New Education Plan: 'Work Hard. Be Nice. No Shortcuts'

All too often in U.S. public education, ZIP code is destiny. Kids from poor neighborhoods are six times less likely to graduate from high school than their middle-class peers, and attempts to close that gap have been the source of exhaustive research and expensive battles. But as politicians argue over No Child Left Behind and school boards debate whole language versus phonics, a pair of teachers has quietly spent the past decade developing a magic formula that sends low-income kids to college at an astounding rate.

Are you ready? Here it is ... (drum roll please).

Work hard. Be nice. No shortcuts.

Bill Weir's piece on schools is an installment in our series "Key to Success" in which we show creative solutions to entrenched problems in this country. Have a solution to share? Post suggestions in the comment field at right.

It may be as quaint as the eat-right-and-exercise model of weight loss, but those are the very real pillars beneath the Knowledge Is Power Program, known as KIPP. It was developed in 1995 by two young, idealistic fourth-grade teachers in Houston. As members of the Teach for America corps, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg landed in a barrio school and quickly had their grand aspirations beaten to a pulp by reality.

Despite their best efforts, an alarming number of their students went on to middle school only to drop out, join gangs or become parents. "At first, it was very easy to go into the teacher's lounge in elementary school and point the finger," Feinberg told me. "Blame the other schools, blame the district, blame the kids, blame their parents, blame the community. And we had an epiphany one night where we realized you know what, all this finger pointing is ... just adding to the problem. And it's not finding a solution."

With U2's "Achtung Baby" playing on auto-repeat, the two pulled an all-nighter in front of their Apple Mac Classic and created a model for, as they say, "better teaching and more of it." Their ideal school day would run from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with classes held every other Saturday and for three weeks during the summer. A "KIPPster" spends 60 percent more time in class than a peer in a typical public school. And KIPPsters leave their nine-hour school day with another two hours of homework. "There's no such thing as a middle-school kid who gets off at 3 and says, 'Boy, I'm beat. I need a nap.'" Feinberg said. "They're going to be somewhere, doing something. So the question is, can we give them something productive, constructive and fun to do, versus just hanging out on the streets."

They convinced the Houston school district to try out their ideas as a charter model. Charter schools are public schools, open and free to anyone, but they take less tax money per student in exchange for more freedom. A charter school principal can hire, fire and promote teachers based on merit rather than seniority. Levin and Feinberg recruited the sort of teachers willing to put in long days and still be available via cell phone 24/7.

Those first two schools were so successful so fast that the Fisher family donated $15 million of its Gap retail fortune to "KIPPnotize" other needy districts. In the 11 years since Levin and Feinberg's all-nighter, there are now 57 KIPP schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Most of their students enter these middle schools two grade levels behind. And after three years in KIPP, most go on to elite prep or magnet high schools, and 80 percent go to college, a rate four times higher than their public school counterparts.

Visit one KIPP school, and the thirst for learning is obvious. "Work hard, be nice" isn't just a slogan on the wall. It is witnessed in the halls. No slamming lockers, no mayhem, just serene, focused sixth-graders killing time between classes reading or chatting softly. Learning is cool. Kids feel secure. There are no locks on the lockers. Ask a fifth-grader when he'll go to college, and he'll shout "2015!" without a second's hesitation.

It takes serious cash to open a KIPP school. The Fishers are now in for $50 million, while Bill and Melinda Gates pledged $10 million to expand KIPP's efforts. And as the program expands, there has been some pushback from teacher's unions in certain states. Public school advocates often accuse charters of poaching the best students with the most motivated parents. But raves for KIPP far outnumber the criticisms. If public schools are like the U.S. post office, KIPP is a FedEx; hyperefficient and motivated; the metaphorical rising tide that lifts all boats.

"As long as people are making excuses, we're never going to advance the ball on public education," Feinberg said. "So wherever there are these 'yes, buts ...' we want to start schools under these same conditions, under the same social, economic, political and legal conditions to prove what can and should be happening across the board. Because we wholeheartedly believe that the day these excuses end is the day solutions are going to begin."