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?

Clearly, Amstutz was building his criticism of Goodie point by point. How meaningful these critiques were to Goodie on a practical basis, though, is unclear. In one of his final memos, Amstutz says he asked her how she would know if a child understands a lesson "without receiving any feedback from the students through questioning or monitoring." Goodie replied, he wrote, "When you work with them as long as I have, you just know."

The exchange seemed to summarize the essential nature of their conflict: On one side was a longtime teacher who was guided by her instincts and experience, and expected others to trust her judgment; on the other side was a principal who expected her to teach by specific rules, and wanted a way to quantify exactly how well she was doing.

By February of last year Goodie felt sure she was going to be fired. Following the refinement plan that Amstutz had drawn up for her, she had attended 48 hours of HISD programs in classroom management, more than was required. But she had not, as the plan also required, visited the classes of three "exemplary" teachers by the first of the year. Goodie maintains that she was waiting for Amstutz to give her instructions on who to visit, something she said he had promised to do, a claim the principal denies. When, in January, he did give Goodie a list of teachers to visit, it included someone who had been in the classroom only six months. Goodie was indignant that she was being told to learn from a rank beginner.

Goodie's attendance at HISD in-service classes did little to improve her performance in Amstutz's eyes. After visiting her classes in January and February 1996, he had found no improvement, and he declared in his memos to her his intention to recommend her for termination.

Sometime in February, Goodie told two of the parents of her students what was happening. Those parents, Diana Rosas and Maria Sanchez, say they were shocked by the news that Goodie might be fired. This was not, they felt, a decision that should be left to HISD officials alone; they wanted a say. Sanchez's four-year-old daughter, Sheryl, had been one of Goodie's students; during her pre-K classes, Sanchez says, Sheryl would come home crying because she couldn't understand English. But once she started in Goodie's class, that ended. "I saw a big change with her English within two weeks," says Sanchez. "It was very quick." Rosas says that both of her children learned to read and write English and do basic arithmetic under Goodie. At Goodie's termination hearing, both women contrasted Goodie's open-door policy and willingness to visit with parents with the policies of other Cage teachers, who they said were curt and dismissive of their concerns about educational issues.

Goodie argued that it was her open-door policy, as well as her admitted negligence, that contributed to another point raised at her termination hearing -- her tardiness in signing in at the school's central office. During 1994-95, Amstutz counted Goodie tardy 74 times; the following school year he found her tardy another 25 times. In February 1996 she apparently got the message and changed her behavior. Amstutz directed teachers to sign in by 7:30 a.m., and to be in their rooms by 7:40 in order to let their children into the classrooms when the bell rang at 7:45. And he reminded Goodie of her tardies in his memos to her. Goodie said that most of her tardiness occurred because, on her way in from the parking lot, she encountered parents who wanted to talk. And she insisted that she was nearly always in her room in time to admit the children, and that her failure to sign in on time did not cause any problems for the school, a point on which Amstutz disagreed.

On March 7, 1996, Amstutz made his last formal evaluation of Beverly Goodie's teaching. By that time, he had already recommended her employment be terminated. And because the district sends the termination list to the Houston Federation of Teachers, and because the union passes that information along, Goodie knew that on that same day she was being evaluated the school board would be voting on whether she should be fired.

The district's legal advice to principals involved in a termination is to always treat teachers with respect and dignity. When, at her termination hearing, Goodie's lawyer accused Amstutz of "piling on" and asked him if he didn't think Goodie was unlikely to have been at her best on the day the school board voted on her termination, Amstutz replied, "No."

For many years, school trustees heard termination appeals. A quorum was needed, and the opposing lawyers would put on their cases after the regular board meeting ended at five in the afternoon. The cases would sometimes drag on until two or three in the morning. School boards all over the state hated the process and asked the legislature to do something about it.

They did, with Senate Bill 1, passed in 1995. Now a lawyer approved by the Texas Education Agency is appointed to hear the appeal. Witnesses testify before a court reporter, and documentary evidence is presented. The resulting record then serves for all further appeals of the case. The intent of the new rules was to make sure that termination hearings are heard quickly and settled expeditiously.

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