Highly recognized, good teachers are receiving poor evaluations because of a grossly flawed value-added algorithm that should be changed, seven Houston teachers and the Houston Federation of Teachers said May 1 in an unprecedented lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
The lawsuit details numerous problems with the Houston Independent School District's Education Value-Added Assessment System, or EVAAS. Its statistical methodology uses a student's performance on prior standardized tests to predict academic growth in the current year, though what is considered a sufficient level of growth is not defined. A teacher's EVAAS score is supposed to measure the effect, or added value, of a teacher on a student's academic growth over the school year. The school district uses this deeply flawed methodology for decisions about teacher evaluation, bonuses and termination, yet it is a "black box" system in which the methodology is considered proprietary and confidential.
"Due to a faulty, incomprehensible and secret formula, good teachers like the ones filing this suit are being labeled failures and our entire education system is being reduced to a numbers game," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "Testing isn't aligned with the purposes of public education. It doesn't measure big-picture learning, critical thinking, resilience, creativity or curiosity, yet those are the qualities that great teaching brings out in a student. The fixation on testing has literally drained the joy out of learning. We've always been leery of value-added models, and we have enough evidence to make clear that not only has VAM not worked, it's been really destructive and it in no way helps improve teaching and learning."
Daniel Santos, an award-winning sixth grade social studies teacher at Jackson Middle School, says the evaluation system is failing him, his students and his profession.
"It's dispiriting and insulting to be told I'm ineffective, a judgment that doesn't mesh with my classroom performance or the time and effort I devote to my students. Texas is using a broken evaluation system that isn't properly identifying who really needs help to improve," Santos says, adding, "My students are being tested on material that is not aligned with our curriculum."
While there have been other suits challenging VAM, the Houston suit is unique because it was brought by highly recognized teachers who contend their poor EVAAS ratings do not correlate with their actual performance nor take into account socioeconomic or demographic variables in predicting student performance. The complaint also charges that the district directed and/or pressured school administrators to "manufacture deficiencies or otherwise find fault with the instructional practices" by teachers who received low EVAAS ratings. Those teachers would be placed on a growth plan to correct the supposed faulty instructional practice.
Myla Van Duyn, who teaches ninth grade biology at Davis High School, received an unwarranted low EVAAS score and contends her classroom observation scores were artificially lowered to be aligned with the EVAAS scores. "This is demoralizing," says Van Duyn, who is leaving the school district at the end of the school year, a decision motivated in part by the flawed evaluation system.
"EVAAS is driving out great Houston teachers because they'd rather work in a place that respects teachers. Everybody can do better, but the EVASS method does not accurately account for all of the variables that go into a child's ability to answer questions on a multiple choice test," Van Duyn says.
Andy Dewey, another plaintiff, is a history teacher at Carnegie Vanguard High School who developed the curriculum for two history courses and has been consistently rated well by his administrators. "Houston's evaluation system is sold as a system to support and strengthen teaching, but it's actually a bait and switch sham that's weakening instruction and not helping teaching or learning at all," Dewey says. "Teachers are told their scores are low but are not given information about what they did or did not do to cause their students to perform less than predicted."
Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, says: "The district is using a woefully inaccurate, educationally destructive evaluation system. If a car had as many design defects as the EVAAS system, it would be recalled as a lemon. EVAAS should be replaced with a fair and meaningful system that will actually help improve teaching and learning."
Weingarten says the real culprit is school districts' fixation on testing, noting none of the top-performing countries subjects their students to as much testing as the United States.
"The testing obsession has turned kids into test scores and teachers into algorithms. Rote memorization and testing don't prepare our students for the 21st century. We need to help kids problem solve, think critically, learn to be persistent and work in teams," Weingarten says. "This country has spent billions on accountability, not on the improvement of teaching and learning at the classroom level, and value-added models are the leading edge of this misguided effort," she said.
Weingarten says districts should develop, with teachers, a comprehensive evaluation system based on multiple measures that accurately identifies teachers needing improvement and that provides targeted help. To reclaim the promise of public education, she says there should be safe and welcoming neighborhood schools, access to early childhood education, wraparounds services at schools to address health, social and emotional issues, and project-based instruction.
Weingarten first questioned the fairness and accuracy of value-added metrics in 2007. It also has been criticized as inaccurate and an unstable measure of teacher performance by, most recently, the American Statistical Association, as well as RAND Corp. researchers, the National Academy of Sciences and the Economic Policy Institute. The ASA said the majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside the teachers' control.
The federal lawsuit states teachers' due process constitutional rights are being violated because the EVAAS system is not an accurate or reliable indicator of teachers' performance and because "a cloak of secrecy" prevents teachers from verifying or challenging their EVAAS score. The suit also contends teachers' equal protection constitutional rights are being violated because the school district directs and/or pressures school administrators to align teachers' instructional practice scores with their EVAAS scores—two separate evaluation components—so those with below-average EVAAS scores receive arbitrary, harsher instructional practice scores. The suit also contends that the standards for acceptable growth are arbitrary, vague and constantly being recalibrated.
In addition to the Houston Federation of Teachers, Daniel Santos, Myla Van Duyn, and Andy Dewey, the other plaintiffs are Ivan Castillo (a fourth-grade bilingual teacher who has taught at Briscoe Elementary School since 1994, was the school's bilingual teacher of the year in 2013-14 and is a finalist for bilingual elementary teacher for the Houston Independent School District); Paloma Garner (a ninth-grade biology teacher at David High School, has received several national awards recognizing her mentoring skills and has a consistent record of strong performance); Araceli Ramos (a ninth-grade English teacher at Austin High School who was selected in 2014 by a school official to tutor teachers on the Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System) and Joyce Helfman (an eighth-grade English teacher at Johnston Middle School who has had a consistent record of strong performance and is well respected by her colleagues).
Read Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss's story on the on the lawsuit.
[AFT-HFT press release]