Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Federal Judge Finds Florida's Teacher Evaluation System Is Unfair, But Legal

ValueaddedTeachers lost their challenge to Florida's teacher evaluation law after the state was granted summary judgment in a ruling yesterday by U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker. The teachers' suit challenged the state's 2011 Student Success Act that requires school districts to evaluate teachers based in part on “student learning growth” -- defined by increases in standardized test scores. Florida is one of several states that have passed "value added" teacher evaluation laws linking teacher merit pay and retention to students' standardarized test performances. (We recently posted about a teachers' union lawsuit in Tennessee challenging a similar law.) In Cook v. Stewart, the plaintiffs challenged Florida's evaluation system as irrational, arbitrary, and violative of substantive due process and equal protection. The plaintiffs argued that for teachers whose subjects are not tested on standardized tests or who are instructional personnel who do not teach, their evaluations are based either on student scores in other subjects or on a school-wide composite score that is the same for every teacher in the school. The State of Florida countered those claims by arguing that the districts’ policies were not irrational because “professional teachers could positively impact all students at their schools” and “student learning in one subject [could] benefit[] students in other subjects.” The district court found that the State's evaluation policies had a rational basis in that they attempted to further a legitimate interest in increasing student learning. Florida's law also passed equal protection review because no discrimination could be inferred by classifying teachers under the state's scheme; nor, said the district court, "can it be said that the classification is without a “basis in practical experience” or that it is “wholly unrelated” to increasing student learning growth." Nevertheless, the district court had harsh words for the efficiacy and fairness of the evaluation system, stating that "[n]eedless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to non-FCAT teachers, let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system." Read Cook v. Stewart, No. 1:13-cv-72 (N.D. Fla. May 6, 2014) online here.

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