Collaborative or competitive? Performance pay contributed to success at Northwest Middle School

Published: Thursday, Dec. 12 2013 5:30 p.m. MST

United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sits in on an 8th grade math class at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Over the past three years, Northwest Middle School has seen a culture of learning develop, accompanied by rising test scores, improved reading comprehension and increased student engagement.

The highly diverse school received a $2.3 million grant from the Department of Education in 2010. At the time, the percentage of students scoring proficiently on end-of-level testing in math and science hovered in the high 30s, and the average student read at the level of a fourth-grader.

Last spring, 79 percent of students scored proficiently in math, 58 percent scored proficiently in science, and the average reading comprehension scores had risen to a seventh-grade level. Attendance is also up, and tardiness has been cut in half.

The improvement was significant enough to earn a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who called the progress made at Northwest "phenomenal" and said the lessons learned have national implications.

"People say, 'How did they do that?'" Salt Lake School District Superintendent McKell Withers said. "Well, they had an additional $2.3 million (school improvement) grant and another million dollars on a technology grant."

Performance pay

To combat poor student performance, the administration and faculty at Northwest implemented a number of strategies.

Instructional coaches were hired, classroom time was increased, and teams of educators — known as professional learning communities — were formed to collaborate and analyze student data, tracking individual student performance and implementing interventions when necessary.

Reward programs were also created to motivate student engagement and create a positive learning culture. A Warrior Club for students with a 3.2 grade-point average was created, with its ranks swelling from 217 members in 2011 to 501 this year.

But a unique strategy, and one that took up the bulk of the $2.3 million Department of Education grant, was a system of performance-based salary bonuses for educators.

The performance-pay model at Northwest was designed to encourage collaboration rather than competition, Northwest Principal Brian Conley said. Administrators set a schoolwide goal of having at least 95 percent of proficient students maintaining proficiency and 65 percent of non-proficient students demonstrating a year's worth of growth.

Reaching those benchmarks would result in all teachers being rewarded, with core curriculum educators — English, math and science — having an opportunity to earn larger bonuses based on student performance.

"It isn’t one teacher winning it over another teacher," Conley said. "There was opportunity for every teacher in the school to earn performance pay."

Every teacher at Northwest was awarded some level of performance pay each year, the principal said, with the average teacher earning between $3,000 and $4,000 in supplemental salary.

Nationally, discussion of merit pay has been met with concerns of teachers focusing too narrowly on a particular criteria, derisively referred to as "teaching to the test" or even manipulating grades to inflate performance.

Conley said Northwest addressed those concerns by having impartial proctors administer and supervise high-stakes tests. But primarily, the culture of performance pay was not engineered to pit teachers against each other, he said.

"No one is going to lose out on anything," Conley said. "You only have something to gain from it."

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