1. The Education Gradebook

Teachers mount legal challenge to new evaluation system

Hernando teacher Bethann Brooks is part of the suit.
Hernando teacher Bethann Brooks is part of the suit.
Published Apr. 17, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — When the state began evaluating teachers based on student test scores last year, Bethann Brooks watched her performance rating slip from "highly effective" to "effective."

Brooks was baffled. She teaches health science to juniors and seniors at Central High in Brooksville. But her evaluation was based on reading test scores tallied on freshmen and sophomores.

"I don't even know any freshmen," Brooks said. "It doesn't make any sense."

Brooks and six other Florida teachers, with the help of the state and national teachers' unions, are suing state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and the state Board of Education for deploying what they consider to be an unfair evaluation system. They say the new procedures violate their constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.

In a statement, Bennett wrote that the new system would help Florida "recruit and retain quality teachers" and noted that lawmakers were considering improvements.

"We look forward to working with teachers, administrators and Florida families as we continue ensure a fair and appropriate assessment that best rewards the success of our great teachers," Bennett wrote.

Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who has long supported performance pay for teachers, said he was not surprised by the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court Tuesday.

"So the teachers' union filed a lawsuit saying they don't want to be evaluated based on student performance? I'm shocked. Shocked I say," he said facetiously.

However, Gaetz agreed that teachers shouldn't be evaluated based on children they never see.

Last year, Florida began evaluating its teachers using a "value-added" model, which uses two years of testing data to predict how a student will fare on standardized tests. If the student surpasses the benchmark, the teacher is considered to have added value. If the student falls short, the teacher has had a negative effect.

Beginning next year, the performance-based evaluations will be tied to salary increases and used to determine if a teacher is transferred to another school or terminated.

Teachers are quick to point out that only a fraction of classes culminate with a standardized test in reading or math, meaning most educators will be evaluated based on students they didn't teach, or in subject areas that fall outside of their lesson plans.

Brooks, for example, instructs only a handful of students who take standardized tests at the end of the year. So her evaluation used the schoolwide scores on the ninth- and 10th-grade reading tests.

Kim Cook, who teaches first-graders at W.W. Irby Elementary in Alachua, is in an even more unusual position. Since her school has only kindergarten, first grade and second grade — and children in those grade levels don't take standardized tests — Cook is being evaluated based on the test scores of third-graders at nearby Alachua Elementary.

"It's such a flawed system," said Cook, a 25-year veteran teacher who is also participating in the lawsuit.

The litigation is partly intended to put pressure on state lawmakers. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, have filed bills that would prevent teachers from being evaluated based on students they don't instruct. But the Flores version needs to be heard in two committees before it reaches the Senate floor, and the session is winding down.

Ron Meyer, an attorney for the state teachers' union, said their proposal is "not comprehensive enough" because it does not explicitly address how to evaluate teachers for whom there is no student testing data.

"What we suggest is, throw out the whole thing," Meyer said. "Start from scratch. Let school systems develop measures that evaluate teachers in a way that is understandable, transparent and fair."

The Republican-dominated Florida Legislature is unlikely to toss its new teacher evaluation system. But Democrats like Sen. Bill Montford, a former school superintendent from Tallahassee, have pointed out that there is still time to tweak the procedures before performance pay kicks in next year.

In addition to the Board of Education, the lawsuit also names the Alachua, Escambia and Hernando school boards as defendants.

Hernando County Superintendent Bryan Blavatt hadn't heard about the lawsuit early Tuesday. But he expressed concerns that a lawsuit would end up costing the district in legal fees.

"If it's going to take money away from kids, I don't like it," Blavatt said.

He does, however, believe teachers have a valid issue with the new teacher evaluation system.

"I've said this from the beginning," he said. "I see this as a problem."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.