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Home » Chalk Talk – Tapping Better Teachers to Turn Out Better Students

May, 2006

The 17th annual salute to the nation’s premier educators presented by the Milken Family Foundation (MFF) was – true to form – an exhilarating reminder of the importance of excellence in all facets of education. Under the leadership of brothers Lowell and Michael, the multi-day event brings together challenging thoughts, minds and solutions in a way that defies convention. Whether it be the stellar discussions on how to really achieve teacher quality, or the glitzy and glamorous tribute to educators on the final night, the Milken Educator Awards conference reenergized the batteries of those present in a way that few events ever do.

Let’s start with the reality check that Lowell Milken delivered on Day One, in which he cogently reminded the audience that the nation’s educational proficiency is well below where it could and should be. Consider that California State University accepts only students with a grade point average of 3.0 or above. Yet of those accepted, 45 percent are in need of English remediation and 35 percent are in need of math remediation. It’s no wonder researchers have begun to question the disconnect between state tests that seem to show improvements in learning and national assessments that show little to no improvement.

Viewed from a more global perspective, there has been no progress in more than 20 years among the top scoring 10% of 17 year olds in this country. While most people would like to think that the nation’s education crisis is limited to urban America, the reality is that even our best performing students have failed to keep pace, much less gain ground. College-bound youngsters still needing to learn basic high school math and English is not a good sign. Milken and his colleagues point out that it’s little wonder that American industry must reach out beyond its borders for talent. They make a compelling argument that connects education with technological advances and societal well-being. It’s not just the computer chip market that we stand to lose, but also the wars on health and economic injustices as well.

The MFF’s leadership reminded people throughout the events that teacher quality is the single most important factor, after family background, in the educational attainment of a student. The data is clear – good teaching makes good students. And good teaching should be recognized and rewarded, MMF believes, backing it up with individual $25,000 awards to up to 100 of the nation’s top teachers each year – over 2,100 recipients to date, becoming part of the Milken Educator Network of top educators working to enhance learning in the nation’s classrooms. None of these Milken educators believe they could not do better with additional support, responsibility, accountability and collaboration with their colleagues. The Milken Educator Award gives them the opportunity to do even more – and be rewarded for it.

“All of the research, including our experience and insights from the world of business,” says Lowell Milken, “has led us to the conclusion that talented teachers are essential to ensuring excellence and rigor in the educational experience of every young person in America. Indeed, good teachers are…the foundation on which everything else is built.”

Enter the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) Foundation, founded by Lowell Milken to draw – and retain – more talented people to the teaching profession by making it a more engaging and rewarding career path. The TAP prescription for reform includes four elements:

  • Multiple Career Paths, which allow teachers to pursue a variety of positions throughout their careers;
  • Ongoing Professional Growth, so that during the school day teachers can meet, share with and learn from one another;
  • Instructionally Focused Accountability, which holds teachers accountable for meeting determined goals;
  • and Perform-Based Compensation, which is tied to more responsibility, progress toward goals, taking on difficult assignments and more.

These elements sit well with the now more than 3,100 educators in over 100 conventional and charter public schools who, since the program’s inception six years ago, have signed on to TAP to improve the learning experience of more than 45,000 students.

Such adherence to performance-based accountability is not often embraced by teachers unions. Yet one in particular – the American Federation of Teachers – actually attends the MEA conferences each year. TAP’s requirement that teachers approve the adoption of TAP before it can be brought into a school is key to the AFT’s support. Some of us do wonder why, if they like the TAP model so much, they don’t endorse similar programs in all communities and all states. The details are plentiful and the schools where TAP is currently operational are making extraordinary gains (go to and see for yourself). The elements are well-researched, and applauded by rank-and-file educators, state superintendents and many state legislators. If quality teachers can really impact students as much as the research indicates – the most effective teachers produce as much as five times the learning gains as the least effective teachers – why not make it operational system wide?

The answer to that lies in the degree of entrenchment of the long-time power brokers in most conventional public school systems, where maintaining their power base is dependent on maintaining the status quo. It is why many teachers break out of public schooling long before they even have a chance to even learn about TAP. It is why so many charter schools are now recipients of first-year teachers, Teach for America grads and mid-career changers who opt to bypass the system altogether.

But whether it’s the Milken Educator Awards or TAP or some other sort of teacher professional development and compensation, teachers need people and organizations willing to give them their due, and not just shoehorn them into positions and as if they were all interchangeable and inconsequential.

Teachers are indeed “like sunlight and oxygen” to education, as Lowell Milken puts it. But sadly, elements abound that are artificially imposed on the educational environment and that impede the ability of stellar educators’ sunlight and oxygen to work their magic. Fixed contracts, over-regulation, vested interests, adult perks trumping children’s rights, and lack of professional freedom are just a few of the systemic elements that suffocate the more pure educational aspirations.

Programs like TAP and the Milken Educator Network are an antidote to some of these more toxic elements – as are new innovative public schools like charters, as well as expanded options for parents, all of which can bring pressure to bear on current system controls.

This year’s Milken Educators, like those in years past, are shining examples of what great teachers do and how they operate. Whether they take their $25,000 award home and spend it to spruce up their house, go on a much needed vacation (maybe 4!) or donate it to their school (which some have done), one thing is certain – they will not forget their celebration in Washington nor the knowledge they gained about the educational crisis they face, and those ready to face it with them, and how they individually can indeed make a difference, not only in their classroom but across their communities and states, by carrying the torch for education reforms that bring decisions and accountability home to those which their schools serve.

Kudos to those educators and to the people who provide them their just tribute.