Education Secretary Arne Duncan Says Merit Pay Should Be Tied to Student Growth

The education secretary tackles teacher pay, student performance, and principal training.

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With billions in stimulus funding, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has more power to create change in the nation's schools than any of his predecessors. Before taking his current post, Duncan was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. During his tenure there, reading and math scores set new records, and the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement courses more than tripled. Now he faces the challenge of prodding school districts around the country to improve student performance while local school budgets are tanking. U.S. News Senior Writer Kim Clark asked Duncan how leadership will help him reform American education in the midst of a recession. Listen to a podcast of this interview. Excerpts:

You're spending $5 billion on educational innovations at a time when states are slashing their budgets and firing teachers. How are you going to make sure that money isn't used just to maintain the status quo?

Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, has this great line: "Never waste a good crisis." We actually have two different crises here. One is educational, and the other, the toughest economy since the Depression. Sometimes the nexus of crisis and opportunity leads to the kind of dramatic reforms that we need, that frankly are more difficult to accomplish when times aren't so tough. So yes, it presents us with some real challenges. But what we are going to see is that this is a huge test of leadership. Some folks will be paralyzed by the challenges they are facing, and others will see this as a chance to fundamentally break through and challenge the status quo. And those are the type of leaders that we are going to invest in.

The great ideas always come locally, from great teachers and great principals. We want to take those good ideas to scale.

There's an argument that principals are the key to education reform: Better principals would hire better teachers and make teachers better. What are you doing to make principals better?

There are no high-performing schools without great principals. As a country we have absolutely underinvested in developing the next generation of great principals and really thinking about principal preparation and pipeline programs. We have to focus and put more resources behind principal leadership and development.

What qualities do you seek in principals that make them effective leaders? Principals today are CEOs. We have to treat them as such, and we have to train them as such. Principals have to be first and foremost instructional leaders. They have to be able to manage multimillion-dollar budgets. They have to be great in terms of HR. They have to work with the community. They have to be savvy with the media. We have to find those principals, and they are out there, those potential and future principals, and give them the range of skills and the range of training so that they can drive the kinds of dramatic change that we want.

The issue of merit pay for teachers is very controversial. A lot of people complain that basing merit pay on the scores of students just rewards teachers who happen to teach in rich districts. How can schools really measure student growth?

I am not a big believer in looking at absolute test scores. I think they tell you some things. There is a lot they don't tell you. I am a much bigger believer in looking at growth and gain and how much a student is improving each year. So, the more we can identify not just the teachers but the schools and the entire school districts that are accelerating student achievement and are accelerating student progress, those are the individuals and the teams and the schools and districts that we need to reward and shine a spotlight on, and most importantly learn from and replicate that success.

What techniques work to improve student performance in high school?

A couple things are of huge importance. First, making sure you have high expectations, that the work is very, very rigorous. We have to raise the bar. In far too many high schools, we've really dummied down expectations, and that actually increases student apathy. It doesn't increase success. It increases dropout rates.