FREAK-Quently Asked Questions: David Levin

INSERT DESCRIPTIONDavid Levin, (Photo by Jim Lo Scazlo for USN & WR)

Here’s the first installment of a new feature we’re trying out. It’s a simple idea: we wrote up a Freakonomics questionnaire and will now force it on a variety of people.

The first victim is Dave Levin, co-founder of the national charter-school program, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP).

Thanks to everyone who helped think up questions, including Steve Levitt, Justin Wolfers, John List, Linda Jines, Annika Mengisen, and Ryan Hagen. If you have ideas for other questions or for interviewees — we’ll try to run these FAQ’s once a week or so — just send a note here.

An FAQ with David Levin:

Q: On my deathbed, I will wish that I had spent more time _________.

A: Outside.

Q: On my deathbed, I will wish I had spent more money on __________.

A: Traveling with my wife.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far? What was your best accomplishment by the time you turned 16?

A: My greatest accomplishment so far is having the joy of teaching so many amazing kids at KIPP. Not sure it qualifies as best, but my most unique accomplishment by 16 was digging a 10-foot-deep hole in the sand with my bare hands.

Q: What’s one goal you’d still like to accomplish?

A: See one of our KIPP alums as the principal of a KIPP school.

Q: What is the best investment you made in getting to where you are today?

A: Buying Harriett Ball lunch. She was my mentor teacher and taught me most of what I know about teaching. We would meet at lunchtime and after school, and the food was on me while the wisdom was all hers.

Q: What’s the best financial investment you’ve ever made?

A: My first car was the best $500 I ever spent.

Q: The worst?

A: All the money I then wasted to keep that car running.

Q: What talent have you always wished you had more of?

A: Dancing.

Q: What’s the last book you read cover to cover, and what percentage of the books that you buy do you read cover to cover?

A: The last book I read cover to cover was Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath. My favorite book is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and I read about 75 percent of the books I buy cover to cover.

Q: What do you most often lie about?

A: Really — who me, lie?

Q: Fill in the blanks: I ___________ too much or too often; to avoid this, I tend to ___________.

A: I get distracted by my cell phone and email too much or too often. Wish I knew how to fill in the second blank.

Q: What is your biggest regret in life?

A: That I didn’t take Spanish class more seriously.

Q: If you could have any job in the world for one day, what would it be?

A: I’d run a team of sled dogs in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Dog Race across Alaska (although I guess this would be a 10-day job).

Q: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

A: Being able to jump from place to place across the world like in the movie Jumpers.

Q: What’s the most expensive piece of clothing you’ve ever bought, and why did you buy it?

A: An $850 jacket for my wedding; way too expensive, but it is a really cool jacket and I’m betting on the fact that I’m only getting married once. Plus, I get to wear it all the time, so the cost per wearing is constantly dropping.

Q: Would you rather win a Nobel Prize, an Olympic gold medal, or the Megabucks Lottery?

A: Megabucks Lottery (with that I’d be able to buy the others on eBay).

Q: How much is too much to spend on a cup of coffee?

A: Any amount — since I don’t drink coffee.

Q: What do you collect, and why?

A: Funny, until this question I didn’t realize that I don’t really collect anything. I don’t throw away books that I’ve read or photos I’ve been given by people, but I don’t know that I collect them either.

Q: What is one item you own that you should probably throw out but never will?

A: Any of my nearly 40 KIPP T-shirts, especially the ones that are more than a decade old.

Q: New York or California?

A: New York — in a New York minute.

Q: What will eventually lead to humankind’s demise, and when will it happen?

A: Mankind. Hopefully not for a while.

Q: What’s the best possible future discovery or invention?

A: How all people could work, live, and play together happily. Cheesy, maybe, but … how cool if it actually happens.

Q: Happiness is ____________.

A: Seeing the joy in the faces of the KIPP students at their college graduations. It is truly a remarkable thing.

Eric M. Jones

I am struggling to find any meaning or relevance in this. Good job Mr. Levin, but I can't imagine how you could be talked into this. I would MUCH rather hear your views on education; how it affects the economy, peace, justice and the world.

I don't care if you wear boxers or briefs.


Um, if you have 40 t-shirts then you do collect something. :)

Laura B

I'm going to have to agree with #1, I would much rather hear about charter schools and education than these questions.


Lighten up people...I enjoyed reading something a bit more light-hearted for a change. It made me smile so thank you for that.


Oh, stop complaining. There's nothing wrong with a fun little list of questions every once in a while. This is a blog, after all. If you don't like the less substantial entries, just skip them.


My answers to these questions are just as interesting as David Levin's. I am not as interesting as David Levin. Something is wrong with the questionairre.


Man -- I agree. I just learned about the KIPP program a few days ago and clicked this hoping to get some good interview info.

Any chance we can get an extended interview with this gentleman if he has time? Thanks!


Furthermore, I don't know what qualifies Levin as someone of particular interest. KIPP's results are dubious at best and while the program may be beneficial to those who attend it, the approach's ripple effects in the greater educational landscape does far more harm than good, particularly to the underserved populations of color they seek to promote.

naphtali b

I was trying to answer them myself but couldn't think of nearly such great answers, especially the depth of your short answers I thought was remarkable.


I would really like to see the word "mankind" replaced with "humankind".


I agree - it was a nice interview. But how do you think the KIPP school students will affect the US and in what ways? (social, economic and other)


@Chrissi - And I would really like for humankind to stop worrying about being politically correct. Just because a vocal minority is offended by something doesn't mean that the majority needs to change.

Rather, I propose that the minority accepts that no offense is intended, and that they modify their behavior/attitudes rather than asking everyone else to change.


BSK, can you please expand on your comment? I have only heard great things about KIPP so I am curious about the information that has shaped your opinion.


BSK, I also would love to hear what results you are referring to. As a KIPP teacher in New Orleans I'm obviously biased and disagree with much of what you said. I've taught in New Orleans public schools and brought several students with me to my current school; their progress has been nothing short of remarkable.

The two existing KIPP schools had the two highest School Performance Scores (this metric has been lauded as a good measure of performance) of all open enrollment public schools in New Orleans. We are expanding to open more schools here.

Additionally, KIPP shares resources and ideas willingly with anyone who will listen; I personally have provided Teach for America teachers across New Orleans that I am mentoring with resources that have helped them considerably and many others have done the same. That sounds like a positive ripple effect to me.


Mary and Tony-

My criticism of KIPP is twofold: first, the students they serve are generally of a self-selecting population who would likely have more success in ANY school system than their peers; and, secondly, as a result of this, an unfair standard is set that is used to the detriment of other, similarly educationally-disadvantaged students.

While KIPP does not make acceptances predicated upon academic record, because of the work necessary to apply and the commitments required of both students and parents, the students who end up in the program are inherently more motivated and better supported than the average student of ANY demographic. These students would likely be more successful in any educational environment. Do they achieve more success in KIPP than they would elsewhere? Perhaps. Certain results based primarily on standardized tests seem to say so. But these kids are essentially the "cream of the crop", skimmed off and then held up for their success, which only a small part of which can be attributed directly to the KIPP approach.

As for the larger context, even if these students do make incredible strides they wouldn't make elsewhere, the message is sent that for the students targeted by KIPP (primarily people of color, primarily working class), all they need to do is work harder and be pushed more and they will succeed. This approach works for the kids in the KIPP program, but these students and families deliberately chose KIPP because they believed it would benefit them. But the model is not one that would best serve all students (no model is right for everyone) and unfortunately perpetuates the stereotype that poor, urban children of color fail in schools because they don't work hard enough and because they don't have enough support at home. Are these potential factors? Of course. But KIPP's success with the students they work with casts an "if it works for these kids, why can't it work for the rest of them?" mentality.

I am not saying that there is not merit in the KIPP approach. Rather, I think it's success must be put in context relative to the population they serve and the impact of their work on the greater population of which that group is a subset. Philosophically, I think there is much to be critical of with the approach, but there is much room for debate and different views in education and I respect the need for a variety of schools and educational styles for a variety of learners.



Let me start by saying this. I am a KIPP alum. After I attended KIPP, I went to one of the best boarding schools in the country and then to a very prestigious private University in NY.

BSK, you seem to believe that we, the students, are the reason for all of the success since we are inherently predisposed to do well as this quote suggests: "These students would likely be more successful in any educational environment." Let me ask you this: Why then aren't there more successful urban children of color? Why does everyone believe that education reform is in urgent need in this country? What you fail to see is how the curriculum, structure and faculty of the school affect us.

"…the message is sent that for the students targeted by KIPP (primarily people of color, primarily working class), all they need to do is work harder and be pushed more and they will succeed," is an inaccurate interpretation of the message KIPP sends. Your comment would suggest that had we worked harder and been pushed more in public education, we would have succeeded either way. You make the assumption that all schools and teachers everywhere are good and we know that’s not accurate. KIPP has shown that students, parents AND teachers need to posses "ganas," the "desire" to do better. Just as not all students are the same, not all teachers/schools are the same either.

And they make much of the difference in a student’s success. I can unequivocally say that had I not gone to KIPP, I would not have been very successful in high school or much less college. I probably wouldn't have even made it to college. I attended school 60% more than the average public school student. That combined with better teachers, I believe, has more to do with our success than whether or not we are the “cream of the crop.”




I believe you misrepresented or misunderstood my point in the first quote. I was saying that the students who attend KIPP were more likely to be successful THAN THEIR PEERS in any given environment. I may not have made that point clear. They were not pre-determined to be successful and would likely not have had the success you and many others had had you not gone to a KIPP academy.

In all of my reading on the KIPP program, the emphasis on the approach has been on the long hours, the dedication, and the high expectation placed on students. I have not seen specifics on good instruction, good practice, curriculum development, or other related topics. Perhaps I do not fully understand it, as I have not seen it first hand, but I have read much literature (some distributed by KIPP) and the first few things I mentioned seem to be the focal point of the program.

I understand that not all schools or teachers are good; I am an educator myself. My point is not that there is not merit in the KIPP approach or that it is failed. Rather, my point is that the results must be questioned and put into context given the standards by which they admit students.

You may not have gone to college had you stayed in public school. But you probably were more likely to go than the kid sitting next to you in public school because of your own work ethic and those of the people surrounding you (the fact that you had a parent to sign the commitment form already puts you at an advantage over many students). I just think that before KIPP is hailed as the revolutionary approach that many people are claiming it to be, we should more rigorously test the system on students who the system was not designed to work for. Perhaps there is no interest on that, and KIPP is content to serve the population it was designed to serve. But, if so, we need to be careful before exporting it's approach to other environments, where very different populations of students may have very different results.




After reading your comments, I must say that your concerns about KIPP are not unique. Indeed they are critiques given often. There are two issues you bring up that I would strongly encourage you to re-think. I hope to provide you with some information that will push your thinking.

The first issue is about student enrollment. KIPP enrolls students in the same fashion required by the district-run schools. For example, in New Orleans, there is a general form that all students/families must fill out to register for school, whether the school is district or charter-run. That form is the ONLY requirement for entrance. I am interested to see where you have read otherwise.

The second issue about the lack of "specifics on good instruction, good practice, curriculum development, or other related topics" is more about messaging and branding then it is about how teachers and school leaders in KIPP schools spend their time and resources. Materials produced about KIPP for marketing purposes are focused on the values and beliefs that set the organization apart from other schools and systems of schools. This includes an emphasis on the dimensions you listed above - the longer day, the high expectations, etc. And these values are key to KIPP's success. However, these values are higher level; they govern the organizational culture and philosophy. As you point out, they do not address the nuts and bolts of the work going on in KIPP schools between teachers and students - strong instruction with high expectations for all students; curricula focused on catching students up to grade level and helping them build the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in high school, college, and the world beyond; and the character education needed to become productive and contributing citizens of our society and our world.

One value critical to KIPP's culture and success is constant learning (see the washington post article: Inside the KIPP School Summit). How does this affect curriculum and instruction? It means that every day, teachers and school leaders are reflecting on how to improve instruction. They are collaborating with one another, sharing best practices, both within their schools and across the KIPP network. They are looking back not only daily, but on a weekly basis and on a unit-by-unit basis. Teachers want to understand what objectives their students mastered and what their students didn't master, so that they can reteach to make sure there are no gaps in student understanding and so that for the following school year, they can redesign the elements of the curriculum where student performance was weakest to ensure greater student mastery.

Despite anything I or anyone else says, the only way to truly understand what KIPP is doing is to visit a KIPP school. I was disappointed to see in your comments that you haven't had a chance to do that yet. Go and observe - the schools are extremely open and allow interested individuals to sit in on any classrooms.

Lastly, I don't know who is saying that KIPP is "the" revolutionary approach to solving the issues that face public education today. Indeed, to solve these deep issues, it will take a multitude of approaches that are results-oriented, student-centered, and sustainable. And the approaches will need to vary in focal point - school, district, policy, teacher preparation programs, etc. KIPP is one of these approaches, proving what can be achieved at the school and system-level in public education. And when you do visit a KIPP school, I would bet that not a single person you speak with will say that KIPP has the answers or is the answer. Teachers and school leaders would probably say that as an organization, there is much to learn, but that KIPP is committed to its mission, to constant reflection, and to doing whatever it takes so that every student is ready for college and beyond.




Thanks for the information. Again, my intention is not to bash KIPP. I am encouraged and in favor of any thoughtful approach to improving our educational system. I think there are genuine criticisms of the KIPP approach, but that does not make it one without merit or an inherently flawed approach. Rather, I take issue with the "branding" as you call it, and how that branding is influencing public perception of it. As a teacher who recently completed graduate school, I heard many people (both educators and parents) rave about the KIPP program based solely on the information released as part of this branding. I have seen reports and other articles that hold KIPP up as the model that more schools should follow, particularly those working with underserved students and/or students of color (those groups are not one in the same). I welcome the KIPP approach into the educational world and celebrate the success it has found thus far. However, I do think it should be tested more rigorously, which will not only inform its own practice and give opportunities for improvement, but will also help to ferret out what aspects of the program can be exported, what are unique to the program and the population it is intended to work with, and what lessons can be learned from the program.

As you said, there is more to KIPP than is generally put forth in the literature, information that I intend to learn more about and hopefully will be able to with more research on my own part. However, as a successful educator who works in a non-KIPP program, it is frustrating to see people (both those within KIPP and those who are not particularly well-informed on educational issues) say, "Look, all you have to do is have teachers work harder and longer and get the students to work harder and longer and you'll be successful!" This is perhaps not KIPP's intent or perhaps it is, to sell the program, but any time a program is hyped without sufficient critical analysis, you risk overhyping it and alienating people (like myself) who are insulted when people ask you, "Why don't you just do what KIPP does?" as if there is some super-easy secret that they have figured out that the rest of us are clueless about.

My original intent on posting on the board was just to offer some balance and perspective on the KIPP approach. It certainly was not intended to bash the program itself, but rather to point out some weaknesses I perceive in the program and also to the greater problem with educational reform in this country and how it is often based on hype derived from insufficient research. Thanks for your info and perspective; it will continue to help me better understand KIPP and, as result, my own craft and work.