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Governments must do all they can to develop, retain and motivate teachers

Los Angeles-based businessman- philanthropist Lowell Milken is promoter-chairman of the Milken Educator Awards, TAP: System for Teacher & Student Advancement and National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. In April he was conferred the James Bryant Conant Award for exceptional individual contribution to American education. Excerpts from an e-mail interview. 

For over three decades you have focused your attention on promoting teacher development institutions — Milken Educator Awards (estb. 1987), TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement (1999), and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (2005). What was the motivation behind these initiatives?

My first teachers were my parents, who nurtured my childhood curiosity and planted the seeds of a lifelong love of learning. During my K-12 years in California public schools, I was fortunate to have a number of exceptional teachers, whose vision of excellence and means for achieving it had a lasting effect on me. Yet beyond my personal experiences, research has proven that the single most important in-school factor driving student learning is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Educators play the essential role in ensuring that every young person is afforded the opportunity to acquire the skills, knowledge and experiences to take advantage of life’s opportunities. 

This understanding shaped my mission as a philanthropist and inspired me to create the Milken Educator Awards three decades ago. These Awards recognise exceptional early to mid-career educators with a surprise $25,000 (Rs.16 lakh) financial prize presented with great fanfare before entire schools, dignitaries and media. The awards celebrate, elevate and activate recipients to achieve at ever higher levels, and inspire students to consider teaching as a profession.

While the Milken Awards recognise excellence, I soon came to realise that what was also needed was a system to generate high-quality teachers. And so began an intensive multi-year effort to research and develop TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement, which I introduced in 1999. At the time, TAP’s whole school reform model — incorporating multiple career paths; continuous job-embedded professional growth; performance-based compensation; accountability with trained evaluators and detailed feedback for improvement, was revolutionary.

But by 2005, it was clear that demand for the TAP System and its proven results necessitated an independent organisation to manage not just TAP, but new best practices being developed to promote educator growth at every level. And so I established the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), which today impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students across America. Our goal: A talented teacher for every student in every classroom in the country.

Subsequently in 2007, you established the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Kansas, which also includes a museum and research center (and also invested timely seed capital in EducationWorld, India). Would it be correct to infer that you believe history is shaped by individuals rather than events?

The question of whether history is shaped by individuals or events is a challenging one. I believe it’s shaped by both. There are the rare leaders like Ronald Reagan, who through the force of his beliefs, character and optimism, reshaped America. Other individuals like Winston Churchill, were relatively ineffective until the outbreak of World War II, when he rose to the challenge to become one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. 

At the Center for Unsung Heroes, including the new Hall of Unsung Heroes museum and research center, we have conceived a place where history comes alive and people from all walks of life explore and honor individuals whose courage and compassion have changed the world. History is replete with examples of those who, for better or for worse, shaped and responded to events. Yet history isn’t static; the more we learn, the more our understanding and application of its lessons for the future evolve.

The Fort Scott, Kansas-based Center for Unsung Heroes has been visited by people from over 80 countries. More importantly, however, the potential of the center to impact people around the world is infinite. Through online access and our ever-growing network of educators, more than 1.3 million students have already participated in the rigour and adventure of discovering heroes overlooked by history books. Educators can access our multidisciplinary projects-based learning curriculum guides to engage students of all ages as they discover, create, and ultimately learn that each of us has the power to become an agent of change in the world. In particular, two exciting and challenging competitions are open to students everywhere: the Lowell Milken Center Discovery Awards and The ArtEffect Project. I encourage EducationWorld readers to learn more about these award opportunities for students all over the world at 
Moreover after establishing the Lowell Milken Center for Business Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law in 2011, in 2015 you promoted the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography. What are the major objectives of these two institutions?

UCLA School of Law, where I earned my law degree has an excellent reputation for leadership in business law. With a vision to set ever higher standards in business law education, the Institute for Business Law and Policy prepares students for outstanding careers and leadership in law as well as in business, government and philanthropy. Students are given ample opportunities to engage in real world experiences, including the Lowell Milken Institute-Sandler Prize for New Entrepreneurs — a business plan competition offering $100,000 (Rs.64 lakh) in prizes, the largest offered to students in any discipline at UCLA. 

The Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography (HMCT) is a major center of the iconic Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. From billboards to smart phones, and from political campaign trails to corporate boardrooms, advances in technology and media have ushered in a new era of visual literacy among consumers. HMCT is committed to improving the understanding and application of typography’s impact on our visual culture. Typography and letterforms are a central and critical element of communication in this visual world.

HMCT honours the extraordinary legacy of my late wife Leah Hoffmitz Milken, a revered Art Center professor for two decades, and a renowned letterform expert specialising in the creation of unique logotypes and typefaces for FedEx, Nokia, United Airlines and Disney among other corporates and organisations. Expanding on a new model of typographic education, research and international discourse, in its brief two-year lifespan HMCT has become a catalyst and global resource for educational and professional developments in the field of typography and visual communication. 

Some of America’s most revered and famous universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton among others — have been established by private entrepreneurs/philanthropists. How important in your opinion is the role played by private initiatives in American education?

Education is the means to just about everything we value as individuals, citizens and productive human beings. With education so critical to a secure future, we cannot afford to exclude any form of education — public or private — that contributes to the development of human potential. In my experience, there’s room for private sector participation to amplify the important work of the public sector. To be successful, this requires partnerships between national, state and local governments; strategic philanthropy and foundations; businesses; and parents and citizens.

America’s higher education system is a shining example of how the private and public sectors offer powerful opportunities for high-quality educational opportunities. The broad array of public and private universities and colleges of quality has made the US the envy of the world in the area of higher education by providing students, of all backgrounds and socio-economic status, opportunities to secure high quality education. 

In developing countries around the world, private initiatives in primary-secondary and higher education are viewed with suspicion. What’s your comment?

From my perspective as an international businessman, I’ve seen valuable contributions and attainments made by numerous private initiatives in education. The point is that we should be open to any forms of education that contribute to the advancement of knowledge, skills, talents and character of young people. Research plus escalating demand for charter schools operated by private or non-profit organisations demonstrate how such organisations can produce new ideas and opportunities for students, educators and communities. And we have seen how increased competition presented by charters has, in many instances, resulted in elevated aspirations and performance levels for more traditional public schools — a win-win situation. With so much that needs to be done to reach the goal of providing every student a high quality educational experience, we should not limit the efforts to do so to the government alone. Having said that, it is essential that private initiatives be held accountable for performance.

Teacher training and development is the Achilles heel of Indian pre-primary and K-12 education. Are there opportunities for collaboration between MEA, TAP, NIET, etc., and teacher development institutions in India?

The Milken Educator Awards work in partnership with state departments of education to determine recipients according to specific criteria. Any individual or organisation in India is welcome to model a program after our awards to recognise and celebrate talented educators! In terms of NIET and TAP, the systems and rubrics we have developed to produce more effective educators certainly have the potential to become templates for other countries to attract, develop, motivate and retain high quality teachers.

In the new knowledge economy of the 21st century, the purpose and pedagogies of education have changed beyond all expectations. Do you believe the education gap between the developed OECD and developing countries is narrowing?

While the achievement gap is narrowing in some developing countries, others are simply not making the requisite progress. To significantly change this state of affairs requires leadership, parental and student involvement, and a high quality teacher corps. Human capital is the beating heart of education. And developing strong human capital is not only the goal of education, it is the means to achieving that goal. For without vibrant, engaged and excellent educators, there is little chance of producing students with the same qualities. It is incumbent upon countries, states and local governments to do all they can to attract, develop, retain and motivate the best talent for and within the teaching profession. 

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