A Santa Fe judge struck a blow against the state’s contentious teacher evaluation system Wednesday, temporarily halting provisions that would punish teachers for poor scores until a trial can determine whether the rating system is valid.
The 70-page ruling by state District Judge David Thomson focused primarily on the complicated combination of student test scores used to judge teachers. The ruling prevents the Public Education Department from denying teachers licensure advancement or renewal, and it strikes down a requirement that poorly performing teachers be placed on growth plans.
Local chapters of the American Federation of Teachers, individual educators and some Democratic legislators who filed the suit called the decision a win, while the Public Education Department stood by its teacher evaluation system.
The next round of teacher evaluations is set to be released in May.
Thomson said 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 problem is that is not easy to pull back the curtain and the inner workings of the model are not easily understood, translated or made accessible,” the judge said.
Thomson’s ruling marks the first successful challenge of the teacher evaluation system instituted by state Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera in the 2013-14 school year. Similar lawsuits previously were dismissed in the state Court of Appeals and in a state District Court in Albuquerque.
The ruling came in a case that had stalled in Thomson’s courtroom for the past two months. What was supposed to be a single day of testimony in September stretched into five days of arguments and expert statements spread over the course of two weeks.
The union originally had asked Thomson to halt all teacher evaluations until an April hearing on whether to permanently put an end to the system. But during the final day of the hearing, union attorney Shane Youtz narrowed the original request, asking Thomson only to suspend a provision that called for placing low-performing teachers on improvement plans or other punitive measures. Youtz said districts can fire teachers who don’t improve, which is wrong if the teacher evaluation system is flawed.
The Public Education Department uses a combination of student test scores, classroom observations and other factors, such as attendance rates or parent and student surveys, to evaluate a teacher. Thomson’s ruling focused on student test scores, which usually account for half of a teacher’s rating. The judge said student test scores can be used to evaluate a teacher’s performance, but the model in New Mexico allows for too many variations in evaluation.
Thomson said the Public Education Department can continue collecting student test data to evaluate teachers, but it cannot use those results for punitive measures.
Opponents of the teacher evaluation system lauded Thomson’s decision.
“Today’s ruling from Judge Thomson comes as welcome news for the thousands of educators across New Mexico who have been seeking relief from Gov. Susana Martinez and Skandera’s test and punish ‘reforms,’ ” said Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ New Mexico chapter.
Santa Fe school board President Linda Trujillo called the decision a “huge” one for New Mexico. The school board has complained that the consequences for a teacher who receives a low evaluation are too severe. Trujillo said she hopes Thomson’s decision will spur state lawmakers to make changes to the teacher evaluation system during the upcoming legislative session.
Santa Fe Superintendent Joel Boyd spoke against the teacher evaluations during the court hearing.
Meanwhile, the Public Education Department continued its defense of the system. Department officials have long called union court challenges “frivolous.” Spokesman Robert McEntyre said Wednesday’s ruling won’t affect how the state conducts its teacher evaluations.
“This is simply a legal PR stunt by the labor unions after they failed to get a complete injunction,” McEntyre said. “New Mexicans believe that every profession should be evaluated, and we will continue to evaluate our teachers, allowing us to praise our highly effective teachers and help those who are struggling.”
Skandera said the old system for evaluating teachers was flawed because it rated 99 percent of them effective, but the Public Education Department has yet to produce documents supporting that contention.
Thomson’s ruling comes a day after District Judge Francis Mathew denied the Public Education Department’s motion to merge separate lawsuits filed by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
Both unions say the evaluation system is detrimental, but for different reasons. The federation argues the current system is unlawful because teachers aren’t uniformly evaluated. But NEA argues that the system removes power from local districts to evaluate and manage their teachers. Both cases are set to be heard in April.
Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @CQuintanaSF.