The Houston Federation of Teachers has filed a federal lawsuit against the 203,000-student district, claiming that its "value added" approach to teacher evaluation violates teachers' constitutional rights.
The suit seeks to prevent the district from using value-added for evaluating or terminating teachers.
Houston began using a value-added method, or VAM, as half of its teachers' overall evaluation score in 2012-13. "Value-added" is a statistical method that aims to isolate each teacher's contributions to students' academic growth on standardized tests.
The lawsuit, filed by the union in U.S. District Court for the Southern District on behalf of seven teachers, says that the standard for what constitutes enough student growth under the system is vague; that the value-added method chosen is proprietary and therefore opaque; and that certain groups of teachers—those who teach English-language learners, high-achieving students, and certain academic subjects—are at risk of lower scores.
As a result, teachers are being treated arbitrarily and are not given enough information about the ratings to protest their scores, a violation of their due-process rights, the lawsuit claims. In addition, the suit charges that administrators are being forced to align observation ratings with the value-added components, in a violation of their equal-protection rights.
The suit claims that some of the plaintiffs were highly respected and have received special recognition for teaching, but were placed on improvement plans after the evaluation results came out.
The ramifications here are many, and not just for Houston.
First, as many have predicted, teachers' unions are increasingly seeking help from the court in trying to overturn some of the newly established evaluation systems, particularly the test-score-based components.
Second, such lawsuits create some real pressure for proponents of the systems. In their zeal to use them, have they allowed policy to get ahead of the research?
Third, many factors—the choice of tests, the choice of statistical controls, the number of years of data crunched— all affect the VAM estimates; not even the research community agrees on what the "best" approach is. Within the legal framework of teacher employment law, that uncertainty becomes quite problematic.
Finally, there's an equally important question for unions. They have struggled to advance alternatives to these systems, other than peer review, which so far serves only a fraction of teachers in the places where it has been tried. A perfect system that accurately identifies every teacher's performance is probably not an option. But without a serious alternative, unions run the risk of, once again, being forced into a defensive, oppositional position.