Federal lawsuit filed to block Florida’s flawed evaluation system

After she received her "unsatisfactory" rating, Florida elementary school teacher Kim Cook posted this picture of herself on Facebook.

By Tim Walker, NEA

When elementary school teacher Kim Cook faced her end-of-the-year evaluation last November, she couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. Maybe she shouldn’t have – after all, a few weeks earlier she was voted teacher of the year by her colleagues and the administration at Irby Elementary in Alachua, Fla. But Cook knew that the state’s new evaluation system employed some truly bizarre formulas to rate teachers.

“I was concerned going in,” Cook recalls. “I knew what was in Senate Bill 736, but I still wasn’t really prepared for the result.”

The result was a rating of “unsatisfactory.” Outraged, Cook took to Facebook and posted the scoring details of her evaluation:

  • Lesson Study: 100/100 points x .20 (20%) = 20 points
  • Principal Appraisal: 88/100 points x .40 (40%) = 35.2 points
  • VAM Data: 10/100 x .40 (40%) = 4 points

Clearly, the VAM data significantly lowered Cook’s score. End of story? Hardly.

Like Cook said, once you take a look at Florida’s new system, such skewed results may not be all that surprising, but the methods used to produce them are still unacceptable and, according to Cook, even unconstitutional.

Cook is now one of seven plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed this monthby the National Education Association and the Florida Education Association. The lawsuit contends that the state’s new evaluation system violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Senate Bill 736, championed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and passed in 2011, requires that at least 40 percent of teachers’ evaluation be based on a value-added model (VAM). This particular model comprises a bewildering formula that incorporates test data from students who some teachers have never taught. Irby Elementary only goes through grade 2, so the district used data from the grade 3-5 students in another school down the road, Alachua Elementary, to evaluate teachers in Irby Elementary.

Cook’s VAM rating sunk because those Alachua students didn’t perform as well as projected by the state formula.

“It’s surreal,” Cool said.“How can anyone justify evaluating teachers using students they have never taught or subjects they have never taught?”

She isn’t alone. Another plaintiff,Bethann Brooks, a health science teacher at Central High School in Hernando County, received an evaluation that was in large part based on reading scores of all ninth and tenth graders at Central – many of whom have never been in her classroom.

Evaluations in the upcoming school year will be determined in the same unfair and arbitrary manner and could bring serious consequences. Teachers who are rated unsatisfactory two consecutive years or two out of three years in a row are subject to termination or non-renewal. Transfers, promotions and layoffs are based on the assigned performance rating, and starting next year, salaries will be based on the assigned performance rating as well.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel praised the seven teachers who brought the lawsuit and said they will have the support of the countless teachers across the nation who are fed up with these flawed evaluation systems.

“Seven accomplished educators in Florida are pushing back against one arbitrary, irrational and unfair evaluation system,” Van Roekel said. ”As unthinkable as it might seem for a teacher to be evaluated on the performance of students they do not teach or subjects they do not teach—we know that it’s happening and not just in Florida. NEA is proud to stand with our colleagues in Florida to say ‘NO’ to evaluation systems that don’t help improve student learning or the practice of teaching.”

The legal action taken by these seven Florida educators will undoubtedly add to the growing momentum against misguided accountability systems that rob students of actual learning and tangle up teachers’ performance evaluations with unreliable test scores. In February, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle garnered national attention when they refused to administer the flawed MAP test.

Michigan legislators will soon be faced with implementing a new teacher evaluation system. Established in 2011 by the state Legislature, the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness is working to what it calls a “fair, transparent and feasible” system for evaluating teachers and school administrators.

By June, the MCEE will submit a report to the governor, Legislature and State Board of Education that among other things identifies and recommends new tools to evaluate teachers and administrators.

MCEE Chairwoman Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, said in the April edition of the MEA Voice that Michigan leaders must seek “an educator evaluation system that has the greatest probability of improving teaching and learning.”

Back in Florida, Kim Cook believes those politicians who are responsible for flawed evaluation policies should get ready to hear from educators.

“Teachers are at the point now where we all have to stand up and say ‘enough is enough,’” Cook said. “These evaluations are designed without any foundation in research and they scapegoat dedicated and talented teachers. I consider myself a very good teacher and I feel the same way about my wonderful colleagues. We pour our heart and soul into our classrooms every day. We will not be devalued any longer.”

(MEA staff contributed to this report.)