“We must treat our teachers like the professionals they are,” U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told more than 300 educators and others attending the Milken Family Foundation National Education Conference today in Washington, D.C. “That means we must reward teachers who make real progress closing the achievement gap in the most challenging classrooms.”

Spellings noted that the Milken National Educator Awards presented to teachers and principals at today’s event offer the opportunity to reward educators for their hard work. “That’s something we don’t do often enough for teachers in this country. And it’s something we must change if we want to realize the promise of No Child Left Behind,” she said.

Citing studies that show the importance of strong teachers to a child’s educational achievement, Spellings explained, “That’s why No Child Left Behind requires that by 2006, every classroom must have a highly qualified teacher. The president’s new budget includes almost $3 billion to help states meet this goal.”

However, she noted that the students most in need tend to be taught by the least qualified teachers. Further, public school systems often do not reward those teachers willing to take on the hardest assignments: “Teachers with the skill and desire to close the achievement gap find themselves drawn away from the schools that need the most help.

Many school systems even offer de facto incentives for teachers to leave these schools.” Such a system often has “devastating results” for students who fail to learn and energetic teachers who find their dedication to help the most needy underused.

To address the problem, President Bush has proposed a new $500 million Teacher Incentive Fund, Spellings said. The fund will provide states with money to reward teachers who take the toughest jobs and achieve real results. Spellings noted that, according to a recent study by the bipartisan Teaching Commission, 76 percent of Americans and 77 percent of public school teachers supported incentive pay.

Under the program, states have the flexibility to design their own systems for rewarding teachers. A portion of the Teacher Incentive Fund would be reserved to help states and districts develop new performance-based teacher compensation systems that reward experience, results and hard work rather than credentials and seniority.

Spellings noted the success of the Denver public schools’ pilot-program for performance-based pay. A study has found that student performance has improved under the program, and Denver voters are now considering making it permanent.

Spellings also credited the Milken Family Foundation’s Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), which has benefited over 2,000 teachers in nine states since its inception, with advancing the issue of the importance of teacher quality. TAP encourages teachers to pursue professional development and mentoring, and rewards success.

In addition, Spellings noted that the nation’s public schools will need to hire an estimated two million new teachers over the next decade. “The president’s budget includes almost $100 million to help schools meet this demand, including $40 million for a new Adjunct Teacher Corps Initiative,” Spellings explained. The Adjunct Teacher Corps Initiative would help recruit professionals, particularly in the fields of math and science, into teaching.

In closing, Spellings said, “We knew when we passed No Child Left Behind that the hard work of closing the achievement gap would fall on your shoulders. We also knew that you wouldn’t want it any other way. You never give up on a child. It’s the same hope that drew you to teaching in the first place. And it’s the same spirit that will lead us to the promise of No Child Left Behind.”