Lowell Milken: About the Milken Family Foundation

Oct 11, 2006 by

An Interview with Lowell Milken: About the Milken Family Foundation

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

Lowell Milken is the chairman of the Milken Family Foundation and the creator of the Milken Educator Awards, the Teacher Advancement Program and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.  This fall, he will be going across the country for the 20th anniversary awards tour to surprise highly talented teachers with Milken Educator Awards.


  • First of all, what prompted you to recognize outstanding teachers and how did you go about identifying them?

Among the leaders, scholars and pioneers who have positively impacted society, there is one common element: at some point in their development, there was an outstanding teacher who cultivated their potential, developed their knowledge and understanding, and instilled in them the passion and practices to become lifelong learners. Every child in America deserves to have such teachers in their lives, and every leader in America should make it a priority to trumpet the achievements of effective educators, reward them, and provide an environment in which these talented educators can thrive.

This was my objective more than 20 years ago when I created the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Awards program, and it is a goal we continue to pursue on a profoundly larger scale today. Each fall, as we crisscross the country to surprise and honor our newest Milken Educators at schoolwide assemblies from California to Florida, Hawaii to Maine, we see evidence over and over again of the enormous value that outstanding educators contribute to their students and communities. We see it in the thunderous standing ovations when the Award recipients’ names are announced. We see it in the innovative, highly professional strategies that have allowed these educators to dramatically improve student achievement. And we see it in the leadership that these professionals demonstrate at all levels.


In terms of selecting new Milken Educators, the departments of education for the 48 participating states and District of Columbia appoint blue-ribbon committees that recommend candidates for selection based on guidelines established by MFF. Identification and selection procedures are confidential, and the program does not include a formal nomination or application procedure.

The criteria for the selection of outstanding elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and other education professionals as Milken Educators include all of the following:

  • Exceptional educational talent as evidenced by effective instructional practices and student learning results in the classroom and school;
  • Exemplary educational accomplishments beyond the classroom that provide models of excellence for the profession;
  • Strong long-range potential for professional and policy leadership; and
  • Engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community.


  • Could you tell us a bit about the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching?


Based on the Teacher Advancement Program’s success and the growing demand for comprehensive teacher quality programs, we established the nonprofit National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to operate TAP, as well as a Teacher Quality Best Practices Center. Through these initiatives, we hope to further accelerate the development of a highly qualified teacher corps in every corner of our nation. Recognizing that a quality teacher is the most important school-based factor impacting student achievement, NIET is committed to ensuring a highly skilled, strongly motivated and competitively compensated teacher for every classroom in America.


  • Who runs the Milken Educator Awards on a daily basis?


I am actively involved shaping our initiatives in education, assisted by a staff of talented professionals. Dr. Jane Foley, herself a 1994 Milken Educator from Indiana, is our Senior Vice President of the Milken Educator Awards.


  • When did the Milken Family Foundation begin and what was its basic mission statement?


The purpose of the Milken Family Foundation since its inception in 1982 has been to discover and advance inventive and effective ways of helping people help themselves and those around them lead productive and satisfying lives. MFF advances this mission primarily through our work in education and medical research.


In EDUCATION, MFF is committed to:


  • Strengthening the profession by recognizing and rewarding outstanding educators, and by expanding their professional leadership and policy influence.


  • Attracting, developing, motivating and retaining the best talent to the teaching profession by means of comprehensive, whole school reform.


  • Stimulating creativity and productivity among young people and adults through programs that encourage learning as a lifelong process.


  • Building vibrant communities by involving people of all ages in programs that contribute to the revitalization of their community and to the well-being of its residents.


In MEDICAL RESEARCH, MFF is committed to:


  • Advancing and supporting basic and applied medical research—especially in the areas of prostate cancer and epilepsy—and recognizing and rewarding outstanding scientists in these areas.


  • Supporting basic health care programs to assure the well-being of community members of all ages.



  • What is the “Teacher Advancement Program” and what does it try to accomplish?


Combining the input of the Milken Educator Network—now more than 2,200-strong—
with the Foundation’s two decades of research in education and school reform, as well as my professional experiences in business over the past quarter century, I realized that a revolutionary systemic change in how teachers are perceived, trained, supported, evaluated and compensated would be necessary to attract, retain and motivate the best talent to the teaching profession.


To accomplish this goal, we introduced the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) in 1999 as a research-based, comprehensive school reform. Since then, TAP has expanded dramatically to over 125 schools, impacting more than 56,000 students and 3,500 teachers. TAP continues to attract the support and involvement of powerful partners from government officials to business leaders, from nonprofit foundations to individual educators.


  • Sadly, good teachers do not get recognized often enough. Education News would be honored to post a list of your winners if you would be so kind as to oblige. What exactly do you give these highly talented teachers?


The Milken Educator Awards program is dedicated to shining a light on the important work of quality educators. We would be pleased to have the new 2006 class of Milken Educators received the attention of Education News. For an ongoing list of new recipients, please see our Milken Family Foundation Web site at www.mff.org .


This year marks the 20th anniversary for presenting Milken Educators with individual unrestricted awards of $25,000 during the fall’s surprise notification assemblies. We present the financial awards to new honorees at a gala celebration held at the annual Milken Family Foundation National Education Conference each spring. And recipients join more than 2,200 distinguished educators in the Milken Educator Network, serving as a rich resource for education leadership at the local, state and national levels, as well as a base of expertise for policy makers seeking to improve K-12 education.



  • How do you compare “highly qualified teachers” in urban versus rural parts of the country, or in first grade versus 12th grade? I guess what I am asking is, how do you compare a teacher functioning in the South Bronx, under poor conditions, with a teacher in Scarsdale with an unlimited budget and highly motivated kids and excellent conditions?


TAP’s goal is to attract, retain, motivate and develop “high quality” teachers into the classroom regardless of where a school is located. This is somewhat different from the NCLB definition of “highly qualified” which is based on a set of input criteria that all teachers must meet such as passing certain tests and having specific credentials.


TAP measures the quality of teachers through classroom observation and also through the achievement gains of a teacher’s individual students, and of the school overall.   TAP teachers are observed 4-6 times each year by multiple, trained and certified evaluators. The evaluators use a set of standards with rubrics that are clearly defined. Teachers are given support by the master and mentor teachers when weaknesses are noted.


TAP teachers are also held accountable for their students’ academic growth measured by gains in standardized assessment tests. This growth is measured using a value-added method. In simple terms, this means that rather than expecting all students to meet a single achievement level, TAP focuses on the achievement growth that students make from one year to the next. This method takes into account where students start and where they end, and compares that growth to a reference group in order to determine whether the change was due to simply completing a year of school, or whether the classroom environment had an impact. Rather than expecting all students to meet, say the 80th percentile, the expectation might be that all students make a 10% gain. Some students might achieve that growth from a 40th percentile starting point (in a more challenged environment), while others might make that gain from a 75th percentile starting point (in higher achieving schools).


  • I suppose there are a lot of talented, dedicated principals out there also. Do you do anything to recognize them?


The Milken Educator Awards program provides public recognition and financial rewards to elementary and secondary schoolteachers, principals and specialists who are furthering excellence in education.

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