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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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.

story slam

The state of teacher pay in Indiana: Hear true stories told by local educators

It’s time to hear directly from educators about the state of teacher pay in Indiana.

Join us for another Teacher Story Slam, co-hosted by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Chalkbeat Indiana, and Teachers Lounge Indy. Teacher salaries are the hot topic in education these days, in Indiana and across the country. Hear from Indianapolis-area teachers who will tell true stories about how they live on a teacher’s salary.

Over the past two years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students, and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy.

Those stories include one teacher’s brutally honest reflection on the first year of teaching and another teacher’s uphill battle to win the trust of her most skeptical student.

Event details

The event will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at Clowes Court at the Eiteljorg, 500 W Washington St. in Indianapolis. It is free and open to the public — please RSVP.

More in What's Your Education Story?