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Great Neck teacher wins right to challenge rating tied to student test scores

Sheri Lederman, a teacher at Baker Elementary School

Sheri Lederman, a teacher at Baker Elementary School in Great Neck, has legal standing to proceed with her challenge to New York State's teacher evaluation system, according to a decision signed by a State Supreme Court justice on May 28, 2015. Credit: Uli Seit

A veteran Great Neck elementary teacher, Sheri Lederman, has won the first round of her legal challenge to the state's evaluation system, which she contends is unfair to her and colleagues because of statistical flaws.

A State Supreme Court justice, in a preliminary ruling, declared that Lederman had legal standing to sue the State Education Department because she showed she had suffered personal injury when the agency assigned her an "ineffective" job rating for the 2013-14 school year on the portion of her evaluation tied to student test scores.

The acting justice, Roger McDonough, observed that the rating represented a "drastic" drop from an "effective" mark given the fourth-grade teacher the year before.

"Petitioner has adequately demonstrated that she has suffered an injury in fact in the form of her precipitous drop in her growth score," the judge said in his decision, signed May 28. The ruling in Albany was released Monday.

"Growth" scores are based on improvement in student performance on standardized tests in English and math administered each spring. Such scores currently make up 20 percent of overall evaluations for teachers in grades three through eight, and are due to rise to as much as 50 percent of evaluations under a controversial amendment in the law approved April 1 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers.

Attorneys for the state contended that Lederman had no standing to sue and had suffered no injury because her rating was confidential under law and because her overall evaluation rating was "effective." Evaluations are based not only on test scores, but on classroom observations and other subjective criteria.

Dennis Tompkins, chief spokesman for the education department, said his agency did not comment on pending litigation.

The teacher, who is represented in the case by her husband, Bruce Lederman, a real estate attorney working in Manhattan, contended the "ineffective" rating had an adverse effect on her career because it impugned her reputation among certain parents, who are the only ones other than school supervisors granted access to teachers' marks under law. Sheri Lederman also argued that the rating demoralized her personally and put at risk her eligibility for status as a master teacher and for bonus pay.

"I'm very pleased that the judge decided that there is reason to move forward with this," the teacher said Tuesday in a phone interview. "If teachers are being rated ineffective, that in itself is an injury."

Bruce Lederman said an Aug. 12 court hearing has been set for the case.

Sheri Lederman, a teacher since 1997, holds a doctorate in education from Hofstra University, where her dissertation won a universitywide award for exceptional work. She teaches at Great Neck's Elizabeth Mellick Baker Elementary School. Both the school's principal, Sharon Fougner, and district superintendent, Thomas Dolan, submitted affidavits supporting her.

Lederman is believed to be the first individual teacher to challenge state ratings in court. Separate lawsuits filed by teachers unions in Rochester and Syracuse are pending.

Ratings opponents have noted that such marks are subject to wide fluctuations from one year to the next -- partly because of the small statistical samples involved in classes of between 20 and 30 students.


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