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?

Then in May 1995 came a charge that, if proven, could have gotten Goodie fired on the spot. She was accused of hitting a five-year-old student in the face with a rolled-up, soft-cover book and leaving a two-inch bruise near his eye. A school nurse wrote that she saw the bruise the following day, though other witnesses, including a teenage teacher's aide and a teacher across the hall, said they saw no bruise. At the termination hearing, the district produced no photograph of the bruise, and when Goodie's lawyer pressed Amstutz about whether one had been taken, he said he couldn't recall. The boy, though, continued to insist that Goodie had hit him in the face for talking. He also said he saw Goodie hit other children.

According to Goodie, what happened was an unfortunate accident. The boy, she says, was sitting on the floor at her feet while she read aloud to the class. As was her habit, she had an arm propped on a rolling cart next to her chair. Then, says Goodie, her arm slipped from the cart and she struck him with the book she was holding. The boy, she adds, made a bug-eyed face and laughed, and the other children laughed, and everyone knew it was an accident.

Still, the boy's mother complained to Amstutz, and he called in the Houston Police Department, the school district police and Child Protective Services. None of them took any action against Goodie. Amstutz could have gone further and convened a three-member assault investigation team of off-campus school officials to investigate the alleged assault; his failure to do so was the subject of dispute during Goodie's termination hearing. Amstutz testified that though the boy's mother had asked him to investigate, she never filed a written complaint. And given the lack of a formal complaint, he said, an investigative team wasn't called for.

In any event, he concluded that Goodie had struck the child. He further accused her of violating his orders by discussing the incident with the children in an attempt to orchestrate their responses. His four-page memo to Goodie on his conference with her summarized all of the previous disciplinary and instructional problems they had discussed.

It also included Goodie's oral responses to his memo, a response that indicated the lines between principal and teacher had all but been severed: "If I was someone who didn't work in this district I would look in this file and think this person is a lunatic," the memo has her saying, as well as, "'You cannot tear me down on this paper. You might see me as a threat. You'll never be able to take me down."

In the wake of this latest allegation, Amstutz put Goodie on what is called a "refinement" plan. A teacher who receives a one or a two in any of HISD's five evaluation areas must be put on a "refinement" or growth plan. In the 1994-95 school year, 60 teachers were put on refinement plans, Goodie among them. In theory, a refinement plan serves as a specific guide that helps teachers improve; it's a second chance. But state Comptroller John Sharp's auditors found the refinement plans to be based on evaluations so vague as to be of little use. For a refinement plan to improve instruction, the state auditors pointed out, every teacher should have one. But, the auditors wrote, "Most plans lacked detail regarding which staff development programs to attend, which literature to read, which master teachers to observe, and so on. In many cases, the teacher was simply told to read an article in the research literature or attend two HISD in-service classes on a particular topic. This level of specificity is inadequate to give teachers direction for overcoming the deficiencies." That's no mistake, according to some teachers, who feel that, in practice, refinement plans are really used to create a rationale for firing someone, a paper trail that can be pointed to if a teacher appeals the termination and asks for a hearing.

The plan Amstutz put Goodie on required her to seek instruction in classroom management skills. Amstutz's first critical evaluation of those skills had come on May 2, 1995, a few days after he had concluded that she had struck the student with a book. He revisited her classroom in January and February 1996. At Amstutz's request, Melanie Uzzell, an HISD instructional supervisor, also evaluated Goodie; her evaluations took place on February 6 and May 1, 1996. In his evaluations, Amstutz emphasized Goodie's lack of classroom discipline. He pointed out instances in which kids were acting up in class without correction. And when he saw her correct three children by "taking hold of them by the arm and pulling them to their feet" and making them face a closet, he was critical of her touching them.

Both Amstutz and Uzzell found that Goodie also failed to ensure that her students were comprehending her lessons. State teacher evaluation forms are designed to determine whether teachers perform certain behaviors thought to be essential to good teaching. In his May 1995 classroom visit, Amstutz observed that "no introduction was provided for the lesson on weighing," "no learning expectations were provided during the lessons," "the importance of lesson activities was not provided" and "instructional input did not include definitions or descriptions of concepts, skills or attitudes, elaboration of critical attributes or stressing of generalizations, principles or rules." All of these critiques cited numbered references to the state evaluation forms.

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