The $25,000 Question

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In any case, Lowell Milken, not Michael, is the front man for the educator awards.

At the conference, Milken—a gaunt figure with sunken cheeks, deep-set eyes, and a high-pitched, nasally voice—talked about the importance of providing "access to capital," but he made only indirect references to his past life as a bond trader, and he never once uttered the words "Drexel Burnham," "junk bonds," or even "high-risk, high-yield bonds." Only George Gilder, a longtime defender of Milken's, spoke of "Michael Milken's junk bonds," in a reference to how they were instrumental in financing Barnes & Noble Booksellers. Not once, however, did I hear anyone mention Milken's prison stint.

To be sure, Milken has always had his staunch defenders. Jack Kemp, before his speech, praised Milken for his "vision" and for making "a profound contribution to society."

"I want to salute Michael," he said. "Michael Milken has seen things that are invisible to other people."

Daniel Fischel, a professor of law and business at the University of Chicago Law School, went so far as to write an entire book defending Milken. In Payback: The Conspiracy To Destroy Michael Milken and His Financial Revolution, Milken is portrayed as a scapegoat, the victim of an out-of-control government investigation. "He was driven out of business and forced to plead guilty to crimes that previously did not exist," Fischel writes. "The unholy alliance of the displaced establishment and the 'decade of greed' rich-haters, aided by ambitious but unscrupulous government lawyers like Rudy Giuliani, combined to destroy him. The whole episode is a national disgrace."

In any case, Lowell Milken, not Michael, is the front man for the educator awards. He is, after all, president of the foundation, while his brother sits on the board of directors. Many of the teachers at the conference seemed unsure of what to make of Michael, with his intense gaze, black-on-black outfits, and ever-present entourage. When he walked onstage on the morning of the last day to moderate a panel discussion on "The Entertainment Industry and Education: The Challenge for the Next Century," he was greeted with warm but not overly enthusiastic applause. Lowell, on the other hand, got a standing ovation when he stepped up to give his keynote address—before he had even uttered a word. Throughout the conference, Lowell was constantly in demand by awardees who wanted to thank him personally for his generosity.

Lowell's keynote address was more than just a speech: It was a high-tech, multimedia presentation, guaranteed to dazzle. After taking the stage, Lowell—impeccably dressed in a double-breasted, navy blue suit, white shirt, and red geometric print tie—presented a slick video segment touting the achievements of the Milken Family Foundation. There was Norman Schwarzkopf, his image projected onto four giant screens, praising the Milkens and their work. There was President Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, all doing the same. Then Lowell switched gears and began showing slides of his family. He even introduced his 5th grade teacher, Lou Fosse, "a great teacher; he set high standards for every student in the class, and in doing so, without explanation or fanfare, he made it clear to us that excellence was as much about quality of effort as it was about quality of achievement."

In his address, titled "For Ourselves and Our Posterity," Milken called for a national, comprehensive system of early childhood education and care. The price tag for such an undertaking: $52 billion in new federal funds. "The fact is," he said, "there are certain services that yield far-reaching social benefits, and they must be funded from public sources. And the ones that respond to the needs of the nation as a whole should be the responsibility of the federal government. I am arguing that a comprehensive, early childhood education and care system is one of these."

Michael Milken now gushes about technology with the same enthusiasm he once reserved for junk bonds.

It was odd to hear a businessman like Lowell Milken call for more, not less, government spending. It seemed likely that the Milken brothers' many friends in the business world would oppose any such expansion of government services. But the teachers in the audience seemed receptive to the idea, and they gave Milken another standing ovation at the end of his speech. "We just don't do enough for our children," a teacher sitting next to me said as the applause died down. She was also impressed by Lowell's speaking abilities. "He's dynamic," she said. "He'd make an excellent teacher."

On the plane to Los Angeles, I read an article in the Atlantic Monthly called "The Computer Delusion," by Todd Oppenheimer, associate editor of Newsweek Interactive. Classroom technology, Oppenheimer argues, has been oversold. There's no good evidence proving that computers boost student achievement, he writes, yet school districts are spending huge amounts of money to get on the bandwagon, cutting scholastic programs in the process. And teachers are partly to blame.

"In a poll taken early last year," Oppenheimer notes, "U.S. teachers ranked computer skills and media technology as more 'essential' than the study of European history, biology, chemistry, and physics; than dealing with social problems such as drugs and family breakdown; than learning practical job skills; and than reading modern American writers such as Steinbeck and Hemingway or classic ones such as Plato and Shakespeare."

Three weeks before the Milken conference, the Los Angeles Times ran a two-part series titled "Classroom Computers: A Progress Report." Like Oppenheimer's piece, the articles raised serious questions about the claims being made for classroom technology. "Hefty investments in school computers have, thus far, produced few academic gains at most schools," the first article concluded. "The machines work fine, and students benefit from learning to operate computers. But educators are finding that even the best technology cannot make students smarter or teachers more capable."

But there was little debate at the conference, at least from the panelists and speechgivers, about the benefits of computers in the classroom. Only Sharon Nelson, then-chairman of the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, acknowledged a "dark side" to education technology, citing the Atlantic Monthly article for raising "a number of critical and provocative questions."

Michael Milken now gushes about technology with the same enthusiasm he once reserved for junk bonds. "Tomorrow's promise is grounded in the marriage of education and technology, in interactive networks that will bring ideas, knowledge, and new ways of thinking to people young and old, in schools, homes, and workplaces," he has written. "Satellites, data-compression technology, CD-ROM, and speedier computers have all brought new worlds of information to ever-larger audiences. The prospects are limitless for students of any age, for training, retraining, and pure knowledge enhancement."

Milken and Lawrence Ellison, chairman of Oracle Corp., have even started a company, Knowledge Universe, that will merge education, technology, and entertainment. Their first order of business was to buy shares in Hasbro Inc., the toy company. "The Hasbro characters," Ellison told a reporter at the time, "have enduring value. Mr. Potato Head might be able to teach you arithmetic."

Lowell Milken, too, has spoken of the "enormous potential" of computerized schools. "Education technology offers much of the assistance that schools need in order to serve children fairly and well," he said at the 1996 conference. "This is not a hunch. It's what we've observed in schools from coast to coast, and it's what we've concluded from extensive research and personal involvement."

Other winners said they use little or no technology in their classrooms, and some were downright suspicious of the claims being made at the conference.

Indeed, classroom technology has become the primary education focus of the Milken Family Foundation. "It's definitely going to be a high priority within the foundation for the next five to 10 years," Thomas Boysen told me. Last February, the foundation launched the Milken Exchange on Education Technology, which Lowell Milken calls "a nerve center of an emerging national network of educators, public officials, and business leaders who are advancing technology, pedagogy, and policy."

The exchange commissioned a survey on the role of technology in the classroom, and the results, announced at the awards conference, showed that 85 percent of American voters believe schools that are well-equipped with computers and up-to-date technology have a major advantage over those that are poorly equipped. The survey also found that most voters would be willing to pay $100 more in federal taxes if the money were used to equip public schools with computers.

It was clear that some of the Milken Educators had been selected in part for their innovative uses of classroom technology. According to biographical information published by the foundation, Bruce Whitehead, principal of Hellgate Intermediate School in Missoula, Montana, turned his failing school into one of the most successful in the country, and the transformation was largely due to a comprehensive technology effort. Mark Lueckenhoff, an elementary school teacher in Ewing, Missouri, "has incorporated computer and media technologies throughout the curriculum to better prepare his students for jobs of the future."

But other winners said they use little or no technology in their classrooms, and some were downright suspicious of the claims being made at the conference. "I think if we use technology as a tool, it's good," teacher Joseph Modica told me. "But if we use it for the end result, I don't think it's good. Literacy is still the key."

Ronald Scutt, who teaches in a one-room schoolhouse in Stehekin, Washington, a town that can only be reached by boat or by plane, thinks technology is great for older children. "We use it for our 7th and 8th graders," he told me, "because they're at an age when the intellect is ready to go into full swing, to blossom." But for younger students, he said, nothing compares to direct, hands-on experiences.

"The Milken Family," he said, "puts a tremendous emphasis on technology, which is going to be important for education. But I find myself asking that they also consider developmental stages—are we putting the appropriate tools at the appropriate time with children? In other words, should children at an early age be working with clay to make geometric forms, or should they be using a mouse to select them on a computer screen?" He then answered his own question. "There's no doubt—the clay."

On the Sunday morning after the banquet, I ran into Scutt, his wife, and two sons in front of the hotel. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, they were waiting for a rental car. They planned to spend the day at the beach before heading back to Stehekin the following day.

Scutt was still basking in the glow of Saturday's awards ceremony. "Last night was absolutely great," he said. "Before I went onstage, my heart was beating so fast, I thought, uh oh. My legs were literally weak. I didn't know it would hit me like that. But after I started walking across the stage, I regained my composure, and I was able to thank Lowell for his graciousness here."

His wife, Kim, was equally enthusiastic. "It's been excellent, beyond all expectations," she said. "They treated us like royalty all the way."

And with that, they were off to Venice Beach. The weather report was calling for clear skies and warm temperatures.

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