Recent cheating scandals in Atlanta’s public school system have revived discussions about whether too much focus and pressure has been placed on test performance in U.S. education. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In the wake of the Atlanta cheating scandal and recent cheating allegations in other school districts (including Washington, DC), On Leadership convened a roundtable on how best to approach teacher incentives in the U.S. education system — with opinion pieces by Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.

Recent news reports of widespread or suspected cheating on standardized tests in several school districts around the country have been taken by some as evidence that we must reduce reliance on testing to measure student growth and achievement. Others have gone even farther, claiming that cheating is an inevitable consequence of “high-stakes testing” and that we should abandon testing altogether. 

To be sure, there are lessons to be learned from these jarring incidents, but the existence of cheating says nothing about the merits of testing. Instead, cheating reflects a willingness to lie at children’s expense to avoid accountability—an approach I reject entirely. 

It is also an approach rejected by the vast majority of educators, who would never participate in or excuse cheating.  The Atlanta cheating scandal has been described as the worst known incident of systemic cheating, so it is worth noting that even there investigators found cheating in 44 out of 2,232 schools in Georgia.

Unfortunately, cheating does happen. The 1990s saw a rash of cases where state and school officials masked underperformance of low-income or minority students or students with disabilities by excluding or hiding their test results. No Child Left Behind helped address this problem by requiring transparency around achievement gaps, but it prompted another form of cheating by setting rigid pass/fail targets based on test scores that failed to measure progress. Several states, including my home state of Illinois, simply lowered their standards to claim “better” test scores as success—essentially lying to children and parents. Now as NCLB's deadline for 100-percent proficiency approaches and performance goals grow steeper, we learn of egregious, systemic cheating in Atlanta and suspected cheating elsewhere.

Each of these instances is rooted in the pernicious notion that by resisting accountability, you can avoid it.

To deny the importance of regular, comprehensive measurement of student growth and academic progress because of cheating is to embrace that twisted ethos, sending exactly the wrong message to students.

Competing in a global economy is the ultimate high-stakes test for American students, and there are no shortcuts to success. Closing our eyes to the knowledge requirements of a 21st century economy will not make them go away. 

At the same time, it is important to remember that measuring student growth is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Poorly designed tests do not advance the goal of providing every American child a high-quality, well-rounded education. They also don't tell you very much about the effectiveness of teachers. That's why the Department of Education has put $350 million toward developing a new generation of assessments, and why we support evaluations based on multiple measures—including principal observation, peer review, classroom work, student and parent feedback, and other locally developed measures.

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.