Judge dismisses FL teachers’ union gripe against performance evals


STUDENT SUCCESS: A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Florida’s teacher evaluations are legal, but the implementation has been shoddy. In this 2011 AP photo, Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill that giving teachers merit raises for performance.

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It’s Teacher Appreciation Week in the Sunshine State, and to celebrate a federal judge ruled against a federation of Florida teachers’ unions Tuesday.

The ruling centered on a matter near and dear to union hearts and wallets — teacher evaluations.

Education reformers might call the decision a moment of student appreciation.

It’s a bitter pill for the Florida Education Association, a 140,000-member organization, and the National Education Association, which together sued the state more than a year ago alleging constitutional violations of due process and equal protection.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark E. Waller disagreed.

“The evaluation policies further the state’s legitimate interest in increasing student learning growth,” he wrote.

Waller also noted that, while legal, those same evaluation polices are shoddy in terms of implementation.

“The unfairness of the evaluation system as implemented is not lost on this court. We have a teacher evaluation system in Florida that is supposed to measure the individual effectiveness of each teacher.”

The problem, not uncommon to government fixes, is a one-size-fits-all solution in which the performance grades of physical education and art teachers are tied to standardized test results, measuring student learning in areas unrelated to the tests.

“This lawsuit highlights the absurdity of the evaluation system that has come about as a result of SB 736,” FEA president Andy Ford said when the lawsuit was filed. Senate Bill 736 is the Student Success Act, a phrase Ford and other opponents don’t like.

“Teachers in Florida are being evaluated using a formula designed to measure learning gains in the FCAT math and reading tests,” he added.

Passed by the Florida Legislature in 2011, the evaluation system is tied in part to a three-year student performance review of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — or FCAT — scores. Those scores amount to half of the performance measures relating to teachers and administrators. The other half is based on varying criteria such as leadership and classroom practices.

Reform-minded lawmakers want the evaluations to form a basis for merit pay, which they say will reward high-performing teachers and create financial incentives to motivate others to excel. Proponents say the result should have students benefiting while teachers earn more money.

The FEA has generally opposed merit pay and other efforts to reform the unionized pay system. The group released a press statement after the ruling in which it vowed to continue to fight the evaluations in court.

“While we’re disappointed that the judge didn’t agree with all aspects of our federal challenge, we’re encouraged that he was troubled by the evaluation procedures and we look forward to continuing this legal challenge,” Ford said.

Florida’s Student Success Act, in which teacher evaluations are a cornerstone, has the support of Michelle Rhee. Rhee became a national education figure after an award-winning documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” showed the challenges she faced trying to improve Washington D.C., public schools.

“This landmark bill recognizes that teachers are the most important factor in schools when determining a child’s success,” said Rhee. “We applaud Florida for its adoption of bold and comprehensive education measures that put students first.”

Contact William Patrick at wpatrick@watchdog.org