Interview: Lowell Milken & $25,000 for Exceptional Teachers

It’s not everyday that someone offers an outstanding teacher $25,000, although there’s reason to believe that it should happen more often. What if we rewarded good teachers for their work? Would student achievement increase?

Lowell Milken is a businessman and philanthropist whose foundation has been surprising outstanding teachers with $25,000 rewards, no strings attached, for the past 23 years. So is it working? He says it is. He also has plans to change entire school systems, and he says that’s working too. Skeptical? Read the interview and then share your thoughts on his plans.

The Interview

You’re about to start your 23rd year going across the country rewarding outstanding teachers with $25,000 in cash as part of the Milken Educator Awards. Most teachers say that they don’t go into teaching for the money, but has anyone ever turned the money down?

Lowell MilkenI am proud to say that no recipient has walked away from the $25,000 financial prize. Despite the “attention grabbing” nature of the financial award, I am convinced that the public recognition, the validation of their excellence, and the opportunity to join a national network of reform-minded exemplary educators are probably of greater value to the winners. Those are there after the money is gone.

Milken Educators frequently tell me that the Awards helped make their voices heard on local, state and even federal education issues. So the Awards, in fact, go beyond the money, becoming what many recipients call “the gift that keeps giving.”

How about some numbers? How many winners each year? How much money has the Foundation given out so far?

We have recognized more than 2,400 outstanding educators and presented more than $60 million in Awards. In addition, we have expended more than $50 million in the development and ongoing support of state and national networks and in the development and operation of the Milken Educator Awards program itself. This year we will present more than 50 Awards.

What’s been the most memorable reaction?

Perhaps the funniest was in Michigan in 1999, when we presented the Award to a surprised Kendra Hearn, who was in her pajamas. It just happened to be “Pajama Day’ at her school when we showed up with TV cameras in tow.


While each announcement is memorable, two that stand out in my mind are Daphne Whitington of Chicago and Robin Turner of Austin, TX. Daphne, who received her Award in 2007, was an Ivy-League graduate who deliberately chose one of teaching’s toughest assignments—Las Casas Occupational High, the last stop for students repeatedly expelled from mainstream schools due to severe emotional and behavioral difficulties. A touching moment of the event was when Dominique Lewis, a Las Casas graduate, brought her high school diploma to show Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools at the time. When Dominique found out that it was Daphne—her favorite teacher—that we were honoring, she was moved to come forward and publicly thank Daphne for helping her complete high school and train for a job.
Daphne Whitington & Robin Turner
As for Robin Turner’s event, we typically invite veteran Milken Educators to congratulate the new recipients and say a few words about the Award’s impact. One such “vet” was Donald Moran, who received the Award in 1992 as a principal in Illinois. Fast-forward to Austin in 2006, where Donald takes the stage to congratulate Robin. All of a sudden we hear a gasp from Robin, who asks Donald, “Do you remember me?” Donald takes a step back, and, when he learns her maiden name, gasps, too. “You were my principal!” Robin exclaimed. And that, right there in a nutshell, explains the chain reaction caused by outstanding educators. It was a great “Milken Family” reunion of sorts.

And who knows what will happen this year?

Are the winners genuinely surprised to win?

I created the program back in 1985 with the surprise element as a core component, because we wanted to recognize those outstanding teachers and principals that were “unsung”—educators who every day were making a profound difference in students’ lives but not interested in promoting themselves for awards. That is why the Awards do not have an application or nomination process. And it is why we say at the surprise assemblies that: “We find you, you do not find us.”

Our goal is to elevate the teaching profession and send a powerful message to young people that greatness in education can be recognized, too (not just in the field of sports or entertainment). We wanted talented young people to consider the impact they could make in their lives by becoming a teacher.

How are the winners chosen? I know that the “Teacher of the Year” can be pretty political. Can you assure us that your award isn’t balanced by race, gender, subject taught, and so on?

While we do not like to be too specific in how educators are selected, I can tell you that we work with State Departments of Education to surface names of outstanding individuals. “Due diligence” is then conducted with respect to such individuals, recommendations are made to a blue-ribbon committee in each state, and their findings are sent to the Foundation. We make the final decisions, and while we look for the best candidate in every jurisdiction, it is not difficult to find great teachers and principals each year of every race, gender and subject taught.

What was your motivation for creating the program?

My parents and outstanding teachers. As far back as I can remember, my parents instilled in me the love of learning. And I was fortunate to have talented teachers who nurtured this understanding, particularly in the cases of my fifth- and sixth-grade teachers, Mr. Lou Fosse and Mr. Elliot Sutton. When I walked into their classrooms, I was entering a special environment led by warm, caring coaches, who were also firm and challenging instructors. A few years after graduate school, I began to sponsor programs that supported effective teachers. From those initial efforts, I wanted to do something far more comprehensive—in fact, national in scope—to reward and celebrate the work of talented K -12 teachers and principals.

And so, in 1985, I put in place the elements of what became the Milken Educator Awards. By focusing the spotlight of recognition on excellence, we hope to inspire educators, students and entire communities to new heights of commitment and expectation.

I know it’s great PR for your Foundation, but do you believe it’s having an impact on the teaching profession generally? What’s your evidence?

Good question. Let me give you a couple of examples. Consider Julie Herman, an inspirational intervention specialist from Canton, OH, I notified in 2006. We were captivated by Julie’s remarkable accomplishments against what would seem unbeatable odds. A quadriplegic since birth, she used her mouth to write and her guide dog to navigate life in a wheelchair. Before receiving the Milken Educator Award, she wasn’t known beyond her school. Now district folks shadow her moves, associations call her for advice, and after years of asking, she received not one, but two, student teachers.

Julie Herman

Remember I called it a “gift that keeps on giving”? Well, a sight-and-hearing-impaired high school student named Shelby, who doubted she could realize her dream of becoming a teacher, read in the newspaper about Julie’s achievements and asked to meet her; subsequently she enrolled in a pre-education course and began tutoring children after school.

And here’s a very different example. The Virginia Teachers of Promise Institute is, in a way, one of our “children.” It shows how a group of Milken Educators can collaborate to make an impact beyond their schools. Wade Whitehead, who received his Award in 2000, worked with his Milken Educator Network to create the Institute to provide guidance for pre-service teachers from all of the Commonwealth’s 37 teacher-accrediting institutions as they transition into the classroom.

The Institute is hosted annually at James Madison University, where 1999 Virginia Milken Educator Philip Bigler is a director. Two hundred teachers-to-be participated in this year’s event, representing 30 different Virginia schools of education.

You have started something you call TAP. Tell me about that.

We’re trying to change the system through a comprehensive school reform focused on the most important school related factor driving student performance—teacher quality. The national Milken Educator Network became the breeding ground for the development of TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement. We conceived of TAP as a way to transform school cultures into a powerful and nurturing environment for both teachers and students to succeed. TAP provides teachers the opportunity to become mentor and master teachers—and make more money when their students learn more. When I unveiled TAP in 1999, there was little discussion in the country about teacher quality as the key to school reform. And concepts like performance pay were seen as a revolutionary departure. But as TAP started “restructuring” school cultures—with a focus on high-need urban, rural and suburban districts across the country—discussion and then acceptance of TAP’s bold elements began to change. Our national results show that TAP teachers are producing higher student achievement growth than comparable non-TAP teachers because they have strong mechanisms in place through TAP to improve their skills and behaviors. At the same time, TAP is creating a culture of collaboration and teamwork along the way.

You say it’s successful. Where? Who’s using TAP?

TAP has grown significantly in numbers over the past nine years. TAP started in a few schools in 2000; now, TAP is impacting more than 7,500 teachers and 85,000 students and growing rapidly. We are seeing progress in all places TAP is implemented, but I want to draw on a few examples from Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas to demonstrate its success. In New Orleans, TAP started in the Algiers Charter Schools Association, whose schools were among the first to open post-Katrina. The student bodies had a 93% free and reduced-price lunch rate, many of whom were also displaced. With TAP as their way of strengthening teachers and students — as well as the community around them — all six schools met their value-added growth targets. Five out of the six schools received the highest value-added score of “5,” meaning that they significantly exceeded a year’s growth compared with similar schools across the state. The sixth school made a solid year’s growth.

In South Carolina, where TAP is primarily serving schools of the highest-need, 80% of TAP schools made school-wide value-added gains, and more than 90% of teachers reported positive effects on TAP’s collegiality, teacher evaluation and professional development. In Texas, two-thirds of TAP schools scored a “5” value-added score, performing exceedingly higher than their peers across the state.

Retention rates are soaring in these places, too. In Richardson, Texas, for example, Richardson Audelia Creek Elementary’s rate shot up from 33 to 92% after only two years of TAP, Thurgood Marshall Elementary jumped from 36 to 87%, and Forest Meadow Junior High’s rate increased from 56 to 80%. TAP is essential recruitment tool for attracting high-quality teachers to high-need schools.

What kinds of things are the winners–the “Milken Educators” saying about the overall impact of No Child Left Behind?

Most Award recipients seem to have some concerns about a single assessment measure under NCLB. They understand the need to assure that every child is receiving the maximum educational opportunities, and they are willing to be held accountable for results. Recipients are generally supportive of the assessment of every child, insuring that schools cannot hide behind the averages, as was so often the case before NCLB, but the vast majority believes that value-added models should be incorporated within NCLB.

Arne Duncan was on The Colbert Report recently and–not jokingly–acknowledged that he doesn’t say much about No Child Left Behind or even use that name. How did that law become damaged goods to such an extent?

That’s a remarkable change, but when you base assessment on a single measure and do not take into account where the child started and what progress the child has made, you leave yourself open to criticism. At the time NCLB was instituted, many believed that growth models (value-added) were not sufficiently refined. Today, much progress has been made, but the original opposition to NCLB has remained.

Despite the need for modifications, I believe that NCLB is an historic piece of legislation, perhaps the most important education legislation in our history. It should not be abandoned, but rather refined.

What should the next version of NCLB look like? Should we drop the goal of having all students reach proficiency by 2014, for example?

To respond fully would require a two-volume set. However, there are two key points that we believe should be addressed.

First, we need to use value-added/growth models that track students’ movement toward proficiency goals rather than absolute levels as a measure to determine Adequate Yearly Progress. Measuring a student’s growth from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year is the proper measure to assess teacher effectiveness. The TAP system has been using this measure since 2001 with great success in driving student achievement gains and increasing teacher effectiveness.

The second point relates to increasing the prestige of the profession and ensuring that teachers have effective means for improving their skills and increasing student achievement growth. A rewritten NCLB can raise the level of teaching talent in our schools, particularly high-need schools. Federal funding, through Title II, should be used to support meaningful and sustained improvements in compensation, professional development, and career opportunities for teachers

We seem to be moving inexorably toward national or common standards. To get “Race to the Top” money, for example, states have to promise to raise their own standards, 48 states and the District of Columbia have endorsed the concept, and the Department of Education is pumping dollars into their development. But the first draft for English Language Arts strikes me as bizarrely complex and almost unreadable. Is this a fool’s errand? How would you go about creating national standards?

I’m going to “side-step” that question, because we haven’t been involved in “crafting” specific content standards. However, I continue to be a strong supporter of the need to set in place world-class standards in each content area—standards that will enable students to acquire the skills and knowledge to be successful in the 21st century.

Other countries are way ahead of us on this. Over the years, I have had the opportunity through my business operations in Asia and Europe to observe firsthand those educational systems that realize significant student achievement growth and high-quality teaching practices. A common denominator of each system is world-class standards that focus students and teachers on the specific skills, knowledge and experiences that will ensure that young people are prepared for the workforce of today and tomorrow. That’s what we need.

12 thoughts on “Interview: Lowell Milken & $25,000 for Exceptional Teachers

  1. What is the financial cutoff line? How much does a wealthy person (Milken, Broad) need to pay to become an educational savior?


  2. Congratulations to Mr. Milken abd his various efforts with K-12 education.
    May I suggest that while the money is so wonderful for deserving teachers, it’s even more important for their membership in the Milken family.
    It’s dialogue and activities among such groups that lead to improvement. I trust the recipients reach out to others (as in Virginia) to grow the change – ever improving their own efforts at the same time.
    I’m excited by the TAP efforts and will be seeking to learn more about them.
    I am in agreement with his views and commend him on his efforts. Thanks, John,for bringing this effort to a wider audience.


  3. It’s heartening to know that effort is being made also to improve “English Language Arts.” Having taught English at the college level for over 20 years in the States, I find that more and more students need basic English and writing skills.

    What does TAP stand for? The acronym does not seem to match the given title or name. Or, have I missed it?

    Thanks, Mr. Milken. It’s visionary people like you that create HOPE.


  4. Kudos to Mr. Milken for placing the spotlight on the teaching profession. There is no other career that has the capability of impacting lives, society and the future in such a profound way. As a 2008 award winner, I can truly say that the monetary award allowed me to touch the future. Because of the funds, some of my students will grow up to make a positive impact on the world and perhaps they, too, will pay it forward.

    The award brought recognition to my school, cast my phenomenal faculty and staff in a positive light, encouraged my students to do their best and engaged our entire community around a celebration of teaching and learning. It was an amazing event to witness!

    I applaud Mr. Milken and others like him who are drawing positive attention to those who make personal sacrifices each day so that someone else’s child may have a better life!


  5. It is always wonderful when people in the private sector step up to reward teachers and students. Every little bit helps.

    Last year a local doctor offered to pay for all the AP Spanish and Spanish literature tests at our school. I believe the total amoung was in the thousands (I don’t remember the exact figure). If he had not done this far fewer would have taken the AP test and I doubt if very many would have taken multiple AP tests so as to become AP scholars.

    It is wonderful that people in the private sector recognize hard work and excellence among teachers. If I were “King” there are a few things I would do for teachers.
    1) Fees for AP exams and college applications for the children of teachers would be waived or highly discounted.

    2) it is nice we get to write off supplies -this is a modest write off but teachers because we have a classroom supposedly are almost never allowed to write off a home office. So I believe we should give a bigger tax break to teachers. Teacher make up a very large percentage of volunteer coaches and Sunday school teachers. Next to Mothers -who are also under appreciated in American- teachers are the most underappreciated professinals in America.

    But I don’t know any teachers who don’t work at home and on weekends. During the school year teachers are working constantly, tutoring in the afternoon, adjunt duty at sports or student activities (unpaid) and of course grading papers and doing lesson preps (only a tiny fraction of this time is remunerated less than 5 hours a week. It is not unusual for a teacher to put 15-25 houres a week besides classes in reading, perparing grading, calling parents and meeting with students. Teaching is very much a calling. I also tell students you have to love your school, your kids and your subject material. If you don’t believe in your subject material like a Dr. belives in health I don’t think you can stay in teaching for a career. One needs to have a strong sense of civic virtue and public service. One needs to forgive kids , forgive kids and put them first even if you don’t put up with any nonsense. To me the most tiresome part of teaching is not grading essays or exams but doing paperwork and referrals and tracking down that tiny miinority of incorrible kids. All you need is 4 or 5 jokers and a class of 40 could be completely disrupted. A major problem for teachers is a lack of respect. But one wins over students with a series of many small kindnesses and encouaging them to take charage of their own lives.


  6. I’m a past Milken winner (2001), and while it was certainly great to get the check (and my students REALLY enjoyed the celebration), I sincerely don’t think we improve the quality of teaching by rewarding some excellent teaching with random checks or other serendipitous acts of kindness. I was, frankly, put off by how the Foundation used the occasion of our awards to push the TAP project on us and get us to be spokespersons for it. TAP has some good aspects to it, particularly its approach to professional development. It also has some serious weaknesses, including its presumptuous reliance on VAM and tight limits on how many teachers within a TAP school can actually earn the higher levels in its tiers. Still, it’s good to see more of these philantrophists turn their attention and dollars towards education in some way.


  7. Joy, thank you for your comments. To answer your question, TAP was initially created as the “Teacher Advancement Program,” but because of its dramatic growth and progress over the years, the name evolved to “match” the systemic change happening in schools across the country.

    To learn more about TAP, please visit We have a new results summary up on the website and are highlighting a Center for American Progress report about the effectiveness of TAP’s four interrelated elements (

    For those of you interested in “following” the Milken Family Foundation on this year’s national Milken Educator Award tour, go to There, you’ll catch the latest about the recipients and, yes, watch their incredible surprise reactions!

    If anyone has further questions about the Milken Educator Awards or TAP, feel free to drop me a line at


  8. I will forever be grateful to Lowell Milken and the Milken family for recognizing my work as a classroom teacher!!! I was surprised today to click on this link and see my award notification mentioned. I will never forget that day in October 2006.

    I can not tell you how many days, nights, weekends and years I worked to learn to be a great teacher. I attended professional development endlessly and completed the National Board Certification Process, which improved my practices greatly through reflection on my work and taught me to understand what my students needed as individuals. I would tell myself that my students deserved a great teacher. That is the heart of teacher quality. It’s about every student deserving a quality teacher and improved learning in every classroom, everyday.

    The Milken Educator award has impacted my life significantly. Because of the Milken award, I now have leadership opportunities in my school and my district. I remember saying at my annoucement that I wanted to continue to impact the lives of students because that was my mission and ministry as a teacher. Today I get a chance to impact the lives of over 200 students as a full-time mentor to novice teachers in the Austin Independent School District REACH program which is a teaching and learning initiative that combines support and rewards to recruit, retain and recognize exemplary teachers and administrators.

    I know there are many teachers who deserve to be recognized for their work with students and never are. I applaud the Milken family for spotlighting the teaching profession in a different way. Yes it is very rewarding when students say “I get it or I understand now.” It is very rewarding when a parent thanks you and wants you to teach every one of their children. But it is also rewarding to be a star for the day and that’s what it feels like when the Milken Family Foundation names you as an exceptional teacher.


  9. So we have heard from two Milken winners, and their comments are strikingly different. Any more out there who want to weigh in?


  10. Like many other surprised Milken Educators, I will never forget (October 23, 2002) the day my name was announced in a school assembly. Being named a Milken Educator has been one of the highlights of my 23 years as a public school teacher in Los Angeles. Witnessing students learn how to read or understand a concept, and watching former student teachers and mentees become accomplished teachers have been the other joys of my professional life.

    The Milken Educator Award is a gift that keeps on giving. Sure the check was wonderful, who would say otherwise. It provided me the opportunity to: celebrate with colleagues and mentors that had influenced my teaching, buy a hard book for each of my students, and make much needed home improvements; but the true gift was not monetary. The true gift of being a Milken Educator for me is the opportunities that came along with having Milken Educator after my name.
    I had been involved in many leadership activities before the award, but after the award, even more opportunities came my way. I was invited to participate in educational forums, committees, and boards; often times as the sole teacher voice represented. Along with National Board Certification, being a Milken Educator gave me the confidence to write and speak publically promoting the professional I love. It also provided me with an instant network of other accomplished educators across the country.

    Recognizing accomplished teachers in such a public way also helps promote our profession. How many times have you heard people say they respect teachers greatly and that teaching is a noble profession, but they would never encourage their own children to go into teaching? We need to recruit, train, support, and retain gifted, passionate, and dedicated people to the profession. I am not saying that by giving away big checks to a few is the way, but it does put teachers and their impact on students in a positive light, even if for a few weeks in October.

    I appreciate the work the Milken Family Foundation has done for recognizing what teachers do. The amazing thing about the foundation is that they (Lowell, Jane, Joni, and the entire staff) not only hand out awards, but they know teachers by name and accomplishments.


  11. I am, and always will be, astounded by what Lowell Milken, his family, and his Foundation have done – and are doing – for public education in our country. It is humbling and exciting to be connected with them.

    I am fortunate to be surrounded by educators here in Virginia who seek excellence every day and who believe in the potential of every child. These professionals are in my school, all over my district, and spread across our Commonwealth. Our Milken recipients really represent a broad cross section of teachers and principals that work in near anonymity with greater compassion, dedication, and success than most of us realize.

    My Virginia Milken colleagues and I have been honored to carry the torch in a unique and productive way – through the Teachers of Promise Institute. Our sustained efforts have produced a bonafide tradition in our state, in the form of an annual gathering of the best of our teachers-to-be and master educators from every corner of Virginia. Our entirely self-funded endeavor meets with many obstacles, including constraints of time, geography, and funding, but our collective brainpower has thus far overcome them. I have every faith that the ingenuity and perseverance of my teammates will permit our initiative to continue in perpetuity.

    I hope our efforts serve as a model for what can happen when folks are connected and motivated to make a difference. Our mission was – and is – fueled by Lowell Milken’s vision and the work of the Milken Family Foundation. Our success really reflects that origin and we are truly grateful for the opportunity to advance the best in teaching and learning.


  12. Buenas. Tan solo quería decirte que he llegado aquí buscando en Google y me encantado el contenido el de tu blog. Enhorabuena por publicar articulos como estos en tu blog.


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