Teaching Profession

Teacher-Evaluation Lawsuit in Tennessee Nixed by Federal Judge

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 22, 2016 2 min read
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Tennessee’s teacher-evaluation system has some potential problems, but it’s still sound enough to be used to give out performance bonuses, a federal judge ruled last week.

The ruling is a blow to the Tennessee Education Association, the state teachers’ union, which backed the lawsuit as part of its ongoing efforts to end the use of test scores for evaluating teachers. Tennessee uses a “value added” algorithm, which purports to isolate each teacher’s impact on his or her students’ standardized-test scores, for 35 percent of each teachers’ rating. Teachers have long claimed that the value-added formulas are opaque and flawed.

Teacher Mark Taylor originally filed the suit, in 2014, after missing out on a performance bonus in Tennessee’s Knox County. Although he had a high rating on classroom observations, Taylor’s value-added score was based on only one class of students’ results, rather than how all of his classes did. Why? Because his four other classes are advanced, and those students don’t take a standardized test at the end of the term. (The lawsuit was combined with a second suit from another teacher, Lisa Trout, who sued for similar reasons.)

The lawsuit claimed that the “arbitrary,” “irrational” nature of the test algorithm violated the teachers’ due process and equal-protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In his ruling, Judge Harry Mattice Jr. said that flaws in the system notwithstanding, the state has a rational claim for why it evaluates its teachers using test scores: They measure at least some portion, if not all, of what teachers do in their jobs.

"[I]t is not irrational for the state to base a performance evaluation on a subset of a teachers’ work,” he said. “In fact, a full 50 percent of a teachers’ evaluation is based on classroom observation. This portion, absent obviously impractical round-the-clock observation, is necessarily a subset of a teacher’s performance, yet plaintiffs do not, and cannot claim that this is irrational.”

As the Knoxville News Sentinel sums up, the argument amounts to this: If teachers don’t like the system, they need to seek remedy not through the courts, but by electing new lawmakers to change it.

Interestingly, Mattice also referenced the decision in a federal lawsuit in Florida that was dismissed for similar reasons, showing that case law in the teacher-evaluation realm is already starting to have an effect.

It’s not yet clear whether the TEA will appeal the ruling. The union also sued in 2015 in a third lawsuit protesting how teachers in subjects without standardized tests are graded, but that lawsuit was dismissed in June.

Teachers and unions have filed a rash of similarly themed suits that have been filed in other states. Education Week has been tracking all these cases for you. We’ll update our database in short order.

For more on the Tennessee lawsuit and other legal challenges to teacher evaluation:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.