Local teachers lead effort to sue district, state over evaluation methods


Published: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 12:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 12:07 p.m.

The Florida and national teachers unions filed a federal lawsuit Monday in Gainesville over teacher evaluations based on student test scores.

Under the current system, which was adopted in 2011, teachers can be evaluated based on the performance of students they don't teach or in subjects they don't teach.

"It's a huge flaw in the law," said Karen McCann, president of the Alachua County Education Association.

SB 736, dubbed the "Student Success Act," stipulated that teacher evaluations are based in part on standardized tests — the FCAT.

But only about 25 percent of Alachua County public school teachers give instruction in FCAT reading and math, the two subjects that contribute to the evaluation, McCann said. The rest teach music, science, art, physical education and social studies — a variety of areas that remain integral to student learning.

McCann and many other teachers contend that FCAT is one small portion of an entire school year and doesn't paint the most accurate picture of what a student is actually learning.

"If you're a salesman, would you be evaluated on one day of sales?" McCann said.

Teachers rated "unsatisfactory" two years in a row are automatically given 90 days of probation and could lose their jobs. The same things happens if a teacher is rated "unsatisfactory" or "needing improvement" three out of five consecutive years.

Tying pay and employment status to student performance takes away teachers' collective bargaining rights, a guaranteed right under Florida's constitution, McCann said.

The Florida Education Association sued the state of Florida on those grounds earlier this year.

Monday's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, asserts that the law also violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Seven public school teachers from Alachua, Escambia and Hernando counties brought the lawsuit against the school boards in each of those counties, the State Board of Education and Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett.

Bennett noted in a statement that current bills before the Legislature "would make improvements to the Student Success Act, including ensuring that teachers are evaluated only on the students and subjects they teach."

"The legislation would also provide that teachers could not be eligible for a performance pay system until an appropriate assessment for their students and subjects is in place," Bennett said. "We look forward to working with teachers, administrators and Florida families (on an) assessment that best rewards the success of our great teachers."

Kim Cook, a first-grade teacher at Irby Elementary School, and Janine Plavac, a health science teacher at Gainesville High School, are the two Alachua County teachers represented in the suit.

Cook, who is Irby Elementary's Teacher of the Year, received an "unsatisfactory" rating based on FCAT scores of students who don't go to her school.

Irby Elementary serves students in kindergarten through second grade. Since the FCAT isn't administered until third grade, part of Cook's evaluation was based on the FCAT reading scores of students at neighboring Alachua Elementary School, which serves grades 3 through 5.

Cook has never met most of the students whose performance dictated her evaluation.

Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Dan Boyd said the current system is significantly flawed and that the district stands behind the teachers.

If the state wants to evaluate teachers based on test scores, he said, it needs to take the time to develop exams that are statistically valid and reflect a variety of subjects.

"I think it's regrettable that we have reached this state, but it is certainly not something that is surprising to me," he said. "Florida asked for a lawsuit in pursuing (teacher evaluations) to a level that they have pursued it."

For the past eight years, Plavac has directed the Academy of Health Professions, a competitive magnet program at Gainesville High School that prepares students going into medical professions. In her current post, she said, she has always received perfect or near-perfect evaluations.

But since she doesn't teach an FCAT subject, 40 percent of Plavac's evaluation last year was based on FCAT reading scores for her ninth-grade class.

Before the test scores were factored into her evaluation, Plavac said she received 100 percent marks. After adding in the scores, she was rated "effective."

"I don't take going from a ‘highly effective' teacher to an ‘effective' teacher very well," she said.

When teachers' ratings took a nosedive last year as a result of factoring in students' FCAT performance, Florida's Department of Education allowed school districts to alter the scoring methods. The revised numbers brought up the percentage of teachers rated either "effective" or "highly effective" from 78 percent to 99.5 percent.

Plavac's rating also went up, but she's still unhappy. Tweaking teachers' scores by district will not be allowed this year.

"It says they don't take into account what I do as a teacher," Plavac said. "Not that I don't support that these students should be on a certain grade level for reading, but that's not what I teach day in and day out."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gvillesun.com.

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