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Education researcher finds teacher merit pay program improves student outcomes

Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020


MANHATTAN — Do teacher merit pay programs improve student test scores? According to a Kansas State University College of Education researcher, the answer is yes.

Tuan Nguyen, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, published "Teacher Merit Pay: A Meta-Analysis" Feb. 22 in the American Educational Research Journal, one of the top and most respected journals in education research. His co-authors were Lam Pham, a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University, and Matt Springer, associate professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"We are pleased that this research on merit pay has been published and will provide researchers and policymakers with critical information as teacher merit pay is a contentious issue and one that has important implications for policy and practice in the United States," Nguyen said. "Merit pay can improve student test scores, and the results are more positive when teachers are given opportunities to grow and they can trust their evaluations."

Teacher merit pay, also called performance pay or differentiated pay, is a system of pay incentives meant to reward teachers with additional salary or a bonus based on some measures of their performance and evaluation. Merit pay was implemented as a response to the single-salary schedule used by the vast majority of U.S. school districts where the primary factors of determining salary are degree attainment and teaching experience. But Nguyen said these two factors are weakly correlated with student academic outcomes.

"Teaching is a complex process that's difficult to incentivize, potentially making merit pay an untenable system that may inadvertently cause harm to students and teachers," he said.

"There are many studies with mixed findings, and there are plenty of reasons why merit pay may not work as a system," Nguyen said. "Instead of brushing these critiques aside, my co-authors and I took the time and effort to examine these arguments and consider whether they could be addressed empirically."

To determine whether merit pay can raise student achievement, Nguyen and his colleagues examined the existing literature on merit pay with a particular focus on rigorous quantitative studies. They found, overall, merit pay programs can modestly raise student achievement, but the effect is strongly correlated with program design features such as opportunity of professional development, more sophisticated teacher evaluation systems and amount of pay.

"In short, merit pay can increase student test scores, but the effect is highly contextual to program designs and characteristics," Nguyen said. "Merit pay can work, but there are important questions of how to fine-tune and experiment with better and more informed program designs to improve how merit pay works."

No grant funding supported this study.

Nguyen earned dual bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physics and minors in psychology and history of science from the University of Oklahoma. He earned a Master of the Arts in teaching at Washington University in St. Louis and a doctorate from Vanderbilt University in education leadership and policy studies with a doctoral minor in quantitative methods.

Nguyen's research interests include teacher leadership and school improvement, teacher policy and teacher labor market, and financial aid and postsecondary persistence.


Tuan Nguyen


Tuan Nguyen is Twan Win

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"Teacher Merit Pay: A Meta-Analysis"


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Tuan Nguyen

Tuan Nguyen, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the Kansas State University College of Education.

Written by

Patrice Scott