Unions, school districts criticize release of teacher performance data


Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

Mindy Grimes-Festge, a third-grade teacher at Skyway Elementary in Miami Gardens, learned early Monday that part of her 2013 job evaluation was being made public.

The information — data called a “value-added model” or VAM score — is so controversial and complicated that the Florida Department of Education fought in court to keep it secret, but ended up losing.

Now, with its release, the state is emphasizing that the score is only one component used to evaluate public school teachers.

“Looking at this information in isolation can lead to misunderstanding about an individual teacher’s overall performance,” DOE chief of staff Kathy Hebda said.

In an unusual alliance, the department joined the Florida Education Association in 2013 to fight the Florida Times-Union’s public records request for the data, which aims to give a numeric value to teachers’ classroom effectiveness after taking into account external factors.

After losing in federal appeals court in November, the department decided to release the data Monday for thousands of Florida educators who teach subjects tested by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests and the end-of-course exam in algebra I.

Teacher unions estimated the scores covered about 30 percent of the state’s teachers.

Education commissioner Pam Stewart sent a letter to Florida teachers Monday morning attempting to reassure them. She said the release of the data was a chance to tell the public that it has little value by itself.

Still, Grimes-Festge feared that the results could be easily misread. “It’s so very disheartening that so much rides on one score, for students and for teachers,” she said.

The Times-Union, which published the numbers Monday, anticipated negative feedback, said Kurt Caywood, a newspaper vice president. Newspaper executives were well aware of similar efforts in New York and Los Angeles — and the reactions, which included the suicide of a teacher labeled one of L.A.’s worst.

But the public, Caywood said, had a right to see the details underlying Florida’s teacher evaluations, which have been the subject of heated political debate and contested in court. “We felt like the best way to reach a conclusion as to whether it was valid and should be part of the evaluation process was to put it out in the open,” he said.

District and teacher union leaders were quick to render a verdict on the decision to make public teachers’ individual VAM ratings.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the data a “questionable snapshot of performance.” He mentioned a study by the American Institutes for Research that questioned the use of reading scores in the value-added model.

Broward Teachers Union President Sharon Glickman called the effort “an expensive exercise in futility.”

“After nearly four years and millions of our hard-earned tax dollars spent on a formula that is incomprehensible, these flawed and meaningless calculations are all the Florida Department of Education has to show for its efforts,” Glickman said. “Floridians can now see that this effort has accomplished absolutely nothing for Florida’s students.”

Maria Ferguson, executive director of the independent Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, predicted confusion to follow in the wake of the release.

“Parents see these sorts of things and they freak out because they don’t really understand what any of it means,” Ferguson said. “When the data becomes public, the media and public don’t have an opportunity to see or understand the nuance. … The interpretations can get out of hand.”

But not all education advocacy groups are as concerned.

“Teachers are hired to help our kids learn,” said StudentsFirst Florida spokesman Lane Wright. “It makes sense to hold them accountable to by using a student-growth measure to determine how much they grow.”

State Rep. Erik Fresen said it was premature to draw any conclusions from the data.

“We all need to sit back and let this play out,” said Fresen, a Miami Republican who sponsored the performance pay legislation in 2011. “Once all of the data has been crunched, we can all sit down as stakeholders, and decide: Did it work? Was it good for students?”

Staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this story. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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