Washington Post education writer Mathews (Supertest, 2005, etc.) follows two dynamic teachers as they develop an effective school system tailor-made for “children stuck at the bottom of our public education system.”
Mike Feinberg, 23, and Dave Levin, 22, met in 1992 while working for Teach for America, an idealistic program these novice educators found of little help in coping with overcrowded classrooms serving desperately poor populations. So in 1994 they launched their own initiative, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), which offered fifth- to eighth-grade students from low-income families the chance to learn beyond what other instructors believed they could handle. The first classroom was in north Houston, but Levin soon moved on to the South Bronx. Mathews depicts both men as headstrong and protective of their students. Feinberg became known as an “unholy nuisance,” and Levin continually locked horns with school administrators. The tools they employed to motivate students included incentive “paychecks” for good grades and behavior, “porching” (in-class sequestering) to discipline unruly students, commitment agreements among teachers, parents and students, and class field trips. Intermittent anarchy and chaos eventually subsided, test scores began to soar and so did media attention, including a 60 Minutes segment on KIPP. Interspersed among the chronicle of Feinberg and Levin’s struggle to galvanize support for their program are three chapters detailing the progress of reluctant fifth-grade football hopeful Jaquan Hall from poorly educated misfit to responsible student. Mathews does a smart, respectable job here. Frankly elucidating the major struggles and roadblocks inherent in attempting to reform how underprivileged children are taught, he nonetheless leaves readers convinced of the truth in Levin’s idealistic statement on his Teach for America application: “an educator could change lives.”
A grand example of humanitarianism in the classroom: Naysayers who believe there’s no hope for America’s inner-city schools haven’t met Feinberg and Levin.