Dave Levin ’92, co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and superintendant of KIPP New York, drew on his experiences as an educator in public schools to advise students to pursue their passions instead of seeking prestige in society.
At the Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea, Levin spoke to a crowd of roughly 50 people about a negative stigma public school teachers encounter, as well as the problems facing public education in the United States. Though as an undergraduate he did not know which career path he would choose, he said he eventually recognized that public education was often poor in the United States and decided to found KIPP, which now comprises 109 public charter schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia and enrolls more than 33,000 students.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do as a freshman and by junior year I wanted to do something, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to live at home,” Levin said to laughter from the audience. “You don’t come to Yale to become a public school teacher,” said Levin.
After graduating from Yale in 1992, Levin joined Teach for America, where he taught fifth-graders for three years in Houston, Texas. While in Houston, he said, he would discuss his frustrations about the achievement gap in the public school where he was teaching. He and Mike Feinberg, who also participated in Teach for America, began discussing potential solutions and went on to co-found KIPP in 1994.
Levin and Feinberg founded KIPP with the philosophy that education does not end when the bell rings, Levin said, adding that KIPP teachers assume an active role in the lives of their students outside the classroom and help teach the importance of character.
“We started KIPP by going door to door in the Bronx and asked ‘Do you have a student going into the 5th grade? We’re starting a brand-new school to help your student into college,’ ” said Levin, “How bad does the school system have to be for the parent to invite us in?”
In response to a question about what makes someone a strong teacher, Levin answered that mastering the craft of teaching takes practice through trial and error. He said someone could have a strong command of a subject but still be a poor teacher if they cannot communicate effectively.
“The best math teachers weren’t always the best math students,” he said.
After becoming a public school teacher, he said he frequently felt that society often views teachers negatively. Levin retold an instance when his date at a speed-dating event learned that he was a teacher and said, “ ’That’s it?’ ” She then took out her BlackBerry and sat in silence for the remaining five and a half minutes.
Five students interviewed who attended the talk said they thought Levin’s anecdote drew attention to a large problem in America.
“These issues are known, but we aren’t reminded of them enough,” Jim Liu ’13 said.
After starting KIPP, Levin was named an Ashoka Fellow in 1994, received the Robin Hood Foundation’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Hero Award in Education in 1999, and was appointed to the New York State Commission for Education Reform in 2003.
At the end of this academic year, Levin will step down from his current superintendent position and return to the classroom.