School seeing increased success cites merit-based pay for teachers

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Can merit based pay translate to honest results in the classroom? A Salt Lake City middle school says, in addition to many other factors, it can and did.

Pam Pedersen is the assistant principal at Northwest Middle School, and she said hard work pays off.

“It isn’t really a simple answer for anyone,” she said. “It takes a lot of time and effort to make that work."

Pedersen said grant money helps, but taking a poor performing school and transforming it into a competitive learning institution takes a lot of work.

“It’s paying people for their time, but it’s what you do with that extra time that makes the difference, it’s not the money,” she said.

In 2010, the school received a $2.3 million school improvement grant from the Department of Education, at the time the school was in the bottom 10th percentile in the state. The school has changed the master schedule, brought in new faculty and staff and extended the school day. Pedersen said student moral has done a 180.

“Just turn in your homework and assignments and get good grades,” said 8th grader Jacki Sanudo.

“To be known as one of the worst schools isn’t very good, so I think it’s really good we’ve achieved that,” said 8th grader Alan Gutierrez.

Susan McFarland is the president of the Salt Lake Teachers Association, and she said Northwest’s progress is impressive and the result of systematic changes, but she criticized the performance-based salary bonuses the school offers its teachers. In a statement she said:

“When Northwest received the SIG grant in 2010, the millions in dollars was used to make systemic changes with a comprehensive approach.  The incentive pay or bonuses to teachers was not the only reason for the success the school has enjoyed.

I feel putting more money in underpaid teachers' pockets is always a good thing with the increasing workload that continues to be placed on teachers.  I don't believe that science, math and language arts teachers are more important than all other teachers.  Therefore, these teachers should not have additional incentives to make more money than other teachers as long as they have the same contracts.  I am not against teachers who go above and beyond their teaching contracts being paid for extra work. I just don't think that the subject area should be the indicator of how much a teacher can earn.”

But Pedersen said the competitive pay has teachers working together to achieve a common goal.  She said the school is now ranked 31 out of 139 middle schools in the state. The grant money is long gone, but the positive changes and new habits continue.

“They are the same kids that have been coming here for years,” Pedersen said. “But it’s the adults in the building changing their belief about students and about families and about their own practice that makes those miraculous changes happen.”