Yet poorly designed laws are also part of the problem. NCLB has created the wrong incentives for boosting student achievement, and we are working with Congress to fix the law by instead measuring individual student growth against college and career-ready standards.
But the fundamental challenge remains—to both strengthen the teaching profession and maintain real and meaningful accountability.
The State of Georgia’s investigation into the Atlanta cheating scandal found that the administration “…put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets. A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district [and]…emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics.”
This is no way to motivate teachers and students. Teachers often tell me that their primary incentive is seeing their students learn; but good, effective teachers deserve much more than that. They need real autonomy to apply their expertise in the classroom, a greater role in decision making that affects their schools and students, and rewards—including salaries commensurate with their contributions.
It is time for a thorough and thoughtful reevaluation of the incentives, economic and otherwise, required to support the current generation of teachers and attract the next one. It is also time to better align those incentives with student growth and learning. Accountability cannot be a one-way street where the only outcomes are penalties or sanctions. High-performing, effective teachers—especially those who put their talent, skill and experience to work in schools and districts most in need of improvement—should be appropriately recognized and rewarded.
This is a complicated issue, and changing long-held assumptions about the worth of teachers will not be easy. But the correct response to a difficult situation is to meet it head on with hard work, fresh thinking and open, honest and respectful debate, rather than a retreat from accountability.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. secretary of education. Prior to his appointment in 2009, Duncan served as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, where he became the longest-serving education superintendent in an American big city.