Breaking News: A Big Victory in Court in Houston

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Recall from multiple prior posts (see here, here, here, and here) that a set of teachers in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), with the support of the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), took their district to federal court to fight against the (mis)use of their value-added scores, derived via the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) — the “original” value-added model (VAM) developed in Tennessee by William L. Sanders who just recently passed away (see here). Teachers’ EVAAS scores, in short, were being used to evaluate teachers in Houston in more consequential ways than anywhere else in the nation (e.g., the termination of 221 teachers in just one year as based, primarily, on their EVAAS scores).

The case — Houston Federation of Teachers et al. v. Houston ISD — was filed in 2014 and just yesterday, United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Wm. Smith denied in the United States District Court, Southern District of Texas, the district’s request for summary judgment given the plaintiffs’ due process claims. Put differently, Judge Smith ruled that the plaintiffs’ did have legitimate claims regarding how EVAAS use in HISD was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment due process protections (i.e., no state or in this case organization shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process). Hence, on this charge, this case is officially going to trial.

This is a huge victory, and one unprecedented that will likely set precedent, trial pending, for others, and more specifically other teachers.

Of primary issue will be the following (as taken from Judge Smith’s Summary Judgment released yesterday): “Plaintiffs [will continue to] challenge the use of EVAAS under various aspects of the Fourteenth Amendment, including: (1) procedural due process, due to lack of sufficient information to meaningfully challenge terminations based on low EVAAS scores,” and given “due process is designed to foster government decision-making that is both fair and accurate.”

Related, and of most importance, as also taken directly from Judge Smith’s Summary, he wrote:

  • HISD’s value-added appraisal system poses a realistic threat to deprive plaintiffs of constitutionally protected property interests in employment.
  • HISD does not itself calculate the EVAAS score for any of its teachers. Instead, that task is delegated to its third party vendor, SAS. The scores are generated by complex algorithms, employing “sophisticated software and many layers of calculations.” SAS treats these algorithms and software as trade secrets, refusing to divulge them to either HISD or the teachers themselves. HISD has admitted that it does not itself verify or audit the EVAAS scores received from SAS, nor does it engage any contractor to do so. HISD further concedes that any effort by teachers to replicate their own scores, with the limited information available to them, will necessarily fail. This has been confirmed by plaintiffs’ expert, who was unable to replicate the scores despite being given far greater access to the underlying computer codes than is available to an individual teacher [emphasis added, as also related to a prior post about how SAS claimed that plaintiffs violated SAS’s protective order (protecting its trade secrets), that the court overruled, see here].
  • The EVAAS score might be erroneously calculated for any number of reasons, ranging from data-entry mistakes to glitches in the computer code itself. Algorithms are human creations, and subject to error like any other human endeavor. HISD has acknowledged that mistakes can occur in calculating a teacher’s EVAAS score; moreover, even when a mistake is found in a particular teacher’s score, it will not be promptly corrected. As HISD candidly explained in response to a frequently asked question, “Why can’t my value-added analysis be recalculated?”:
    • Once completed, any re-analysis can only occur at the system level. What this means is that if we change information for one teacher, we would have to re- run the analysis for the entire district, which has two effects: one, this would be very costly for the district, as the analysis itself would have to be paid for again; and two, this re-analysis has the potential to change all other teachers’ reports.
  • The remarkable thing about this passage is not simply that cost considerations trump accuracy in teacher evaluations, troubling as that might be. Of greater concern is the house-of-cards fragility of the EVAAS system, where the wrong score of a single teacher could alter the scores of every other teacher in the district. This interconnectivity means that the accuracy of one score hinges upon the accuracy of all. Thus, without access to data supporting all teacher scores, any teacher facing discharge for a low value-added score will necessarily be unable to verify that her own score is error-free.
  • HISD’s own discovery responses and witnesses concede that an HISD teacher is unable to verify or replicate his EVAAS score based on the limited information provided by HISD.
  • According to the unrebutted testimony of plaintiffs’ expert, without access to SAS’s proprietary information – the value-added equations, computer source codes, decision rules, and assumptions – EVAAS scores will remain a mysterious “black box,” impervious to challenge.
  • While conceding that a teacher’s EVAAS score cannot be independently verified, HISD argues that the Constitution does not require the ability to replicate EVAAS scores “down to the last decimal point.” But EVAAS scores are calculated to the second decimal place, so an error as small as one hundredth of a point could spell the difference between a positive or negative EVAAS effectiveness rating, with serious consequences for the affected teacher.

Hence, “When a public agency adopts a policy of making high stakes employment decisions based on secret algorithms incompatible with minimum due process, the proper remedy is to overturn the policy.”

Moreover, he wrote, that all of this is part of the violation of teaches’ Fourteenth Amendment rights. Hence, he also wrote, “On this summary judgment record, HISD teachers have no meaningful way to ensure correct calculation of their EVAAS scores, and as a result are unfairly subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.”

Otherwise, Judge Smith granted summary judgment to the district on the other claims forwarded by the plaintiffs, including plaintiffs’ equal protection claims. All of us involved in the case — recall that Jesse Rothstein and I served as the expert witnesses on behalf of the plaintiffs, and Thomas Kane of the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project and John Friedman of the infamous Chetty et al. studies (see here and here) served as the expert witnesses on behalf of the defendants — knew that all of the plaintiffs’ claims would be tough to win given all of the constitutional legal standards would be difficult for plaintiffs to satisfy (e.g., that evaluating teachers using their value-added scores was not “unreasonable” was difficult to prove, as it was in the Tennessee case we also fought and was then dismissed on similar grounds (see here)).

Nonetheless, that “we” survived on the due process claim is fantastic, especially as this is the first case like this of which we are aware across the country.

Here is the press release, released last night by the AFT:

May 4, 2017 – AFT, Houston Federation of Teachers Hail Court Ruling on Flawed Evaluation System

Statements by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo on U.S. District Court decision on Houston’s Evaluation Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS), known elsewhere as VAM or value-added measures:

AFT President Randi Weingarten: “Houston developed an incomprehensible, unfair and secret algorithm to evaluate teachers that had no rational meaning. This is the algebraic formula: = + (Σ∗≤Σ∗∗ × ∗∗∗∗=1)+

“U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith saw that it was seriously flawed and posed a threat to teachers’ employment rights; he rejected it. This is a huge victory for Houston teachers, their students and educators’ deeply held contention that VAM is a sham.

“The judge said teachers had no way to ensure that EVAAS was correctly calculating their performance score, nor was there a way to promptly correct a mistake. Judge Smith added that the proper remedy is to overturn the policy; we wholeheartedly agree. Teaching must be about helping kids develop the skills and knowledge they need to be prepared for college, career and life—not be about focusing on test scores for punitive purposes.”

HFT President Zeph Capo: “With this decision, Houston should wipe clean the record of every teacher who was negatively evaluated. From here on, teacher evaluation systems should be developed with educators to ensure that they are fair, transparent and help inform instruction, not be used as a punitive tool.”

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6 thoughts on “Breaking News: A Big Victory in Court in Houston

  1. Congratulations. Let’s hope this ruling scares all of the folks here in Ohio and in other states where EVASS is still alive, along with SLOs or distributed VAM rating for teachers of “untested” subjects.

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