Victory in Court: Consequences Attached to VAMs Suspended Throughout New Mexico

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Great news for New Mexico and New Mexico’s approximately 23,000 teachers, and great news for states and teachers potentially elsewhere, in terms of setting precedent!

Late yesterday, state District Judge David K. Thomson, who presided over the ongoing teacher-evaluation lawsuit in New Mexico, granted a preliminary injunction preventing consequences from being attached to the state’s teacher evaluation data. More specifically, Judge Thomson ruled that the state can proceed with “developing” and “improving” its teacher evaluation system, but the state is not to make any consequential decisions about New Mexico’s teachers using the data the state collects until the state (and/or others external to the state) can evidence to the court during another trial (set for now, for April) that the system is reliable, valid, fair, uniform, and the like.

As you all likely recall, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), joined by the Albuquerque Teachers Federation (ATF), last year, filed a “Lawsuit in New Mexico Challenging [the] State’s Teacher Evaluation System.” Plaintiffs charged that the state’s teacher evaluation system, imposed on the state in 2012 by the state’s current Public Education Department (PED) Secretary Hanna Skandera (with value-added counting for 50% of teachers’ evaluation scores), is unfair, error-ridden, spurious, harming teachers, and depriving students of high-quality educators, among other claims (see the actual lawsuit here).

Thereafter, one scheduled day of testimonies turned into five in Santa Fe, that ran from the end of September through the beginning of October (each of which I covered here, here, here, here, and here). I served as the expert witness for the plaintiff’s side, along with other witnesses including lawmakers (e.g., a state senator) and educators (e.g., teachers, superintendents) who made various (and very articulate) claims about the state’s teacher evaluation system on the stand. Thomas Kane served as the expert witness for the defendant’s side, along with other witnesses including lawmakers and educators who made counter claims about the system, some of which backfired, unfortunately for the defense, primarily during cross-examination.

See articles released about this ruling this morning in the Santa Fe New Mexican (“Judge suspends penalties linked to state’s teacher eval system”) and the Albuquerque Journal (“Judge curbs PED teacher evaluations).” See also the AFT’s press release, written by AFT President Randi Weingarten, here. Click here for the full 77-page Order written by Judge Thomson (see also, below, five highlights I pulled from this Order).

The journalist of the Santa Fe New Mexican, though, provided the most detailed information about Judge Thomson’s Order, writing, for example, that the “ruling by state District Judge David Thomson focused primarily on the complicated combination of student test scores used to judge teachers. The ruling [therefore] prevents the Public Education Department [PED] from denying teachers licensure advancement or renewal, and it strikes down a requirement that poorly performing teachers be placed on growth plans.” In addition, the Judge noted that “the teacher evaluation system varies from district to district, which goes against a state law calling for a consistent evaluation plan for all educators.”

The PED continues to stand by its teacher evaluation system, calling the court challenge “frivolous” and “a legal PR stunt,” all the while noting that Judge Thomson’s decision “won’t affect how the state conducts its teacher evaluations.” Indeed it will, for now and until the state’s teacher evaluation system is vetted, and validated, and “the court” is “assured” that the system can actually be used to take the “consequential actions” against teachers, “required” by the state’s PED.

Here are some other highlights that I took directly from Judge Thomson’s ruling, capturing what I viewed as his major areas of concern about the state’s system (click here, again, to read Judge Thomson’s full Order):

  • Validation Needed: “The American Statistical Association says ‘estimates from VAM should always be accompanied by measures of precision and a discussion of the assumptions and possible limitations of the model. These limitations are particularly relevant if VAM are used for high stake[s] purposes” (p. 1). These are the measures, assumptions, limitations, and the like that are to be made transparent in this state.
  • Uniformity Required: “New Mexico’s evaluation system is less like a [sound] model than a cafeteria-style evaluation system where the combination of factors, data, and elements are not easily determined and the variance from school district to school district creates conflicts with the [state] statutory mandate” (p. 2)…with the existing statutory framework for teacher evaluations for licensure purposes requiring “that the teacher be evaluated for ‘competency’ against a ‘highly objective uniform statewide standard of evaluation’ to be developed by PED” (p. 4). “It is the term ‘highly objective uniform’ that is the subject matter of this suit” (p. 4), whereby the state and no other “party provided [or could provide] the Court a total calculation of the number of available district-specific plans possible given all the variables” (p. 54). See also the Judge’s points #78-#80 (starting on page 70) for some of the factors that helped to “establish a clear lack of statewide uniformity among teachers” (p. 70).
  • Transparency Missing: “The problem is that it is not easy to pull back the curtain, and the inner workings of the model are not easily understood, translated or made accessible” (p. 2). “Teachers do not find the information transparent or accurate” and “there is no evidence or citation that enables a teacher to verify the data that is the content of their evaluation” (p. 42). In addition, “[g]iven the model’s infancy, there are no real studies to explain or define the [s]tate’s value-added system…[hence, the consequences and decisions]…that are to be made using such system data should be examined and validated prior to making such decisions” (p. 12).
  • Consequences Halted: “Most significant to this Order, [VAMs], in this [s]tate and others, are being used to make consequential decisions…This is where the rubber hits the road [as per]…teacher employment impacts. It is also where, for purposes of this proceeding, the PED departs from the statutory mandate of uniformity requiring an injunction” (p. 9). In addition, it should be noted that indeed “[t]here are adverse consequences to teachers short of termination” (p. 33) including, for example, “a finding of ‘minimally effective’ [that] has an impact on teacher licenses” (p. 41). These, too, are to be halted under this injunction Order.
  • Clarification Required: “[H]ere is what this [O]rder is not: This [O]rder does not stop the PED’s operation, development and improvement of the VAM in this [s]tate, it simply restrains the PED’s ability to take consequential actions…until a trial on the merits is held” (p. 2). In addition, “[a] preliminary injunction differs from a permanent injunction, as does the factors for its issuance…’ The objective of the preliminary injunction is to preserve the status quo [minus the consequences] pending the litigation of the merits. This is quite different from finally determining the cause itself” (p. 74). Hence, “[t]he court is simply enjoining the portion of the evaluation system that has adverse consequences on teachers” (p. 75).

The PED also argued that “an injunction would hurt students because it could leave in place bad teachers.” As per Judge Thomson, “That is also a faulty argument. There is no evidence that temporarily halting consequences due to the errors outlined in this lengthy Opinion more likely results in retention of bad teachers than in the firing of good teachers” (p. 75).

Finally, given my involvement in this lawsuit and given the team with whom I was/am still so fortunate to work (see picture below), including all of those who testified as part of the team and whose testimonies clearly proved critical in Judge Thomson’s final Order, I want to thank everyone for all of their time, energy, and efforts in this case, thus far, on behalf of the educators attempting to (still) do what they love to do — teach and serve students in New Mexico’s public schools.

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Left to right: (1) Stephanie Ly, President of AFT New Mexico; (2) Dan McNeil, AFT Legal Department; (3) Ellen Bernstein, ATF President; (4) Shane Youtz, Attorney at Law; and (5) me 😉

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4 thoughts on “Victory in Court: Consequences Attached to VAMs Suspended Throughout New Mexico

  1. I am totally bawling – happy tears!! Thank you for posting these details! I think it is clear I will finally get to move to Tier 2 after 5.5 years of teaching – now I just need to get my district to act and help me out as well!! (My dossier is already in but had halted due to my ineffective rating.)

  2. Sad day, happy day. Our educational administrators have long held principals hostage and consequently aimed at our teachers who live and teach for one thing only” their students” .

    The state Board should be dismantled, or at best staffed by teachers who really know what our kids need. Education has become big business, it’s own corporation, we throw money at education ( solves problems), when in fact we should throw out the “experts”.

    How sad our union has to sue to protect teachers from their own administration? Thank you.

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