Blog: The Educated Reporter

In D.C.: A Pep Rally and Prize for a Teacher

There’s quite a bit of talk about big changes taking place in Washington, D.C.’s public schools. On Thursday I got a glimpse of a campus that seems to be very much on the right track.

The location was McKinley Technology High School in northeast Washington, D.C., and the occasion was the “Oscars of Teaching,” which involves the Milken Family Foundation, a check for $25,000 and one very surprised educator.

 In this case it was Shira Fishman, chair of the high school’s mathematics department, and a 2011 Milken Education Award recipient. Lowell Milken — who co-founded the foundation with his brother, financier and philanthropist Michael Milken – made the presentation at McKinley.

The United States does many things well, Milken told the crowd, but celebrating teachers isn’t one of them.

 That’s where the foundation comes into the picture.

 Milken will have handed out as many of 40 of these awards by the end of the year — totaling more than $63 million and 2,500 recipients since the program’s inception in 1985. The criteria is “exceptional educational talent as evidenced by effective instructional practices” that has resulted in direct “student learning results,” according to the foundation.

There is no direct nomination process, and each state’s department of education appoints its own blue-ribbon committee to serve as “scouts.”Recently, the foundation has shifted the award’s focus to recognize more educators who are in the earlier years of their careers, in an effort to not only recognize excellence but to encourage them to stay with the profession. Teaching is Fishman’s second career — she has a degree in mechanical engineering from Tufts University and was an engineer for three years after graduation. 

There was quite a bit to like — and admire — at McKinley. There was the respectful way the crowded gym of students watched the procession of the Army JROTC Color Guard, the rowdy reception for the district champions cheerleading squad, and what seemed like a genuinely enthusiastic learning environment.

Following the presentation, I spoke briefly with some of Fishman’s students. When I asked them describe their teacher, they were lightening-quick in their responses: “She listens to us.” “Ms. Fishman makes sure we really understand the material.” “She has high expections.” “Failure is not an option. Neither is giving up.”

 As Milken prepared to open the envelope that held the name of McKinley’s winning teacher, I was close enough to Fishman to see a student next to her touch her on the shoulder. “It has to be you,” the student told Fishman.

 I would call that fairly impressive independent validation.

Perhaps the most telling moment came when Fishman thanked Milken and her colleagues at McKinley but saved her highest praise for her “incredible” students. “You are smart, funny and sometimes crazy,” Fishman said. “But I love you all.”