When on campus, Lisa Riggs spends most of her time in the classroom monitoring both teachers and students like Caroline Alvarado (left) and Alizon Crisanto.
The Texas State Board of Education could approve an African American studies curriculum as soon as next year. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Texas State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit in Travis county Wednesday against Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, seeking to stop the state from implementing a controversial teacher evaluation system that would be based in part on student improvement and performance.

Click here to read the TSTA press release announcing the lawsuit filing.

The Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System (T-TESS) is scheduled to go into effect July 1 for the 2017-18 school year.

“Teachers are not opposed to evaluation, in fact they welcome them as long as they are fair,” said TSTA spokesperson Clay Robison.

A spokesman for Morath said the office had not been served with the lawsuit and would withhold comment until officials had read it.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath
Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath

Morath is participating Thursday in a pre-K-12 Education Forum sponsored by the San Antonio Area Foundation at the Pearl Stable. The event is sold out and an audience of 400 educators and business and civic leaders are expected to attend. The panel includes some of San Antonio’s most prominent education leaders representing both district public school systems and public charters.

Although district and public charters are exploring ways to collaborate to improve poor public education outcomes in Bexar County, there also is a long-simmering tension between advocates for both approaches as the public charters continue to expand and siphon off students from the district schools. A key philosophical and operational difference is how teachers are hired and employed. District teachers are given employment contracts once they complete a probationary period and their organizations can operate as virtual unions, while most public charter teachers work at-will, which means they can be dismissed based on performance measures.

Critics point to faults in both systems, saying it is exceedingly difficult to terminate a lousy teacher in the districts, while teacher turnover at the charters in some years exceeds 50%.

The acronyms and arcane education jargon can confuse the average reader, but the bottom line is that the Republican-controlled executive branch in state government wants to introduce significant changes to how teacher accountability and performance is measured in the state’s public schools. Many teachers already feel they are being directed to “teach to the test” rather than “teach the student to learn.” The new measures, they believe, are intended to undermine job protections they now enjoy and to exert even greater control over what happens in the classroom.

Pre-K Bilingual Teacher Ms. Godoy gives an alphabet lesson to her class. Photo by Scott Ball.
Stewart Elementary Pre-K Bilingual Teacher Ms. Godoy gives an alphabet lesson to her class. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Morath approved T-TESS to replace the Professional Development Appraisal System (PDAS) as the state-recommended teacher appraisal system. The contested element of the T-TESS is in “student growth measures,” which make up 20% of an individual teacher’s evaluation. The new criteria include value-added measures (VAM) comparing actual student test scores to mathematically derived targets using the results of students in similar student populations, if it works like VAMs used Florida and other states.

While the TSTA is not certain that these complex criteria are the ones being used in T-TESS, Robison said the teachers group believes that to be true based on Morath’s record of supporting test-based accountability while he served as a trustee on the Dallas Independent School District board.

Morath was appointed to the state’s highest education office in January by Gov. Gregg Abbot. The new appraisal system was part of former TEA commissioner Michael Williams’ efforts to obtain a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Such waivers mandated a teacher-evaluation system based on students’ standardized test scores.

With the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returning accountability and assessment back to states and districts, those waivers are no longer necessary. This opens the door for an overhaul of test-centric accountability.

This seems like a step in the other direction to TSTA. Instead of moving toward more observation and qualitative assessments, Morath’s VAM is moving toward more statistical formulas.

“This does not get very far away from what we had for evaluations under No Child Left Behind,” said Robison.

The heavy reliance on standardized tests is already a concern for parents. Many who place their children in private and charter schools list “teaching to the test” as one reason for making the switch.

“Tying teacher evaluations to test scores will raise the stakes on STAAR testing even higher for children who already are over-tested, much to the anger of a growing number of Texas parents who understand real education is more than a test score,” said TSTA President Noel Candelaria.

Teachers trapped in a high-stakes testing evaluation system are equally frustrated by the tyranny of the tests, but have little choice as they work to bring every student in their classrooms up to increasingly rigorous standards. They are asked to do this without the necessary support and flexibility to account for poverty, high mobility, chronic hunger, learning disabilities, and the host of other obstacles faced by disadvantaged students.

The VAM makes their assessment even more complex and abstract, communicating to teachers that it is not what they do in the classroom that matters, but simply student performance on a single test.

Robison said that this is where Morath’s criteria “oversteps his bounds.”

TSTA contends that state law – Section 21.351 of the Texas Education Code – clearly requires a teacher appraisal system adopted by the commissioner to be based on “observable, job-related behavior.”

In addition to raising stakes that many feel should be lowered for standardized tests, the new accountability system would leave teachers in the dark on the criteria that could cost them their jobs, according to TSTA, as no VAM model is available to help teacher get a clear picture of the criteria by which they will be evaluated.

T-TESS mandates that student growth measures (read: tests) make up at least 20% of the evaluation, but the other 80% is up to districts. Some districts may choose to increase the weight of standardized tests, others could take steps toward qualitative measures.


Featured image: When on campus, San Antonio Independent School District Senior Executive Director Lisa Riggs spends most of her time in the classroom monitoring students like (left to right) Caroline Alvarado and Alizon Crisanto and their teachers. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.