Michael Feinberg talks social impact and education in Turner Social Impact Speaker Series

Michael Feinberg, a 1991 College grad, speaks with 1984 Wharton alumnus Bobby Turner, during the sixth Lauren & Bobby Turner Social Impact Executive Speaker Series in October.
Michael Feinberg, a 1991 College grad, speaks with 1984 Wharton alumnus Bobby Turner, during the sixth Lauren & Bobby Turner Social Impact Executive Speaker Series in October 2013.

On an early morning in 1991, Michael Feinberg – a recent Penn graduate – drove himself to his first teaching position. Teetering between eager and “terrified,” he began his first year as a fifth grade bilingual teacher on the north side of Houston, Texas.

“It was an incredibly humbling experience,” explained Feinberg during his appearance at last month’s social impact lecture series. “I was driving to school thinking I had no idea how I was going to control this classroom of kids…But I didn’t turn the car around; I kept going because I had made a commitment to [them].”

Now, 22 years later, Feinberg is a successful entrepreneur and educator, having co-founded the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Schools.

Today there are 141 KIPP schools serving 50,000 students — more than 86 percent of whom come from low-income families. Yet according to the school’s 2012 report card, more than 90 percent of KIPP middle school students have graduated high school and more than 92 percent of KIPP classes outperformed their local districts in state tests in reading or math.

Feinberg’s appearance was the latest in a series of talks with social impact leaders, through the three-year-old Lauren & Bobby Turner Social Impact Executive Speaker Series. Previously, host Bobby Turner, W’84, has shared the stage with other luminaries such as Eva Longoria, Andre Agassi and most recently, Ashton Kutcher.

During the hour-long interview, Turner and Feinberg delved into the history of KIPP, shared their philosophies on successful teaching, and discussed the importance of great cultural changes to improve lives.

After graduating from Penn and experiencing life in West Philadelphia, Feinberg explained, he spent three years with Teach for America where he saw first-hand a need for better, more comprehensive education. From his experiences within the troubled inner-city school district, an innovative idea was born.

Driven by a commitment to provide children from low-income backgrounds an educational experience that will allow them to succeed, Feinberg and co-founder Dave Levin developed the first KIPP Academy.

This new vision for public charter schools ran with a “no shortcuts, no excuses” policy: high expectations for student achievement, extended school days to ensure more time spent in the classroom, and a high priority on teachers’ professional and leadership development, and a lifelong commitment to children’s success.

It all comes down to KIPP’s motto: Work hard. Be nice. That commitment is one Feinberg lives by today.

So, what’s the “secret sauce” that makes KIPP so successful?

“I’d argue that any school that’s doing a good job has two basic ingredients: they’ve got great teaching, and more of it,” Feinberg said. “It’s that simple. Easy to say, hard to do.”

Feinberg says the reasoning behind KIPP’s extended-day program – from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. – gives “more time for reading, more time for writing, more time for math, without sacrificing science, history, fine arts, or physical education.” Simply, there’s more time to get everything done, which accounts for much of the schools’ progress in underserved communities.

KIPP is changing lives. And the evidence was there for the audience to see.  When prompted by Turner, roughly two dozen young people raised their hands. All KIPP graduates. All enrolled at Penn.  All well on their way to academic and professional success.

Hear for Yourself

To listen to Bobby Turner’s full interview with Michael Feinberg, as well as opening remarks from Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson and MBA candidate and Social Impact Club leader Jason Yow, play the video below.