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Teachers Unions Sue State Over Teacher Performance Evaluations

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Photo of a classroom. (credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo of a classroom. (credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Teachers unions on Tuesday sued the state and three local school boards over performance evaluations that grade Florida’s teachers on subjects and students they don’t teach, which they called “arbitrary, irrational and unfair.”

The suit, backed by the National Education Association and Florida Education Association, includes seven teachers from around the state as plaintiffs. The case was filed in federal court in Gainesville.

The complaint challenges the Student Success Act passed in 2011, claiming its evaluation system, partly based on scores from the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, violates teachers’ constitutional rights of due process and equal protection of laws. The evaluations are used to set performance-based salary schedules.

“None of the plaintiffs teaches math or reading in the grades that the FCAT is given,” said Andy Ford, the Florida Education Association president. “This lawsuit highlights the absurdity of the current evaluation system.”

In a statement, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett noted 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,” he said. “We look forward to working with teachers, administrators and Florida families (on an) assessment that best rewards the success of our great teachers.”

School boards in Alachua, Hernando and Escambia counties also were named. A similar case is already in state court.

Teachers get one of four ratings: highly effective, effective, needs improvement or unsatisfactory.

State law says teacher evaluations “must be based upon the performance of students assigned to their classrooms or schools,” but “may include other criteria.” At least 50 percent of the evaluation must use results of statewide assessments, such as the FCAT.

But the FCAT — which measures reading and math — is of little to no help in judging educators who don’t teach those subjects, the suit suggests. The plaintiff-teachers include art, music, health and biology teachers.

For teachers in grades where there are no FCAT scores for students they teach, all the teachers at a given school are lumped together as an “instructional team” and judged collectively based on FCAT scores, the suit says.

At least one plaintiff has received a poor evaluation, said Ron Meyer, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, but all “received evaluations that were not reflective of the work they performed.”

Ultimately, many Florida teachers could get wrongful evaluations of poor performance, leading to involuntary transfers, lost raises and firings, the suit said.

“We’re hoping to stop this before they start bleeding money,” Meyer said. “This is not a money suit right now, but that’s not to say these people haven’t been damaged. What the value of that is could be left for another day.”

For classroom teachers, evaluations also must include “student learning growth” for students assigned to the teacher over the last three years, if that information exists. For instructors who aren’t in classrooms, it can include “other measurable student outcomes.”

The law charges the state education commissioner to come up with a mathematical formula for FCAT-related courses. School districts are then supposed to use it. But the suit points out it’s “exceedingly complex” and doesn’t give teachers any direction in improving.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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