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New York Teachers' Union Sues Over Evaluations

New York teachers' frustration over a new policy linking educators' evaluations to student test scores has morphed into a lawsuit, filed by the state's largest teachers' union.

The legal action, filed by the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, seeks to nix regulations on teacher evaluation recently adopted by the New York State Board of Regents, which the union says run contrary to a state law approved last year. The lawsuit names the board, the state department of education, and the state's education commissioner, John King, as defendants.

New York's legislature, with the support of the union, approved a law in 2010 that tied a portion of teachers' and administrators' evaluations to student test scores, as part of the state's ultimately successful bid to win money through the federal Race to the Top program. The state walked away with a $700 million award through the competition.

Under that law, teachers were to have 20 percent of their evaluations based on students' results on state tests, 20 percent based on locally developed measures, and 60 percent on observations or other subjective measures.

The trouble arose when the state board of regents set about creating regulations to spell out in more detail what the evaluations were supposed to look like. As my colleague Stephen Sawchuk explained recently, the board's initial regulations were criticized as vague and were ultimately rejected by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The board approved revised regulations that permitted local districts to use the state tests as a local measure, which means that state standardized tests could amount to up to 40 percent of the evaluation—not just 20 percent.

The union's president, Richard C. Iannuzzi, said while his organization continues to support the state's use of an evaluation system, the regents' approach goes against the spirit of the law and dictates that teachers be judged by a single test.

"New York was poised to take the lead in developing a thoughtful, comprehensive evaluation system developed in collaboration with teachers and other stakeholders," he said in a statement. "Instead, the Regents chose politics over sound educational policy and the cheap way over the right way, doubling down on high-stakes tests of dubious worth instead of requiring school districts and teachers unions to collaborate in ways that would really strengthen instruction in our classrooms."

The union says that the regulations also improperly dictate the process through which teachers can challenge their ratings under the evaluation system, which the teachers' group says are subject to collective bargaining.

New York is not the only Race to the Top winner that is facing big challenges in how to evaluate teachers based on student performance. Officials in Maryland, for instance, are immersed in difficult discussions on how to set fair measures for teachers and administrators.

New York state officials are confident their evaluation model can withstand legal scrutiny.

The model is "the critical foundation of all of our efforts to ensure that every classroom is led by a highly effective teacher," New York state education department spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a statement. "We have every confidence that it will be upheld by the courts."

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