Future of Teaching

Union files lawsuit contesting fairness of using test scores to judge elective teachers

PHOTO: G.Tatter
Tennessee Education Association attorney Rick Colbert and president Barbara Gray announce a lawsuit filed Thursday in Nashville over the state's measurement tool for evaluating teacher performance and awarding bonuses.

Theresa Wagner has taught physical education at Nashville’s Gra-Mar Middle School for 11 years. Despite positive performance reviews from supervisors and districtwide awards from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Wagner was denied a bonus from the district last school year because of low test scores throughout her school.

The catch? There’s no standardized test for physical education.

At least 25 percent of every teacher’s evaluation score in Tennessee is based on students’ growth on test scores in their school, regardless of whether they teach a subject for which the state administers a test.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), Tennessee’s largest teachers union, filed a lawsuit Thursday against state and district officials in Nashville and Anderson County, stating that the use of test scores to judge teachers of non-tested subjects is a violation of those teachers’ rights.

More than half of Tennessee’s public school teachers — about 50,000 — teach non-tested subjects, according to TEA president Barbara Gray.

This is the third lawsuit contesting the use of the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS), which measures growth in student test scores over a number of years to make decisions about everything from teacher bonuses to school closings. The first two suits, filed last March, contested the methodology of TVAAS – which TEA officials say is imprecise – for teachers whose students are tested. Those cases are pending in federal court in Knox County.

The latest lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Nashville against Gov. Bill Haslam, state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, members of the State Board of Education, and the school boards of Metropolitan Nashville and Anderson County.

In addition to Wagner, the suit is filed on behalf of Jennifer Braeuner, a visual arts teacher at Norris Middle School in Anderson County, who was denied tenure because of school-wide test scores.

“We need meaningful evaluations of teachers in Tennessee, no question,” TEA lawyer Richard Colbert said during a news conference in Nashville. “This is not a meaningful way to evaluate teachers.”

TEA officials say the use of TVAAS for non-tested subjects violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from denying “life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” Colbert said the use of TVAAS to deny bonuses, tenures or jobs to teachers such as Wagner and Braeuner amounts to a shirking of due process.

“Depriving someone of those interests on the basis of something they have no control over is arbitrary, and therefore not due process,” he said.

The National Education Association (NEA) has joined the lawsuit. “Students in Tennessee are being shortchanged because of the state’s arbitrary and irrational evaluation system that provides no meaningful feedback on their instruction,” said NEA president Lily Eskelsen García in a news release.

Gray and Colbert said they would prefer teachers be evaluated by pre- and post-tests during the school year, or portfolio-based assessments. They recently visited schools in New York that use portfolios rather than standardized tests and hope Tennessee education officials pilot a similar program.

Officials with the state Education Department and Nashville school district declined to comment on the lawsuit, and the superintendent of Anderson County Schools was not immediately available for comment.

However, McQueen issued a statement emphasizing that Tennessee teachers are receiving more feedback than ever to help improve their classroom instruction and, ultimately, student learning. “The department remains committed to providing meaningful feedback to teachers based, in part, on student growth,” she said.

Gov. Haslam echoed McQueen’s sentiments when asked about the lawsuit at a lunch for the Tennessee Press Association.

“I think what’s really important to me and to a lot of folks — and obviously to our state ultimately — is that we have an evaluation with some accountability to it,” he said. “Ultimately, what I think it will show is that our teachers by and large are doing a great job, and that’s why we’re seeing so much improvement.”

You can read the lawsuit in its entirety here.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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survey says

We asked Indiana teachers why they’re leaving the classroom: ‘Death by a thousand cuts’

PHOTO: Getty Images

In her first classroom at Indianapolis Public School 79 in 1977, art teacher Teresa Kendall had five whole potter’s wheels to herself. Plus clay. And a kiln.

She was under orders from her principal, she remembers, to make sure her students “have all the art they can have.”

Nearly 39 years, five layoffs, and four school districts later, she returned to Indianapolis Public Schools, where she was told there were just a handful of potter’s wheels in the entire district. She managed to get her hands on one, rescuing it from an unused classroom at Arlington High School.

Chalkbeat asks Indiana teachers: Why did you leave the classroom?

“It’s a huge difference,” Kendall said, comparing her situation to other schools she’s seen. “It just puts a knot in my stomach when I think about it … I think about what my kids at [School] 105 have to do without.”

Kendall said she spent hundreds of dollars on supplies, and she was overwhelmed by having to configure her 28-seat classroom to accommodate 62 students. At the end of last year, she decided to leave teaching altogether.

“It was the most solid community school I’ve ever been in, in all of my career,” Kendall said. “I miss it tremendously. But I couldn’t stay there.”

Carrie Black, an Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman, said classes might have been large at one point when the district was working to hire a substitute for a teacher on family leave, but the principal at School 105 said there were enough tables and chairs for the whole class. The principal also said teachers were told they could be reimbursed for supplies.

“Under no circumstances was she required to supply her art room in any way, shape, or form,” Black said. “So if she did, those were decisions she made on her own.”

More than 60 former Indiana teachers responded to a Chalkbeat survey about why they decided to leave teaching, a problem that policymakers and state lawmakers have said is part of the reason behind this year’s efforts to raise teacher salaries — which some educators and advocates say don’t go nearly far enough. Across the country, teachers have gone on strike and protested to demand better pay and working conditions, stirring up national conversation about the challenges they face.

Kendall, who has two master’s degrees, made $48,000 when she left IPS. The most she’d made, she said, was close to $62,000 when she taught in Lebanon. Now, she’s a paralegal.

The former teachers, from schools all over the state, reported a wide range of salaries over the years — from as low as $26,000 to more than $66,000. Now out of the classroom, they have found jobs as nurses, bus drivers, engineers, insurance agents, and seasonal park rangers. Some are unemployed, stay-at-home-parents, or graduate students.

While many former teachers said low pay or stagnant salaries contributed to their decisions to find other careers, more cited increasing responsibilities for reporting and testing, dwindling support and coaching from administrators, and “punitive” teacher evaluations.

Here is a selection of their reasons for leaving, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Too little pay

  • I had a third child and my entire paycheck was going toward insurance and childcare. I couldn’t afford to work.
  • State laws were being introduced that would make it next to impossible to ever increase my salary, or even to bargain to try to keep pace with the cost of living.
  • I was 20 years into teaching and felt undervalued, overworked, and underpaid for my education, training, and role as a teacher. I had reached the top of the pay scale and there was not room to advance. I didn’t want to become an administrator. Our insurance was steadily rising and with no pay raises, we were making less than what I had started with 20 years ago. My wife and I were both teachers and we both had to take part-time jobs to help pay the bills.
  • The level of stress, the constant demand on more and more of my time and energy with no compensation, and the low wages! Also the constant micromanaging!
  • In my 12th year I was making less than I did in year one. Health insurance was too costly, parents were overbearing, and the amount of accommodations needed for students was out of hand.

Too much testing, politics, and red tape

  • I couldn’t take any more of the state legislature’s disrespect of teachers. The loss of school funding, punitive evaluation methods, and absolute lack of willingness to truly listen to educators about our needs and what goes on in a classroom made me realize it wasn’t worth it anymore.
  • The constant change in state testing.
  • I had had it with ISTEP and school accountability practices demanding measurable outcomes and driving learning away from what we all know are best practices.
  • There was constant assessing without allowing kids to be kids and grow socially and mentally. Spent more hours assessing than teaching.
  • The time required to be spent on more red tape and paperwork instead of just doing what I knew was best for kids was too much.
  • I was working 10-12-hour days just to get state-mandated paperwork done AND papers graded. I loved my kids, I loved my school, I loved my principals, but I hated meetings every morning to appease legislators who are clueless, and I hated having to prove what a great teacher I was.
  • The time the job required meant my son and I were at school until 8 or 9 every night. All that time and dedication with no guarantee of a job? No thanks.
  • Teachers were treated as if we were entry level employees who could not make any decisions for themselves.
  • My afternoon classes had 39, 38, and 40 students. The Rise rubric [for teacher evaluations] made everyone feel like they were failures before even being evaluated.
  • I was dealing with burnout, and I was tired of working as many hours as I did and being as undervalued as I was. It felt like I constantly had administrators, parents and community members telling me what was wrong with how I did things.
  • I was expected to assign at least 10 math problems to every student every night. Since I had about 100 students, that’s about 1,000 math problems every night. Bottom line, time with my family is more important.
  • I felt overwhelmed by what the legislators were inflicting on us, the lack of true support from administrators, and just the stress that is teaching even in the best of times. Most of all — I was exhausted, I guess. Death by a thousand cuts, more or less.

negotiations

Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.