Across the county, states are implementing new teacher evaluation systems which rely upon student results on state standardized tests to evaluate teacher performance. These new systems are facing political and legal challenges from teacher groups who object to these new evaluation plans.

A federal district court has granted summary judgment in favor of the Florida Department of Education, rejecting a challenge from the Florida Education Association (“Association”) of state-mandated teacher evaluation plans that had been enacted by three local school districts. The Association had challenged teacher evaluation plans that relied upon student performance on standardized tests on substantive due process and equal protection grounds.

In 2011, the Florida Legislature passed the Student Success Act (“Act”) which requires school districts to evaluate teachers and other instructional personnel based, in part, on “student learning growth” beginning with the 2011-12 school year. The Act directs school districts to use a specific formula developed by the Commissioner of Education to measure student learning growth for those student courses associated with statewide assessments; for all other courses, school districts are directed to select an “equally appropriate formula.” The three school districts associated with this lawsuit – Alachua, Escambia and Hernando – had availed themselves of temporary provisions within the Act which allowed teachers who teach students who take statewide assessments, but teach them in courses and subjects other than those associated with the statewide test, be nonetheless evaluated on the test scores of the students.

The three school districts had adopted evaluation policies which had been approved by the Florida Department of Education, which allowed teachers to be evaluated by the test scores of students in subjects other than the ones they taught, or who they did not teach at all.

The court, in Cook v. Stewart, although sympathetic to the Association’s argument, rejected the due process and equal protection challenges, finding that there was a “rational basis” for the evaluation policies. Noting that “it is not within the power of this Court to correct flaws in the policies so long as they are supported by a rational basis, the court declined the opportunity to reject a flawed policy in hopes of achieving a better one.

Despite its rejection of the Association’s claims, the court was clearly sympathetic to the concerns and claims raised by teachers, which wrote that “the unfairness of the evaluation system is not lost on this Court.” The court went on to state that “this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to…teachers, let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system.” However, the court concluded that “this case…is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the policies are rational within the meaning of the law.”

Not surprisingly, the Association was disappointed in the court’s ruling and indicated that it “will continue to work to find an evaluation system that is fair, open and proves a sensible way to properly evaluate our public school teachers, according to Association President Andy Ford. Given the summary rejection of a challenge to a teacher evaluation plan that the judge clearly felt was unfair, it would seem that efforts to stop, change or improve teacher evaluation systems are more likely to succeed in the political arena than in the courts.