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."
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."
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.
"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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