Tennessee Lawsuit Attacks Teacher Evaluations Based On Students They Don’t Teach

Feb 5, 2015

Tennessee’s largest teachers union is taking another swing at statistics being used to make pay and tenure decisions. In a third federal lawsuit, the union is challenging use of so-called “value-added” scores to evaluate teachers in subjects like art and music, who don’t have test data related to their own students.

It’s not just special areas. In fact, most public school teachers in the state don’t have testing data specifically related to students they teach. In those cases, school-wide figures are used instead. This lawsuit filed by the Tennessee Education Association names a physical education teacher at Nashville’s Gra-Mar Middle School who didn’t get a bonus because of her school-wide scores. An Anderson County teacher is also named as a plaintiff because she was denied tenure for the same reason.

The union is making a “Due Process” claim based on the 14th Amendment, which gets complicated (read the lawsuit here). But TEA attorney Rick Colbert says the basic facts are simple.

“It’s very easy for even a lay person to understand that there’s just something fundamentally wrong with judging an employee’s job performance on the basis of things that that employee has absolutely no control over,” Colbert says.

The suit asks that the state stop using the so-called “value-added” estimates to make employment decisions.

The two other TEA lawsuits, which are more narrowly focused, are still tied up in federal court.

There's very little legal precedent on the topic, though several court challenges are now working through the system.  A judge in Florida ruled against the teacher’s claim, even while saying the use of value-added data seemed unfair. The union is now appealing. Houston teachers have also sued over the use of value-added measurements.

The National Education Association is supporting its local chapters and their respective legal fights.

“The use of such arbitrary measures to make employment decisions with high-stakes consequences reflects a national obsession with standardized testing run amok,” NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia said in a written statement.

Governor Bill Haslam and newly-appointed Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen are named in the lawsuit as defendants. A spokesperson said the Education Department does not comment on pending litigation. But McQueen did release a statement regarding value-added data:

"The department remains committed to providing meaningful feedback to teachers based, in part, on student growth."