A Conversation with Lowell Milken:

Philanthropist and Champion of Educator Development and Recognition — Featuring added perspective from Vicki Phillips who spent eight plus years with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


Leading a successful dual career as an international businessman and hands-on philanthropist, Lowell Milken has earned a reputation as one of the most generous and effective education reformers of his generation.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Ray Simon said of Milken, “When the history of education for the latter 20th and early 21st centuries is written, it will undoubtedly look upon the efforts of Lowell Milken – especially in his groundbreaking successes with the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement – as seminal in addressing the core issues of high quality teaching and learning.”

Milken is the co-founder and chair of the Milken Family Foundation and founder of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. Through these organizations and others, Milken has created and funded countless successful education reform efforts.

Ed Charity Donations in 2016

Lowell in NOLA working with studentFor instance, Milken’s TAP system requires teacher buy-in before a school moves toward implementation. Seventy-five percent of teachers within a given school must agree to get behind TAP, which effectively retools the entire school culture – resorting human capital, instituting new evaluation and performance systems connected to compensation and creating new career paths.

The success of TAP, Milken asserts, also depends on the school district having ownership in the effort. While his foundation invested more than $40 million in building the intellectual property and infrastructure, individual districts must provide for additional costs within their budgets. That sense of accountability is central to all of the foundation’s initiatives. Milken says if foundation efforts are unable to realize results, they will end them, which can’t be viewed as a failure but as learning for his team and others undertaking this work.

“If we work together we can share ideas and make sure money is being well spent.”
Lowell Milken

Milken hopes there can be more collaboration around what works and what doesn’t in education philanthropy. “Collaboration is a key element,” he says. “If we work together we can share ideas and make sure money is being well spent.”

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When you hold the variables constant in the education equation, the one that has the greatest impact and makes a huge difference is the relationship between the teacher and the student. That is why investing in teachers who understand how this works and why it is so important can re-shape the culture and paradigm of education for tomorrow. Thank you!

Phillips cautioned against interpreting investment in innovation as a departure from public school support.

This is a particularly interesting statement in the context of the school choice debates. It is another example of how a particular action or behavior does not have to support one side of an argument or the other, but rather can be used to identify where common ground exists.

Agreed. We seem to be quick to apply our filter to an action and label it as good or bad according to our view, without really exploring how the action might be a vehicle for the whole community, and our students most importantly, to move forward.

Excellent point; we are wasting too much money and time, especially in Nevada, by debating if and how to fund school choice programs. Instead, we should focus how to infuse innovative best practices throughout the education and learning ecosystem so every student has robust quantity and quality choices for learning in every school – especially in public schools where need for innovation and change support is greatest.

Phillips believes an overall more strategic approach adopted by education philanthropy is creating real results in areas like personalized learning, open education resources and more tech-enabled tools. She is also hopeful that there will be ongoing improvement. “I think you’ll continue to see big, long-term bets as well as shorter bursts of innovation working in tandem to make change,” Phillips said. “Both are important and necessary.”

I completely agree and am encouraged by this conclusion; that strategic philanthropic investments in cost-effective tech-enabled personalized learning has the potential to transform the whole system. To ensure investments are successful, we must heed Mr. Milken's insight above; "Collaboration is a key element" to identify the best practice innovations and support their broad implementation in all schools, for all students to benefit. (Which is the mission of EIC-NV.org).