Future of Teaching

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.

surprise!

Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.

Colorado Vote 2018

Polis campaign releases education plan, including new promise about teacher raises

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Congressman Jared Polis, one of several Democrats running for governor, released an education plan for the state Wednesday that includes new details on tackling teacher shortages and better preparing high school students for work.

The Boulder Democrat wants to help school districts build affordable housing for teachers, increase teacher pay and make sure that “100 percent of Colorado’s school districts are able to offer dual and concurrent enrollment programs through an associate’s degree or professional certification, and work to boost enrollment in them.”

The education plan includes the congressman’s initial campaign promise to deliver free and universal preschool and kindergarten.

“Part of my frustration is that politicians have been talking about preschool and kindergarten for decades,” Polis said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It’s time to stop talking … and actually do it.”

Big questions remain, however, about how Colorado would pay for Polis’s plans.

Free universal preschool and kindergarten would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars the state does not have. Polis has acknowledged that voters will need to approve a tax increase to secure the funding necessary — and voters rejected Colorado’s last big statewide ask to fund education initiatives.

His additional promises, especially providing schools with more money to pay teachers, only adds to the price tag for his education plan. The campaign did not release any projections of how much his teacher pay raise proposal would cost.

“If a teacher can’t afford to live in the community they work in, that is not going to be an attractive profession,” he said. “We need to do a better job in Colorado making sure teachers are rewarded for their hard work.”

Other components to Polis’s plan includes providing student loan relief for teachers who commit to serving in high-need and rural areas, increasing teacher training and building and renovating more.

Polis is the latest Democrat to roll out an education platform.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston released more details earlier this week about his campaign promise for tuition-free community college and job training.

Johnston’s campaign estimates that the initiative would cost about $47 million annually. The campaign provided specifics on how the state would pay for it: by combining existing federal grants and state scholarships, revenue from online sales tax, and state workforce development funding. Savings from volunteer hours put in by tuition recipients also are factored in.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy released her education plan last month.

Like Polis, Kennedy is calling for teacher raises. She wants the state’s average salary to be closer to the national average. The former state treasurer also wants to expand preschool and job training for high school students. A key piece of Kennedy’s proposal to pay for her initiatives: reforming the state’s tax laws to generate more revenue.

Other Democrats running to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, include Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and businessman Noel Ginsburg.

The Republican field to replace Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also crowded. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced earlier this month that she’s running. Other leading Republican candidates include former Congressman Tom Tancredo, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and businessmen Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell. George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, dropped out of the race to instead run for attorney general.