Securing Democracy Through Education: An Essay By Lowell Milken

Oct 15, 2014

Tags: Education Reform, TAP System for teacher and student advancement

I was eight years old in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite into outer space.  Even as young children, we had a sense that we had entered into a new era, one in which the power and strength of the United States could no longer be assured. 

In the two years following Sputnik’s launch, I had the good fortune of having two people enter my life who proved crucial in helping me and so many other students prepare to meet the challenges of this new era.  First there was Mr. Fosse, my fifth-grade teacher, who had a passion for American History, particularly the Revolutionary War.  I remember—vividly—the way he cared about America’s heritage and wanted me to care about and understand it, too.  He set high standards for every student in the class and without explanation or fanfare, made it clear to us that excellence was as much about quality of effort as it was about quality of achievement.  Yes, Mr. Fosse was serious about our education and impressed upon us that what we learned in fifth grade was important—and relevant—to our future in secondary school and beyond.  Somehow I knew that, in his mind, America’s quest for independence was related to our youthful journey toward self-sufficiency.  And at the heart of that self-sufficiency was a standard of excellence we needed to attain if our nation was to remain a world leader. 

Then there was Mr. Sutton, my sixth-grade teacher, who made everything we learned exciting by relating it to something that was real in our lives.  A warm, caring coach, yet a firm and challenging instructor, Mr. Sutton prepared us to meet the very high standards he set in mathematics, standards evident in the three-part, end-of-the-year examination we proudly sweated through.  He taught us the importance of being able to think on our feet by making us practice the art of extemporaneous speaking.  And he made sure we were well versed in geography through a captivating daily map contest.  Standing in pairs before a Rand McNally map pulled down over the blackboard, we would compete to be the first to place a finger on a designated locale that Mr. Sutton selected.  It was a game, yes, but one that motivated us to go home at night and spend time pouring over world maps so we could enjoy the thrill of victory and win the praise of our beloved teacher.   

Looking back now after three decades of work in business and philanthropy, I will never forget the critical role that these two educators played in my life.  Their impact exemplifies what has been for me a bedrock belief, affirmed and reaffirmed time and time again:  that education is the means most conducive to ensuring a secure future for our citizens and our nation. 

Why?  Because a sound education touches on just about everything we value as individuals, citizens and productive human beings.  It provides the fullest opportunities for realizing our potential as it models virtue, encourages ideals, and guides the formation of character.  In short, education gives us greater access to all that we can give to the world—which is exactly why the future belongs to the educated.   

Education is the answer for the individual because it awakens the mind and sustains curiosity.  Education equips each of us with the knowledge, skills, awareness and confidence not only to make sound and independent judgments, but also to proceed to the next stage in learning and life.  It teaches the individual how to engage reasonably and productively with others, instilling the willingness to take initiative for the good of others, which is the very definition of community.

Education is the answer for us as citizens because, in addition to forming the capacity to lead, it prepares our youth to defend, question, understand and participate in our democratic government.  Education makes young people part of our great national narrative—crucial in a nation whose bloodlines, languages, religions and myths have so many sources.  It attaches Americans to the creeds and symbols of shared purpose that guide us.  Education is crucial for citizens as it strengthens our engagement with others through the lessons of history, which are the vital connections to a secure future.

And when the question is how to achieve prosperity, education is absolutely the answer.  For only the educated individual can achieve the kind of productivity that is essential in this age of the knowledge worker. 

This is an extraordinary bounty.  But for the promise of education to be realized, it must be received and provided as part of a rigorous experience.  And to make this happen today in our nation’s public schools, talented teachers are the key.  Research now confirms that the single most important element driving student performance is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.  Teachers like Mr. Fosse, Mr. Sutton and many others, who in their own indomitable way, make a profound contribution to young people’s minds, imaginations and character.

So how do we ensure every young person’s right to such a talented and caring teacher each school year when in our nation today, there is not enough of that excellence?   After nearly three decades of research, visits to hundreds of classrooms and interaction with thousands of outstanding educators, I am convinced that to develop this excellence requires comprehensive, sustainable school reform that puts the talented teacher at the center of the equation.  This is why we created the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), a comprehensive school reform that seeks to attract, retain and motivate the best talent to the American teaching profession by creating powerful and sustained opportunities for career advancement, professional growth, teacher accountability, and competitive compensation.

In TAP schools across the nation, results demonstrate that teachers thrive and students achieve.  Perhaps most vital is the finding that TAP stimulates achievement across all socioeconomic levels, essential to the American dream that “anyone can grow up to be President,” a perception that has been synonymous with the power of education in our democracy.  With such programs in place, there is true potential for our corps of three million educators to attract and retain the tens of thousands of talented individuals necessary to revitalize the teaching profession. 

Nearly a half-century after Russia launched Sputnik and changed the world, I had the pleasure of introducing my two former teachers to more than a thousand leaders from education, business and government at a National Education Conference.  When these outstanding teachers rose to be recognized, the entire room rose with them and let loose a tidal wave of applause.  For at that moment, it was clear that Mr. Fosse and Mr. Sutton stood for everyone’s best teacher.  More importantly, however, they stood for talented teachers across our nation who light the way for millions of students, laying the foundation for our national security and sustaining our future as a democracy; in essence, preserving our very quality of life.  The legacy of great teachers reminds us anew of the power and promise of education that must be replenished from generation to generation in order for democracy to triumph.


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