GAINSVILLE, Fla. (CN) – Grading some Florida teachers based on results of students they do not teach is unfair but not unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled.
“The unfairness of the evaluation system as implemented is not lost on this court,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote. “We have a teacher evaluation system in Florida that is supposed to measure the individual effectiveness of each teacher. But as the plaintiffs have shown, the standards for evaluation differ significantly. … To make matters worse, the legislature has mandated that teacher ratings be used to make important decisions such as pay, promotion, assignment, and retention. Ratings affect a teacher’s professional reputation as well because they are made public – they have even been printed in the newspaper.”
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, said his organization was “disappointed” with the decision and was reviewing whether to appeal it.
“This evaluation system is clearly unfair and isn’t a valid measure of the teachers in our public schools,” Ford said in a statement. “We will continue to point out this unfairness and we will continue to work to find an evaluation system that is fair, open and provides a sensible way to properly evaluate our public school teachers.”
Florida passed The Student Success Act in 2011, requiring school districts to evaluate teachers based in part on “student learning growth.” School districts rely on statewide standardized tests scores to measure “student learning growth.” For subjects and grade levels that statewide assessments do not measure, the law requires school districts to develop their own evaluation formulae.
Seven teachers, joined by Florida Education Association, the National Education Association, and local education associations, challenged the evaluation system in a federal lawsuit last year. The plaintiffs argued that assessing teachers based on test scores for students or subjects they do not teach was “irrational and arbitrary,” and violated due process and equal protection. They also challenged the implementation of the evaluation policies by three counties, and the Florida Department of Education’s approval of those policies.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker dismissed the constitutional challenges last week, finding that the evaluation policies are rationally related to the government’s legitimate interest in increasing student progress.
The state and the school districts could rationally believe that teachers can improve their students’ performance on statewide assessments even if they teach a subject that is not tested. Teachers can also influence performance of all students at their school, not just of those whom they teach directly, according to the May 6 ruling.
It is rational to consider the students’ improvement when evaluating the teacher’s performance, and to believe that such evaluations may lead to better teaching, the 18-page order states.
The plaintiffs had argued that the policies violate equal protection for teachers whose evaluations are based on student growth data for students or subjects they do not teach.
In dismissing the argument, Walker said that the classification in question “has no hint of invidious discrimination but is rather a practical consequence of the lack of uniform measures available to assess student learning growth in all subjects and grade levels.”
Until the state implements tests for all courses and subjects so that all teachers can benefit from comparable assessments, the state may use the available policies to address its need to increase student learning growth, the ruling states.
The evaluation system may not be fair, but courts lack the power to correct flaws in policies as long as they are rational, according to the order.
“Needless to say, this court would be hard pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to non-FCAT teachers, let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system,” Walker wrote, abbreviating Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
“This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system,” he continued. “The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.”
Walker noted that teachers have separate remedies to challenge an evaluation on due-process grounds if an evaluation deprives them of an employment right.
He refused to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiffs’ state claims.
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