A Question of Competence

State Comptroller John Sharp has suggested that HISD needs to fire more incompetent teachers. But as the case of Beverly Goodie shows, it's not that simple. Just how do you tell who's incompetent? And what happens when you try?

On March 7 of last year, Beverly Goodie, a kindergarten teacher at Cage Elementary School, was fired. Given that the Houston Independent School District has 11,600 teachers, the firing of one of them might not seem unusual. As it happens, it is. HISD teachers are rarely told to pack their bags and go; according to an audit of HISD presented with great fanfare by state Comptroller John Sharp last October, in the 1995-96 school year the district fired only eight teachers for incompetent instruction. Small as that number may seem -- it's less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total teacher pool -- it was a mammoth jump from two years before, when only one teacher had been dismissed for incompetent instruction.

One could argue that simply means the vast majority of the teachers are doing a fine job, and HISD's own teacher evaluations have tended to back that argument up. On a scale of one to five, with five being "clearly outstanding," the district's teachers have averaged four to five in a category called "instructional strategies," a little lower in "classroom management and organization" (a euphemism for keeping discipline) and four to five in the categories of "presentation of subject matter" and "learning environment." The scores drop to three in only one area: "professional growth and responsibilities." The conclusion? HISD teachers do a great job in the classroom.

And according to HISD, the school system's administrators have been doing even better. In 1994-95, only three of 885 administrators received the district's lowest mark of "below expectations." Only 11 were found to be "professionally competent," the next lowest step. Meanwhile 652, or nearly 75 percent of administrators, were given the district's highest rating of "exceeds expecta- tions." The conclusion? In HISD, three-fourths of the administrators are not just above average, they're superb.

Unfortunately for HISD, the public believes -- and student test scores indicate -- that things are not quite so rosy, and that the schools have a great deal of room for improvement. Sharp's audit agreed with the public: HISD's evaluations for both teachers and administrators are inflated, the auditors charged. They're not as good as they think. And some of them need to be fired.

It's a concise answer to a complicated problem. Weed out the incompetents, let the good teachers bloom and all will be well. But as the case of Beverly Goodie shows, solutions that look clear on paper can become cloudy in practice. How, precisely, do you determine a teacher is incompetent? Who, exactly, should make that decision? And just how long should people's lives be wrapped up in the question?

Beverly Goodie's life has been consumed by that question for close to two years; the life of Steven Amstutz, her principal at Cage and the man who felt Goodie needed to go, has been similarly enveloped. Before Goodie was fired, Amstutz needed to put a groundwork for her dismissal into place, a groundwork that both the teacher and the principal could see being built. Since she was fired, a series of appeals -- all but one won by Goodie -- have swallowed more chunks of time. HISD has so far spent $58,000 trying to fire Beverly Goodie; her union, the Houston Federation of Teachers, has spent $18,000 trying to save her job. And the issue has yet to reach a conclusion.

HISD complains that the termination process for teachers "takes too long, is too expensive and often aggravates rather than solves a problem." That may be sour grapes: In the last two years, the district has lost a dozen or more termination appeals, while the Houston Federation of Teachers, which represents some 5,000 district employees, claims to have lost only one. Too, the present process is one the school district was in part responsible for creating. Still, it would be hard to argue that the current arrangement is without flaws, and HISD is hoping to use the Goodie case to change things in its favor. To give it, in essence, a freer hand in firing.

The result is that the conflict between Beverly Goodie, a 26-year veteran teacher, and Steven Amstutz, a young, up-and-coming principal, could have an impact that ripples far beyond their particular school. That school, Cage Elementary, opened in 1908 on Telephone Road in a two-story stucco building with a peaked roof and a chimney at one end. For almost 90 years, it has been a school filled with the children of immigrants, first Jewish and Italian and, in the last three decades, Mexican and Central American.

In 1983, the students and teachers of Cage, Beverly Goodie among them, moved to a modern, flat-roofed campus on Leeland, across the street from Austin High School. Goodie had come to Cage in 1980 after teaching five years in other HISD schools and another five years in Austin and San Antonio districts. She seemed a good choice for the job of kindergarten teacher at Cage; growing up in San Antonio, she had learned from her Hispanic neighbors to speak what she calls "over-the-fence" Spanish. Certified in teaching English as a second language, she quickly built a reputation among Hispanic and Asian parents as someone who could help their children to read and write in English.

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