Collaborative or competitive? Performance pay contributed to success at Northwest Middle School
"It’s an innovative approach that they are doing, and it worked for Northwest," McFarland said. "I don’t know (if) that would be the same case in other schools because it means that you need to have everybody on board."
She also said she supports putting more money in the pockets of underpaid teachers, but not solely as a result of high test scores or in a way that disproportionately rewards core curriculum teachers.
"We teach the whole child, and it takes everyone in that school to increase student scores," McFarland said. "I think that you don’t want to put teachers or administrators in a position of labeling certain teachers more important than other teachers, or certain subject areas more important than other subject areas."
But teachers at Northwest said they weren't bothered by their English-, math- and science-teaching peers having a higher potential for earnings.
Art and ceramics teacher Paul Hetzel said he taught science for the first years of the grant and is aware of the added responsibilities that come with teaching core content.
"I do think it is appropriate for them to get that because there is that added pressure and added meetings and collaborative time," Hetzel said.
He said the larger focus on collaboration has had positive results for the school and the opportunity for all teachers to earn a bonus through schoolwide goals has been fair.
History teacher Justin Andersen echoed those sentiments, saying he came to the school last year because of the positive things that were happening.
"I don’t have a lot of the responsibilities that those core teachers have," he said. "I think they deserve the higher pay because they are doing a lot more work for those scores and those things than I am in my class."
Andersen said one thing that sets Northwest apart from other school cultures is the "no-nonsense" administration that doesn't put up with ineffective teachers. He also said there is a general sentiment of embracing innovation and thinking outside the box among the school's faculty.
"The people here are open to change," Andersen said. "So many in education are afraid of change because they see change as a bad thing."
School officials plan to continue offering performance pay to teachers with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Education Reform Foundation and a portion of the school's Title I federal funds.
At the district level, Withers said that without grants, there are not enough Title I resources available to fund incentive work at a level that would be effective. Absent supplemental funds, teacher salaries would have to be initially cut or some other programs would need to be implemented to create room in the budget to offer incentives.
"Our current evidence is the state is not willing to even fund all the new kids that come into the system, let alone new investments that might help change and support school improvement," Withers said.
He said people are right when they say money does not solve the challenges schools face. But he added that additional resources, when combined with good data and flexibility, enables schools to break out of the molds of antiquated practices.
"If you don’t have those resources, you can’t structure the time and opportunity to do things differently," Withers said. "Without the grant, we couldn’t have accomplished as much (at Northwest), but every school with or without a grant is constantly working on becoming better."
The district is interested in continuing existing performance-pay efforts at Northwest, as well as Glendale Middle School and Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, he said. District officials plan to continue to look for grants and other ways to support effective teaching.
"That’s what’s currently being considered at the district level," Withers said. "How and how much could we potentially find to help support incentive work in particularly Title I schools?"
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