Building Better Teachers

Federal judge dismisses TEA lawsuit challenging TVAAS in teacher bonuses

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
In 2014, Shelby County School teachers protest a bonus pay plan similar to the one Knox County teachers sued the state over.

The formula that Tennessee uses to rate teachers might be unfair — but it still can be used to decide whether they should get bonuses, a federal court has ruled.

The ruling, handed down this week in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, ends a heralded lawsuit that the state teachers union filed in 2014 challenging TVAAS, which the state uses to incorporate student test score growth in teacher evaluations.

In that suit, two teachers who had not received bonuses because of their TVAAS scores charged that the formula is too imprecise to be a valid measure of teacher quality. They also argued that the state’s use of the formula violates the U.S. Constitution by denying teachers their property — in this case, bonuses for “effective teaching” — without due process of the law.

The court ruled essentially that the teachers made a good point. But the ruling, which cannot be appealed, concludes that because no evaluations could take into account all of the teachers’ work, there’s nothing “irrational” about the state choosing to use growth in student test scores to grade teachers.

“While it may be a blunt tool, a rational policymaker could conclude that TVAAS is ‘capable of measuring some marginal impact that teachers can have on their own students,’” wrote Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. in his ruling. “This is all the Constitution requires.”

The case’s permanent dismissal is a blow to critics of the state’s teacher evaluation policy, who hoped the court would roll back new rules that require student test scores to influence teachers’ ratings.

“National groups are right that we should not use value-added in high-stakes decisions. We know it is not right,” Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray said in a statement released Friday. “Now we need a true and fair understanding of what TVAAS is for lawmakers and the administration to change a flawed system.”

Representatives of the Tennessee Department of Education praised the ruling. “We were happy to hear that the judge has granted our motion to dismiss this case,” said spokeswoman Ashley Ball.

TVAAS is a complex algorithm that aims to isolate the impact of individual teachers on their students’ learning, as measured by state tests. One of the nation’s first “value-added” formulas, it has inspired similar efforts in other states.

TVAAS scores have been calculated since the 1990s but started being used to help determine ratings, bonuses and tenure status only since 2011, when Tennessee overhauled its teacher evaluation law. Under state law, TVAAS scores make up 35 percent of teachers’ ratings, with the rest based on in-person observations and “achievement measures,” which can include graduation rates, students’ AP or IB exam scores, or school-wide TVAAS scores.

The two teachers who filed the lawsuit, Lisa Trout and Mark Taylor, had strong ratings from classroom observations but TVAAS scores that were too low to make them eligible for bonuses from Knox County Schools. The district gives bonuses of up to $2,000 a year to teachers with strong ratings. Trout and Taylor charged that those scores should be discounted because only some of their students took the end-of-course exams used to generate the TVAAS scores.

Taylor’s rating was based on scores of just 22 of his 142 students, he said, rendering his TVAAS score meaningless.

Court documents reflect an exchange between William Sanders, the statistician who designed TVAAS, and Taylor’s parents, with whom he is acquainted.

Sanders was asked if a TVAAS score based on test scores of only a small fraction of a teacher’s students reflect a proper use of TVAAS. His answer: “For an overall evaluation of the effectiveness of the teacher to facilitate student academic progress, of course not.”

Mattice said in his ruling that he found the criticism compelling. But ultimately, the court ruled that Knox County had the right to hold back bonuses based on Taylor’s TVAAS. And he said the court did not have authority to tell the state legislature to come up with a different way to factor student learning into teachers’ ratings.

“It bears repeating that Plaintiffs’ concerns about the statistical imprecision of TVAAS are not unfounded,” the opinion reads. “However, this Court’s role is extremely limited. The judiciary is not empowered to second-guess the wisdom of the Tennessee legislature’s approach to solving the problems facing public education.”

The ruling comes as the influence of TVAAS on teacher ratings is in decline, at least for now.  Last year, the legislature voted to temporarily diminish TVAAS’ role in evaluations as the state transitions to TNReady, a new test touted as more rigorous than the test the state had used since the 1980s. And after technical glitches crippled the first round of TNReady this month, Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed nixing TVAAS based on this year’s test scores in teacher evaluations.

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from officials with the TEA and the Tennessee Department of Education.

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.