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Great Neck teacher sues state over teacher evaluation system

Fourth-grade teacher Sheri Lederman is suing the state

Fourth-grade teacher Sheri Lederman is suing the state education department over the evaluation she received as a result of standardized testing. She is shown at her Jericho home on Monday, Nov. 3, 2014. Credit: Chuck Fadely

A veteran teacher in the Great Neck elementary schools has filed a lawsuit against the state Education Department, challenging the teacher evaluation model after receiving an "ineffective" on the portion of her rating tied to students' test performance -- one year after she was scored as "highly effective."

Sheri G. Lederman, a fourth-grade teacher with a doctorate in education, alleges the evaluation system is statistically flawed, lacks a proper appeals process and can be particularly unfair to teachers whose students consistently score well on state standardized tests.

"After 17 years of devotion to my career, it made me seriously think about walking away from my classroom," Lederman said in an interview Monday in her Jericho home.

She is believed to be the first individual educator on Long Island to take legal action against the state's controversial job-rating system, which is based in part on a formula that includes students' test performance.

Teachers in Syracuse and Rochester have class-action cases pending against the state involving more than 100 teachers, contesting the validity of the state's so-called "growth scores."

Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said Monday the agency does not comment on litigation.

 

Progress key rating factor

The rating system, known as Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR, has drawn ire from educators opposed to having students' progress on tests as a key measure of teacher effectiveness. Teachers and principals receive composite ratings of "highly effective," "effective," "developing" and "ineffective."

Performance is determined by scores in three areas, with 20 percent based on students' state test scores, 20 percent on assessments chosen locally and 60 percent on an array of other objective measures, such as classroom observations.

Supporters of what is known as the "value-added model," including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and state education officials, praise use of student test scores to gauge teacher performance. Some academic experts, however, have pointed to statistical flaws in the methodology.

Classroom teachers and their union representatives have complained for more than two years that the evaluation system was rushed into place in response to pressure from federal education officials, state elected officials, business leaders and testing companies.

The court papers, filed Oct. 27 in Albany, name Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., Assistant Commissioner Candace H. Shyer and the department's Office of State Assessment.

"Sheri Lederman is the type of teacher that any parent would want their children to have, and it is a travesty when the state assessment system improperly labels them ineffective, encouraging them to resign," said Bruce Lederman, her attorney and husband.

The student growth measure "punishes excellence in education through a statistical black box which no rational educator or fact-finder could see as fair, accurate or reliable," the lawsuit states.

Sheri Lederman scored a 1 out of 20 in the "student growth" portion of her 2013-14 assessment, making her rating in that category "ineffective" and lowering her composite rating to "effective."

In the 2013-14 school year, 72.2 percent of her students met or exceeded state standards on standarized math tests and 61.l percent met or exceeded the standards on English Language Arts tests, the lawsuit said. That was more than twice the state average for fourth-graders' performance, it said.

The teacher said as her feelings went from shock to distress to anger, she decided to fight the score she calls "offensive."

 

Fight about "passion"

"This is not [teacher] union versus state Ed," Lederman said. "This is about individual teachers and bringing down people who have a passion for the education of children."

She said she tried to appeal her score on the student growth model through a petition under state education law. When she wasn't getting any answers, she decided to file the lawsuit.

Thomas P. Dolan, superintendent of Great Neck schools, and Sharon Fougner, principal of the Elizabeth M. Baker Elementary School, where Lederman teaches, submitted affidavits supporting her.

Dolan, in his affidavit, called Lederman's teaching record "flawless."

"In an era where teacher statistics are sometimes published, or may eventually become public information, either through freedom of information requests or otherwise, improper identification of exceptional teachers as ineffective cannot be allowed to occur," his affidavit said.

Jessica Vega, spokeswoman for the Great Neck district, said officials had no comment.

Bruce Lederman, a Manhattan real estate attorney, said he and his wife have no financial incentive to sue the state, nor are they doing so for political reasons. Their goal, he said, is to get an explanation from the state on the score and have it recalculated.

Sheri Lederman received her bachelor's degree from Brandeis University, her master's from LIU Post and her doctorate in education from Hofstra University, where her dissertation won a universitywide award given for exceptional work.

Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teacher union, said, "This case once more demonstrates that state growth scores based on standardized testing are not reliable or valid measures of teacher performance. Parents and teachers clearly understand that students are more than a test score."

In August, the state Education Department released the first teacher evaluations statewide. Ninety-seven percent of Long Island's public school teachers and principals were rated "highly effective" or "effective," and fewer than 1 percent scored "ineffective."

With John Hildebrand

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