Florida has been a leader in demanding accountability in public education.
The statewide formula for evaluating teachers — which could determine whether they can get pay raises or even keep their jobs — consists of three parts.
Half is the classroom observation by the principal or another administrator. Another 17 percent of the formula is determined by the local school district.
The other one-third is purely statistical, using what Florida calls the Value-Added Model, or VAM, a formula that considers student scores on state reading and math tests as well as other schoolwide and statewide data.
VAM claims to predict how much each student should improve each year and quantifies any variance from that prediction. The assumption is the VAM score shows how much value the teacher added to that child’s education.
That sounds fair enough, but almost three years ago — when VAM was fully half of a teacher’s evaluation — education sources told The Florida Times-Union that the model was flawed. For example, the only student achievement data available are for reading and math, so teachers who teach other subjects get VAM scores based on subjects and classes they don’t even teach.
And VAM doesn’t consider other major factors that could affect student learning, such as poverty.
Education and child-rearing are a franchise issue for The Times-Union, so how our public teachers are evaluated is important to our coverage and our readers as well as the overall community.
Teacher performance evaluations are considered personnel records and therefore exempt from public records laws — to be released only at the end of the school year following the year in which the evaluation was made.
But VAM data is objective, is not part of the evaluation until the local district makes it part of it and therefore should be available to the public as soon as it’s collected and computed, the Times-Union stated after conferring with our attorneys.
So in October 2012, we formally requested the statewide VAM scores through a freedom-of-information request to the Florida Department of Education. Meanwhile, we talked to a contact in Gov. Rick Scott’s office who said they would provide the data but then reversed course. The release was opposed by the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, and finally, the state declared the data exempt from the public records law and refused to release it.
The Times-Union sued the DOE, and the FEA joined the lawsuit on the state’s side. The Leon County Circuit Court agreed with them that the VAM scores are part of teachers’ evaluations and therefore could be kept secret.
We appealed. In November 2013, the First District Court of Appeal overturned the circuit court and ordered the VAM data to be released, saying it is not part of a teacher’s evaluation until the state actually sends it to the local school system, which prepares the evaluation. In essence, the VAM data is only part of the criteria considered and not the exempt evaluation itself.
At that point, the DOE began working with the Times-Union for the most constructive release of the data, and at our suggestion, the FEA sent some of its experts to advise the journalists on the data and how to report on it fairly so the public could understand.
The Times-Union reporting was focused on being constructive so readers could make their own decisions about whether the VAM methodology was a fair assessment of teaching effectiveness. We reported all sides of the issue, including real examples of honored teachers who received negative VAM scores and why.
VAM was being used to evaluate teachers, the Times-Union pointed out, so it should be public for careful explanation and examination — rather than the mysterious wizard behind a curtain who could not be challenged.
The journalism and public discussion made teacher evaluations more transparent, helped persuade the Legislature to reduce the weight of VAM in the evaluations and ultimately made the process more accurate and fair.
But we had to petition the courts under our public records laws to cut through the Tallahassee politicians and bureaucrats protecting turfs and secrets.
State law says that citizens who successfully sue under Florida’s open government laws have the right to get their attorneys’ fees reimbursed.
The check above is what you paid for the obstinacy of your state officials.
Original article here.