By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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.
With 1,100 students, the new Cage campus was overcrowded from the moment it opened. But when Carrillo Elementary opened nearby in January 1993, it siphoned off 250 students, reducing Cage's enrollment to a more manageable 880 students.
The opening of Carrillo also shook up Cage's administration; the principal moved to the new school, opening a slot that was filled by Steven Amstutz, then a 33-year-old administrator who had spent three years as principal of Mark Twain, an elementary school in the Stella Link area. Amstutz, too, seemed like a good choice for Cage. He had started his teaching career in a largely Hispanic Denver Harbor elementary in 1981, he speaks Spanish and he has adopted three Hispanic children. And he knew Cage, having worked there as an assistant principal for three years before taking over as principal of Twain.
During her first 13 years at Cage under three different principals, Beverly Goodie, like most HISD teachers, had received nothing but good to excellent evaluations. While an assistant principal at Cage, Amstutz himself had given Goodie good marks. But as principal, he began to find things about her teaching style that disturbed him.
Amstutz, it seems, was not shy about making Cage over. He had ideas, and he pushed them. And he also seemed willing to find teachers who shared his vision. In his first three years, almost the entire teaching staff of approximately 50 was turned over. A dozen teachers moved to Carrillo with the old principal in January 1993. At the end of the 1993-94 school year, another 13 teachers left. Five more departed the following year, and in the 1995-96 school year, 14 teachers, among them Beverly Goodie, were replaced. The net result is that Amstutz has been able to recruit almost all of his school's faculty.
The reasons for the departures, of course, varied. Some former Cage teachers, who spoke only on the promise of anonymity, complained that Amstutz had a problem with teachers who didn't agree with him. Other teachers, though, had followed him from one school to another. Whether Amstutz was arrogant or just being an effective leader depends on who's talking. As one teacher who had few problems with Amstutz says, "Different people saw him in different lights. I didn't have a problem. A lot of people complained, but my opinion was, why complain? Just get up and leave."
In person, Amstutz is genial and energetic. It's obvious that he's made a lot of changes at Cage, in part because he's been mandated to do so: During the last several years HISD has given more decision-making power and budgetary authority to principals. This shift has come as the state has urged large school districts to decentralize and put decision making at the campus level.
Before conducting a campus tour recently, Amstutz paused in the school's central office to see if he could solve a computer problem by prowling the screen with a mouse for a few minutes. When he arrived at Cage, he says, the school had a handful of outmoded computers. Through a grant from Compaq, every classroom now has at least one computer, and all the classrooms are networked with fiber optic cable and have access to the Internet. The computers are used for accelerated reading, and the bilingual children access Spanish-language material through the Net.
Using the space freed by the movement of students to Carrillo, Amstutz has created special classes for disabled pre-kindergarten children, thus allowing them to stay in their own neighborhood. Two classrooms are devoted to children with disciplinary and emotional problems; Amstutz says his teachers have a good record for helping these children "lose their labels" and move into regular classrooms. Amstutz encouraged a team of teachers to convert three classrooms into a learning center in which students who are falling behind or who need accelerated work can get help. The hours of these teachers are staggered so that children can come early and stay late. The center is calm, clean and cheerful.
"A school," says Amstutz, "should be a delightful place, like Disneyland. It should not be raggedy and full of cruddy old junk."
Cage's library is crammed with books, 22,000 of them, the highest ratio of books to students in the East End, Amstutz believes. Using the school's discretionary budget, he's buying 2,000 to 3,000 books a year and filling the classrooms with them. If they don't have access to books, he points out, children can't enjoy reading.
Amstutz seems to be a resourceful principal. Working closely with the University of Houston education department, he has secured ten student teachers for Cage. He has also seen to it that Cage hosts a summer training institute for the Teach for America Corps, a federal program that pays college tuition for students in exchange for a commitment to teaching. These young teachers, some from elite colleges and universities, earn their teaching certificates while on the job. Eight of Cage's teachers were recruited from the Teach for America program.
On first impression, Amstutz seems anything but a difficult man. He does not fit the stereotype of a principal as rigid disciplinarian. Dressed in cotton slacks and blue shirt, Amstutz seems bright and almost cuddly, the model of what a parent would want in a principal.
He might even have seemed that way to Beverly Goodie. Or, like some other older teachers who left when Amstutz arrived, she might have seen him as someone who hadn't yet learned the lessons that two decades of classroom work had already taught her. Since her firing is still being litigated, some details are hard to come by. But what's clear is that Goodie and Amstutz soon came to have different answers to the question of whether she was a good teacher.
One of those details that's still unclear is why, if Amstutz didn't like Goodie's approach to teaching, he simply didn't "counsel" her out of his school. Counseling teachers out is not unusual; as Amstutz notes, "There are 255 schools in the district with many different philosophies and attitudes about how to educate children. I think it's an honorable thing to say: 'You're a good person, and I'm a good person. We have some philosophical disagreements about how to accomplish our work. Transfer. Transfer to a school that is more in line with that philosophy and that approach.' There's certainly no shame in that. Everybody wins in that scenario."
But that scenario was apparently never an option with Goodie. To this day, she says she wonders why Amstutz didn't simply say to her, "Look, you're not Cage material anymore, and I'll help you transfer out." If he'd done so, she says, she would have agreed to leave.
But then again, if Amstutz truly felt she was a bad teacher, could he have in good conscience simply passed her off to become someone else's problem? Because her case is on appeal, Amstutz declines to talk specifically about Goodie. Instead, he says that "in any personnel matter you use your best judgment and you make the best decision you can for the education of children. And that doesn't always make sense to folks. And they don't always know the rationale or the rest of the reason or the background behind it. Sometimes you just can't tell them."
Beverly Goodie was four years away from retirement when she was fired. Her evaluations had always been high, so high that in the 1993-94 school year she was exempted from outside evaluation as an "experienced teacher." State rules allowed her to instead assess herself. She gave herself outstanding scores in every category. It was perhaps not a very politic thing to do, but it also wasn't much of a change from her ratings by previous principals. When questioned at her termination hearing, Goodie admitted that she did feel she had room for improvement, but she was not ashamed of saying that she was a good teacher.
Beatrice Saenz, a first-grade teacher who worked across the hall from Goodie, testified at that hearing that she knew Goodie was a good teacher because all three of her children had passed through Goodie's kindergarten classes. And Clothild Allen, a former first-grade teacher at Cage, says she loved getting students from Goodie's class. "I would get six weeks behind with the children from other teachers," Allen says. "I would have loved to have taken her whole class."
While Amstutz questioned Goodie's instructional competence, her tardiness and her obedience to his directives, at the heart of her firing were allegations that she physically abused students. Such disputes often boil down to whether a principal believes a student or a teacher, and in Goodie's case, Amstutz sided with the students.
Goodie's first trouble came in September 1993, nine months after Amstutz had become principal. A nine-year-old boy who was not Goodie's student accused her of grabbing him in the lunchroom and threatening to break his arm. Amstutz found that while Goodie had not committed an assault, she had violated district policies against corporal punishment by "touching the child while in the process of reprimanding him." Amstutz wrote in a memo that went into Goodie's file that Goodie contradicted herself in conversations with him about whether she "touched" the boy or "grabbed" him. In the memo, he also chastised her for threatening to break the boy's arm, and told her never to touch a child while reprimanding him.
Goodie says she insisted to Amstutz that she told the child, " 'Boy, if you don't get up off of that floor flapping around like a chicken, you're going to break an arm.' But I did not tell him I was going to break his arm." At the termination hearing, the boy's mother testified that her son never told her that Goodie had threatened to break his arm. The mother, a public school teacher with 23 years experience, also testified that she couldn't understand how a teacher could maintain any discipline if she were never allowed to touch a child while reprimanding him.
The rest of the school year passed with no further student discipline problems, but in the autumn of 1994, Amstutz wrote up Goodie again, this time for hitting children on the hands with a ruler. After interviewing six students, Amstutz and his assistant principal concluded that Goodie had struck the hands of two students. Goodie insisted that she used a ruler only to tap students to signal it was their turn to speak. Amstutz reminded her to avoid the appearance of wrongdoing by discontinuing her use of any kind of pointer to tap or touch students. Goodie signed the memo outlining the alleged infraction, but again disagreed with Amstutz's characterization of her behavior.
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.
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.
That's not always how it happens. Termination hearings are not casual discussions; they amount to full-blown trials. Beverly Goodie's hearing took place during the first week of last June at the HISD personnel building. The hearing examiner was Houston attorney Mary E. O'Keefe. HISD was represented by David Hodgins, an attorney for the district's primary law firm of many years, Bracewell and Patterson. Goodie was represented by Chris Tritico, who handles many cases for the Houston Federation of Teachers.
After four days of testimony, and nearly a month of assessing the record, Mary O'Keefe ruled in mid-July that HISD didn't have "good cause" to fire Beverly Goodie. She found that Amstutz had violated district policy in not using an assault investigation team to investigate the allegations of corporal punishment. She further ruled that by failing to fire Goodie when the incidents were alleged to have happened, the school district had conceded they weren't adequate cause for firing. O'Keefe also ruled that HISD's policies on corporal punishment are so vague as to be unconstitutional.
As for Goodie's tardiness, O'Keefe ruled that Goodie had remedied her behavior after February 1996. And concerning Goodie's final evaluation in March, O'Keefe said the documents and testimony clearly showed that Amstutz had already made up his mind about Goodie by then. She further ruled that Amstutz had violated board policy by failing to complete the formal evaluation form before his termination recommendation. In any case, O'Keefe added, Goodie was capable of improving her teaching. So her firing was overturned.
Or at least it was for the moment. Under the 1995 state law, the school board had the right to review the case, and all nine board members were given 750 pages of testimony and 940 pages of supporting evidence to study for a hearing last September. At that hearing, a lawyer for each side was given ten minutes to re-present his case. When the board voted, it overturned O'Keefe's ruling, and said Goodie was indeed fired.
The board reviewed the same evidence as had O'Keefe, but gave it different weight. O'Keefe, for example, had paid scant attention to the testimony of the boy who said that Goodie had hit him with a rolled up book, noting that despite a police investigation, no charges were filed. HISD took the boy's testimony more seriously, and added it to the conclusions of fact. Where O'Keefe concluded that no evidence was presented that Goodie's tardiness was a burden to her school, HISD included Amstutz's testimony that other staff members had to supervise her classroom. The district also emphasized that Goodie had failed to follow suggestions for improvement provided by Melanie Uzzell.
The board then threw out all of O'Keefe's conclusions of law and replaced them with the district's original argument: that Goodie failed to follow directives and policy, had violated corporal punishment rules and had failed to comply with her professional growth plan. She needed, the board ruled, to go.
But a hearing examiner for the Texas Education Agency said no; after reviewing the case last fall, the examiner overturned the board and upheld O'Keefe's original decision reinstating Goodie. Following another appeal by HISD to the state, Texas Education Agency commissioner Mike Moses again upheld the original verdict. The state had declared that Beverly Goodie was entitled to her job.
So now HISD plans to pursue the matter in district court, asserting that the fundamental right of a school board to decide who works in its district must be upheld. The TEA and Beverly Goodie's lawyer are arguing that the school board cannot overturn a hearing examiner's decision unless it can show that important facts or questions of law were ignored.
The dispute raises interesting questions. Why have a termination hearing at all if the school board can then simply rewrite the conclusions to suit its own aims? But then, why have the board review such decisions if it can't change them? Who should be the final arbiter?
Such issues have little to do with Beverly Goodie anymore, though they could have important implications for how HISD deals with its termination process. Goodie has not drawn any salary since last October, but is now eligible to draw her back salary at the rate of $45,000 a year. That could go on for two more years if HISD loses in district court and appeals all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.
When Goodie left Cage Elementary after 16 years, she packed up 35 boxes of teaching materials she had accumulated. It took three trips to haul them to her garage where they now sit, waiting for her to use them again. If she ever does go back to work for the Houston Independent School District, it won't be at Cage Elementary.
Was Beverly Goodie an effective teacher? Did her children learn to read and write and calculate and behave themselves? Mary O'Keefe apparently thought so, though she seems to have paid more attention to the students' performance on a routine math test Goodie administered in the presence of a district evaluator than to Steven Amstutz's performance reviews. The other evidence of how well Goodie taught is largely anecdotal, which is perhaps unavoidable given that the district doesn't systematically measure academic skills at each grade level.
Among the 228 recommendations that state Comptroller John Sharp made for improving HISD when he threw down his massive audit last fall, recommendation 83 has drawn little attention. It states that "The teacher evaluation process should be modified and principals should be required to prepare and monitor an improvement plan for all teachers." The audit predicts that such a change would improve teacher morale because teachers expect and want instructional leadership from principals, and would value the "interaction" with them.
Maybe. But that would assume that principals know what is wrong in every classroom and have specific ideas on how to fix the problems. It assumes that there is some agreement about what good classroom teaching is, and that there's some universally accepted way to measure it. It's true that every business needs some way of measuring the effectiveness of its employees, and that education depends totally on improving the effectiveness of its teachers. But sweeping recommendations are easy to make. Improving the schools teacher by teacher is quite another. After all, after a four-day hearing, a dozen witnesses and more than a thousand pages of evidence, the district and the state can't even agree on something as basic as the competence or incompetence of Beverly Goodie.