Talia Milgrom-Elcott went to Harvard Law School with the idea of making the world a better place. An early role model was Charles Nesson, a professor at Harvard who devoted his career to defending the downtrodden. One of his cases, involving a famous lawsuit, even became the subject of a hit feature film, A Civil Action.
Yet after she graduated, she decided that she could make a bigger impact outside practicing law. Today, Milgrom-Elcott is the Executive Director for 100Kin10, which is spearheading the effort to train 100,000 STEM teachers in 10 years. So far, it has raised more than $100 million and is on track to meet its goal.
What makes 100Kin10 so effective is its unique approach. Rather than coming to the table with yet another program and yet another strategy to improve education, Milgrom-Elcott saw that far more could be achieved by helping existing programs to connect and learn from each other. It’s a model that has the potential to solve other complex social problems as well.
Working To Improve Education
After law school, Milgrom-Elcott began her career working as a law clerk in Manhattan for a Federal Judge. It was there that she began to hear about the work Joel Klein was doing at the New York City Department of Education. Schools in New York had been plagued with problems for decades, but somehow Klein seemed to be getting results. She was intrigued.
“Before you can solve poverty and a lot of other problems, you first need to solve education,” she told me. So she went to work for Klein and was inspired by what she saw. Rather than mandating programs for change, Klein focused on empowering teachers and principals to make change happen themselves and then expand the ideas that showed promise.
One idea was to break down large schools in the city into smaller ones that were easier to manage. The results were dramatic. Graduation rates for minority students jumped by more than 10%. What’s more, these gains were achieved at a lower cost per graduate than the traditional big schools.
Milgrom-Elcott also noticed how one success can lead to others. For example, from the small schools initiative, the Department of Education learned the value of assigning each student with a mentor that would stay with them throughout their high school experience. The program then provided a model to improve results at larger schools.
Islands Unto Themselves
After spending a few years working with Klein, Milgrom-Elcott moved to the Carnegie Corporation to work as a program officer, which put her in contact with a wide array of programs devoted to improving education in America. She found many hard working, intelligent people that were getting results.
One program in particular that she remembers is The New Teacher Project, which helps school systems staff hard-to-fill positions by transitioning professionals into teaching careers. They also trained administrators how to implement their programs so that the changes would resonate long after the period of engagement ended.
But coming into contact with so many worthy programs raised an important question: Why is education in America still so riddled with problems? She saw the results her grantees were getting and, as best she could tell, they were having a true impact. Was she missing something?
She got a crucial insight at a communications training program for grantees. While those that attended found the curriculum stimulating and valuable, they were most excited about the opportunity to meet each other, compare notes and share ideas. How was it that so many skilled professionals, working in the same field, had no prior contact with each other? They were, essentially islands unto themselves.
A Call To Action
In the fall of 2010, President Obama announced an audacious goal, to recruit 10,000 new STEM teachers over the next two years. That winter, he upped the ante to 100,000 in 10 years during his State of the Union Address, which was even more ambitious. To many, it seemed downright outlandish, but Milgrom-Elcott took it as a call to action.
She gathered a few dozen stakeholders, including universities, school districts, corporations and other NGO’s to discuss next steps. “I realized I couldn’t do everything that needed to be done, no one could,” she told me. “So I wasn’t just looking for ideas. I wanted action.” Always persuasive, she managed to get concrete commitments and set up a meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan 120 days later to reinforce those commitments.
Once again she saw the power of sharing. While all of the organizations were committed to the effort, having them connect to each other helped deepen and widen their efforts. It was becoming clear that there was more value in the organizations as a network than individuals programs pursuing separate agendas. That’s how 100Kin10 was born.
Weaving Together A Network For A Better Future
Today, 100Kin10 has become a massive platform for collaboration that connects and empowers nearly 300 partner organizations. “We not only offer ideas, we offer empowerment for programs to connect with each other, share ideas and learn together, so that a great idea in one place can cascade through the network and expand its impact,” Milgrom-Elcott says.
The results speak for themselves. 40,000 STEM teachers have been trained in the last five years and President Obama’s once seemingly quixotic goal now looks like it will be achieved on time. 100Kin10 continues to vet and recruit new partners, widen and deepen connections. What started out as a simple idea, is now becoming a full-fledged movement.
There is also clear potential to applying the same approach to other seemingly intractable problems. “We think there are a lot of complex problems out there, such homelessness, addiction and gang violence, just to name a few, that have multiple interconnected roots that require multiple interconnected solutions and can benefit from a networked approach based on shared values,” Milgrom-Elcott.
The truth is that innovation is combination. There is no idea strong enough to stand on its own. The power to solve tough problems won’t be found in ivory towers, but emerges at the center of networks, where ideas can connect, evolve and adapt to a ever-changing and more complex environment.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com