Lowell Milken is on a mission to transform American K-12 education. And it all starts, he says, with teachers.Businessman and philanthropist Lowell Milken has dedicated the past 35 years of his life to improving education in America. Why?
“My parents instilled in me the importance of serving others,” Milken said. “And if the goal is to serve others in a way that enables people to help themselves and those around them lead productive and satisfying lives, then there is no means more powerful to do so than education.”
In 1987, Milken launched the Milken Educator Awards—by far the largest teacher recognition program in the country—to publicly recognize and honor outstanding teachers with a $25,000 award annually. Among other education initiatives, Milken developed TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement in 1999, and founded the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to support and manage the TAP system nationally.
For those reasons and more, Milken’s reputation looms large over the education reform movement in America. So it was an honor when he visited the Fred S. Klipsch Educators College last fall to deliver the keynote address for the Marian University Academy for Teaching and Learning Leadership Program’s 10th anniversary. Here, Milken reflects on his visit to Marian University, the heroism of teachers, and why human capital is our most precious natural resource.
Your appearance at Klipsch Educators College last fall was your first time visiting Marian. What was your general impression?
It was impressive to see firsthand your commitment to leadership and bold reform in American K-12 education. I was also impressed with the knowledge and experiences of President Elsener in K-12 education. It’s rare to find a university president as well-informed and passionate in terms of what needs to be done to improve American K-12 education.
In your keynote address, you said “authentic educator leadership” is “plain heroic.” Why so?
It takes a particular kind of individual to tackle the formidable challenges facing the American education system. It requires a certain kind of energy and talent, plus the courage and willingness to do things differently—to risk more, and to be held more accountable. I consider this commitment and dedication to be a heroic action, and that’s why I used the term.
While at Marian you visited the teaching simulation lab, where students practice in front of computerized “avatars” while instructors provide feedback using your TAP system. What was it like to see TAP used with AI-powered tools?
I said “Wow!” And that’s “wow” with an exclamation point. It is thrilling to see how pre-service teachers are able to develop their skills in terms of instruction and classroom management while receiving important feedback. As a result of seeing that demonstration, we are in discussions at NIET on how we might use these tools within schools today to drive and improve teacher practices and evaluations. It was a most productive opportunity.
Can you share a little about the history of the TAP model, and why it was needed?
I first introduced TAP in 1999 with the goal of making teacher effectiveness the cornerstone of effective K-12 education reform and to put on the ground a comprehensive system that would transform this goal from an idea into a reality. TAP was constructed to provide powerful opportunities for career advancement, professional growth, and competitive compensation, the very opportunities that for centuries have attracted talented and creative people to other professions, motivating them, giving them satisfaction, and enabling them to excel. These same opportunities must be provided to K-12 educators to attract, develop, retain, and motivate the best talent to the teaching profession.
How does it feel to see a university like Marian embrace the system so strongly?
It’s rewarding to see firsthand the impact Marian is having as each year they prepare individuals to take leadership positions in districts and schools throughout the nation—particularly in high-need schools. We are gratified to witness high-stature institutions, like the Klipsch Educators College value and embrace the TAP teaching standards as a core of teacher pre-service education.
You’ve earned fame for the Milken Educator Awards, which has given $70 million in awards to educators across the United States. What kind of measurable impact have you been able to make with the award?
While the financial award attracts media attention and is much appreciated by the recipients, it is not the focus of the Milken Educator Awards program. Recipients join a national network of exemplary educators from every setting in the country and have opportunities to further their own professional growth, as well as contribute to the professional growth of their colleagues. Over the years, many educators have taken on new roles and responsibilities, becoming state superintendents, district superintendents, and curricula and professional development specialists. All in all, it has been incredibly impactful for the recipients, the communities in which they teach, and the students who witness the surprise notification ceremony.
You have said that the world’s most precious resource is human capital. What does that mean, exactly?
Human capital is the talent and potential of people. It encompasses an individual’s skills, knowledge, and experiences. Decades of personal experience in business and philanthropy have proven to me that high-quality human capital is the decisive factor in every endeavor. In K-12 education, developing the human potential of teachers is the most important in-school element in developing the potential of students.
What role do you see education schools like Klipsch Educators College playing in the effort to improve outcomes in United States schools?
Historically, many schools of education have not prepared their students for the realities of today’s classrooms. As a result, new teachers often feel overwhelmed when they enter the classroom. Little wonder statistics show that nearly half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Schools of education have an enormous opportunity to make a difference, but they need to be progressive in their thinking. Klipsch Educators College understands the need to prepare teachers so they can be successful from day one. It approaches teaching as a profession that is to be respected and valued. I hope that other institutions will mirror the approach Marian has taken.