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

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

He also said that while teachers are cognizant of end-of-level tests, the motivation is for students to master the necessary skills at their grade level.

"People do talk about, ‘All you’re doing is teaching to the test,'" Conley said. "No, what we’re doing is we are testing what is taught, and I think there is a difference there. You want to test what is taught. You don’t want there to be a ‘gotcha’ for students."

Withers, a vocal critic of the state's new school grading system, said accountability models often falsely represent the efforts of students working to become proficient when aggregated with their high-performing classmates.

"That’s why growth measures are so important," he said. "Because you want all kids to become career- and college-ready, not just those that were born to get there anyway."

Withers also said discussions on merit pay and performance incentives at the state level are too often narrowly focused on the work of individual teachers. Legislators, he said, are motivated by a desire to "pay the best teacher more," which ignores the collaborative nature of meaningful school improvement.

"Do incentives have a place in school improvement work? They do when they’re thoughtful and collaborative and bring people together to focus on the needs of kids," Withers said.

"They stand in the way of that when they are focused on individuals and are divisive and don’t, in their fundamental nature, push for additional collaboration and sharing that brings more kids success in more classes."

Ella Ortega, parent of two Northwest Middle School students and chairwoman of the school community council, said it appears the school has found a performance-pay model that encourages teamwork.

Ortega said she initially had concerns about the incentives, but in her two years on the community council, she has seen educators working to improve their overall teaching ability and not just focusing on end-of-level tests.

"It seems that the incentive pay has helped all of them to strive to help each other," she said. "It can definitely be a concern, but they have found a way to do it well there at Northwest."


Ideally, Conley would prefer to simply pay educators a higher salary rather than offer incentive pay, he said. But resources in Utah, where per-pupil spending is the lowest in the nation, simply do not allow for that.

"The better answer is, 'Let’s just pay everybody more money, and we get a deeper pool and a more talented pool of people to draw from,'" he said.

Conley also said that if the school had decided to target class sizes with the $2.3 million Department of Education grant, he could have hired three or four new teachers and shrunk the average class by roughly four students. But after the grant's three-year term, those funds would be exhausted and those positions would be terminated.

Instead, he said, the goal was to use the grant to encourage effective teaching and retain quality teachers. Conley suggested that most parents would prefer their students in a class of 30 with an excellent teacher compared with a class of 20 with an average teacher.

"The quality of instruction and teaching matters more than class size," he said. "Does class size matter? Yes. Is it the most important? No."

Susan McFarland, president of the Salt Lake Teachers Association, said she supports local schools making innovative decisions based on the needs of their students and staff. But she added that performance pay was part of a comprehensive approach at Northwest and should not be looked at in isolation or thrust onto other schools.

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