Union scales back request in teacher eval suit

Matt Montaño, an official with the state Public Education Department, left, is questioned by Shane Youtz, an attorney for the American Federation of Teachers, on Thursday, the final day of testimony in a lawsuit seeking to halt the state’s teacher evaluation system. Youtz revised his request during the hearing, asking that the judge halt only one provision in the evaluation system until a final decision on the program is made in April. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

A teachers union seeking a temporary halt to the state’s teacher evaluation system narrowed its request Thursday, asking a judge to suspend a provision of the program the union said could irreparably harm as many as 5,000 teachers across the state with low ratings.

The provision calls for teachers rated as “minimally effective” or “ineffective” to be put on 90-day growth plans intended to improve their performance. But Shane Youtz, the attorney representing local chapters of the American Federation of Teachers, told First District Judge David Thomson that the provision also allows school districts to fire those teachers if their performance does not improve.

“The mere issue of a notice that you are minimally effective or ineffective puts each district in a position where they can terminate these employees,” Youtz told the judge. “These are the provisions that need to be removed.”

Youtz said the remainder of the program could stay in place to allow the state to continue collecting data until April, when a second hearing will decide on the union’s request for a permanent injunction on the evaluations.

The scaled-back request came during closing arguments following five days of testimony that were spread out over three weeks. Much of the final day revolved around the accuracy of the 2-year-old evaluation system. Youtzsaid in his closing remarks that the state incorrectly rated nearly 10 percent of the state’s 20,000 teachers.

“Two-thousand teachers by the defendant’s own counting have been harmed and are misidentified or misclassified that will suffer as a result of this system,” Youtz said.

But Jeffrey Wechsler, the attorney representing the state’s Public Education Department, said in his closing arguments that no teachers have been denied raises, licenses or promotions because of the new system.

“This is not a close case,” Wechsler told the judge. “The evidence has shown that.”

The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation joined individual educators and some Democratic legislators in suing to halt the evaluations. Among other complaints, the unions say the state used flawed data, leading to incorrect results.

The teacher evaluation system, implemented in the 2013-14 school year, has been among the most divisive of the education reforms instituted by Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera. Skandera has said the previous system rated 99 percent of teachers effective and needed to be overhauled, but the state has yet to produce data supporting that contention.

A judge in a separate case recently ordered the Public Education Department to pay $14,000 in legal fees to the lawyers of another teachers union that had unsuccessfully sought those documents through a public records request.

Opponents of the evaluation system say the administration made an arbitrary change in how school officials rate their teachers, which can affect teacher licensing, incentive pay or even the need for professional development courses for those in the lowest tiers of the rating system.

Thomson is expected to present his findings by early November.

The unions’ academic expert, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, an associate professor at Arizona State University, testified on the second day of the hearing that even the best system that considers student test scores is only right for 3 out of 4 teachers. The remaining 25 percent are misclassified, she said.

In cross examinations Thursday, Youtz asked one of the state’s experts, Matt Montaño, director of educator quality for the Public Education Department, if he had an exact rate for teachers who were misclassified.

Montaño said he didn’t have that rate.

Youtz posed the same question to another state witness, Pete Goldschmidt, a former employee with the Public Education Department who played a large role in crafting the state’s teacher evaluation system. Goldschmidt said he estimated a 85 percent to 95 percent chance that teachers with three years worth of teaching data received a rating that reflected their teaching ability.

“No system is perfect,” Goldschmidt said.

Youtz asked what the accuracy rate was for teachers with only one or two years of data. Goldschmidt said he didn’t have those exact figures.

Youtz also said many superintendents, including Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd, had said the evaluation system was inaccurate. Santa Fe Public Schools has said that the state’s initial claim in 2013-14 that only half of the district’s teachers were effective or better was based on incomplete data. That figure was later adjusted up to 67 percent.

Montaño said many of the errors that cropped up during the evaluation process had to do with misclassifying teachers rather than problems with the data. He used the example of a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher being labeled only as a fifth-grade teacher.

Wechsler avoided talking about accuracy rates, and instead focused on the fact that no teacher had reported losing a job, license or promotion as a result of the teacher evaluations.

He also spent time addressing the fact that New Mexico had a waiver from some of the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Part of the requirement for that waiver says New Mexico must have a teacher evaluation system that uses student test scores. To place an injunction on that system, he argued, could subject the state to stringent rules on how it spends federal funds, giving it less flexibility. Wechsler acknowledged the plaintiffs’ argument that no states had lost federal funding yet.

“The plaintiffs are asking you to play Russian roulette with the state’s education system,” he said.

Washington is the only state that has lost such a waiver. A member of the central administration at the American Federation of Teachers who follows the No Child Left Behind waivers testified Thursday that no state had lost its federal funding. About a dozen, she added, were on a probationary period.

New Mexico is one of several states that have created a new teacher evaluation system in return for receiving a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind policy. The next round of teacher evaluations are due in May.

Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or cquintana@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @CQuintanaSF.