership Program is run by a CEO at KIPP’s national office; Dave and Mike are co-directors.

Dave is currently superintendent of the KIPP school district in New York. This district, and the KIPP district in Houston, are the first charter school districts in the country. These districts help KIPP lower the cost per student through economies of scale. For example, the basic cost for each KIPP student is paid for by an allocation of state education funds. In New York, the allocation for charter schools is 80 percent of that for students attending schools operated by the local school district. To reduce operating costs, Dave found a way to provide a competitive benefits package at a fraction of the cost that public schools incur. As KIPP creates more school districts, Dave will direct and support the superintendents.

Dave directs the expansion of the New York district by five new schools a year (half of KIPP’s national expansion) and is responsible for three new KIPP schools in upstate New York. The aim is to create a regional KIPP network and “tip” education in a state considered a bellwether for national school reform. At the same time, Mike is building the KIPP district in Houston by expanding the KIPP formula to elementary and high schools. Mike and Dave still work closely as co-founders to guide KIPP’s national expansion. They identify school leaders to start new KIPP schools; Dave develops the training that enables these leaders—and new KIPP teachers—to successfully implement the unique KIPP learning program and culture.

The Person

A native New Yorker, David Levin’s early years were marked by frustration in school. Struggling to read because of a learning disability, he was in a special education program at a private school from grades four through seven. Dave’s energies were focused on overcoming the disability, dealing with falling behind in school, and not being able to go to school with his friends. Because he had to rely on memorizing sounds, he developed an extraordinary memory. He enjoyed a close relationship with his special education teacher, who continues to help him today as an advisor to KIPP.

From high school on, Dave was always the one who organized people and activities. He attended the National Outdoor Leadership School so he could lead outdoor adventure groups. Dave always wanted to know how things worked. As an undergraduate at Yale, this interest led him to study the history of education under the tutelage of the head of teacher preparation. As president of his residential college, he designed and directed service projects, one of which was tutoring children. Unable to read until fourth grade, Dave’s academic success is noteworthy: he graduated with honors and earned a special Yale University award for outstanding intellectual and social contribution to life in Ezra Stiles College. After college Dave became interested in education policy. He described what he believed would be an effective school; his vision had much in common with the model on which KIPP is based.

Dave joined Teach for America, where he met Mike Feinberg. They were both assigned to schools in Houston. On their drive to Houston they dreamed of how they would create schools that work and become the hub of a community. Dave’s experience as a first-year teacher convinced him that there was no way to fix the broken public education system. He and Mike decided to give their big idea a chance. They co-founded KIPP in 1995. Since then, both have devoted their lives to creating and directing KIPP. Dave is still pushing boundaries and working tirelessly to find out how good the schools can get. He is seen as the thought leader in the United States on methodologies that train teachers in innovative and effective education. When Dave speaks on teaching techniques he often draws audiences of over one thousand educators.

Dave’s honors include introducing Laura Bush at the Republican National Convention, the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Hero award in Education, and the Teach for America Paul Nash Memorial Award for the Development of Innovative and Effective Teaching Methods.

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