Elizabeth Reed thought her second-grader Courtney was getting a good education until they went to the library one day.
Reed watched Courtney struggle with a simple book her daughter should have breezed through. "She's not reading," Reed thought. "She hasn't gotten past "two plus two.' She isn't learning."
Then she remembered all the afternoons she rummaged through Courtney's backpack and found pencils, drawings and an unused notebook but not much else. No math worksheets. No spelling words. Never any homework.
She recalled the stories her daughter told about her class at Merrill Road Elementary School in Jacksonville. The teacher yelled at kids and ate snacks out of kids' lunches. The teacher told a boy he was stupid.
Reed thought: What's going on in that classroom?
She called parents. She talked to teachers. She discovered that Courtney's teacher, Alice Collier, ran a chaotic, sometimes violent classroom. Courtney wasn't the only child struggling.
Reed also learned that school officials knew all about it. They had transferred Collier to Courtney's school after she had similar problems at another school. The 1993-94 school year at Merrill Road was Collier's opportunity to shape up.
It didn't happen. At the end of her second disastrous year, Duval County school officials decided that was enough. Collier resigned. Her teaching certificate was suspended.
Reed and the other parents of Collier's students learned more than their kids that year. They learned that Florida's system for identifying deficient teachers and getting them out of the classroom is cumbersome and time consuming, and often is not used properly.
Under the current system:
Teachers with tenure generally aren't fired until they earn two consecutive bad annual evaluations, a length of time with potentially profound consequences for students.
Parents have no way of judging a teacher's performance the previous year. Evaluations do not become public records until a year after they are filed.
In some schools, identifying bad teachers is not a priority. The burden falls to principals who have staffs of 40 or more and plenty to do. Sometimes they give good evaluations to bad teachers _ to avoid a hassle or salvage a career. Sometimes bad teachers are transferred to other schools, a practice educators call "passing the trash" or "the dance of the lemons."
There are plenty of flaws in Florida's system for identifying and getting rid of bad teachers. The Florida Legislature took on the politically charged issue again this year and decided to streamline the process. Bad teachers no longer have a full school year to turn their careers around.
But many of the problems are at the school level, not in Tallahassee. Legislation is unlikely to fix them.
"What it boils down to is how good a job the principal does," said Susan Latvala, a Pinellas County School Board member. "Principals will tell you, "It's difficult and it's time consuming.' But of all the things we do, what could be more important than seeing to it that teachers are doing a good job in the classrooms?"
Incompetent teachers are not the ones who make headlines for dealing drugs or having sex with students. Those teachers get run out of the profession very quickly.
It is less clear what to do with a teacher who simply is not good enough in the classroom.
What should Dade County do with the fourth-grade teacher who couldn't teach division because she didn't quite understand it herself? What should Pasco County do with the middle school teacher whose students tossed paper airplanes and slept through class? What should Hillsborough County do with the high school teacher who didn't keep records to show why one student earned an A and another a C?
"Many of these teachers are decent people; they just shouldn't have been teachers," said Janice Velez, director of personnel services for Hillsborough County schools.
There are more than 119,000 teachers in Florida, yet last year only 23 teachers were fired for incompetence. Each year only a handful of incompetency cases make it to the state's Education Practices Commission, which has the authority to revoke or suspend a teacher's certificate.
Does that mean there aren't many incompetent teachers in Florida? Or are incompetent teachers going unreported?
"I would love to think we only have the few incompetent teachers that get to the (EPC), but I think that would be naive," said Education Commissioner Frank Brogan. "I don't think the numbers are extraordinary. But the system is so cumbersome and so onerous, it discourages principals from taking on incompetent teachers."
For principals, it must seem they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
At Sandy Lane Elementary School in Clearwater, principal David Morrow gave good evaluations to teacher Phil Chase _ despite complaints from teachers about Chase's conduct. Morrow later regretted it. (See story, 9A.)
"I didn't want to take a man's livelihood away," Morrow said. "I was trying to help him."
Judy Fay, a physical education teacher who worked with Chase, said it wasn't until a parent complained that Chase got in trouble. "It isn't supposed to be the parents' job to keep an eye on teachers," Fay said.
The case might come back to haunt the school district. When Chase was fired this year his attorney argued that, based on his annual evaluations, Chase had every reason to believe he was doing a fine job. The case is on appeal.
Principals who do take on deficient teachers know they might be in for a battle.
The Sallie Brierley case is a chilling reminder to those who wonder how complicated these cases can get. It took Pinellas school officials two tries, 15 years and more than $119,000 to get Brierley out of the classroom.
Brierley, who could not be reached for comment, was hired as an elementary school teacher in 1973. Five years later, she caught encephalitis. When she returned to school in 1980, she had epilepsy.
Two principals complained that she taught math wrong, lost test results and could not explain her grading system.
In 1985 she was fired for incompetence. She blamed her bad reviews on epileptic seizures. Her firing was upheld, until she claimed in federal court that she was fired because of her illness. A judge reinstated her with $119,000 in back pay.
"We brought her back (in 1990) as a para-professional, a teacher's aide, to break her in slowly," said Ron Stone, now the district's associate superintendent for human resources. "Even at that, it was very clear that she couldn't work with the students."
Brierley was suspended for three days that year, accused of shoving a student. Her colleagues complained of mood swings, paranoia, foul language and abusive behavior.
Finally in 1995, after years of warnings, complaints and negotiations over her future, Brierley was out of the classroom for good _ but on her terms and with benefits.
"A horrible job
to be bad at'
The teacher evaluation process is supposed to be more than just a way to build a case against a teacher. The idea is to let teachers know where they stand, and to make them better.
Sometimes veteran teachers need new ideas. Sometimes new teachers need someone to give them pointers on planning or on holding student attention.
"This is a horrible job to be bad at," said Jade Moore, a former ninth-grade teacher who is now executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "If you're bad, the kids eat you for lunch."
If a principal points out an area of unsatisfactory performance, the principal and teacher must work out a plan for improvement. Until now, teachers had a full school year to turn it around, with assistance from a principal or assistant.
The Florida Legislature just voted to change that. Teachers still get a second chance. But they will have to show dramatic improvement within 90 working days _ essentially half a school year.
Often, teachers improve in this process, though it's hard to find rousing success stories.
Barbara Nemeth would appear to be a good candidate. She got an unsatisfactory evaluation in 1994-95, while at Hudson Elementary School in Pasco County. The next year she was named the school's Teacher of the Year.
But perhaps it's not the turnaround it seems. Like a lot of these cases, the picture goes fuzzy on closer look. District officials have records of the help they gave Nemeth. But Nemeth says she simply had a personality conflict with her principal.
"I didn't change what I did," Nemeth said.
Nemeth's former principal, Peggy Lewis, now principal at Deer Park Elementary, insists there was no personality conflict, that Nemeth improved.
In some cases, administrators call success getting a teacher out of the classroom, even temporarily.
In Hillsborough County, Bruce Vath got an unsatisfactory evaluation while at McLane Junior High School. He, too, believes he had a personality conflict with his principal. His next year didn't go well either. A supervisor reported that one student slept through class, another lay on the floor and a third danced in a corner. He got a second unsatisfactory and resigned.
The state took no action against Vath's certificate, so he was free to find a job elsewhere. Vath was hired as a permanent substitute teacher in Marion County.
From Hillsborough County's point of view, the case was something of a success; they removed a deficient teacher. But Vath feels the system failed.
"I never assaulted anyone. I never did anything sexual. He just didn't like the way I taught," Vath said. "A principal has more power than a queen does in chess."
Though he did well in the Marion County schools, Vath said he was unable to land a full-time job because his experience in Hillsborough County left him a marked man. Though he is still free to teach, Vath recently abandoned a nine-year career.
When teachers fail to rebound from a bad evaluation, the second year can be a time of frustration for everyone.
The investigative file on former Jacksonville teacher Alice Collier describes her second-grade classroom the year she earned her second bad evaluation.
There are allegations that Collier pulled children's hair and jerked their arms so violently she left bruises. She reportedly told a child: "I might as well punch you and get fired." A boy named Nick Hyder sometimes dashed out of the classroom before Collier could grab him. One day she sat on Nick to control him.
"Whenever there was a problem, we assumed the teacher was in the right," Nick's father, Craig Hyder said. "You just take that for granted."
Parents had no idea Collier already had one disastrous school year. She was new to their school. Collier's evaluation from the previous year would have been a good warning. But they couldn't see it _ even had they known to ask. It did not become public record until after her second disastrous year.
Collier, 44, will be free to teach again in 2000 when her suspension is lifted. She says the system doesn't help teachers improve and is used as a weapon to dump unwanted teachers.
"There is no sense that there is anything fair about it," she said. "It's an arbitrary decision."
How do you know?
Teacher Myrtle Lee Allen Welsh stood before her fourth-grade math class and offered this lesson:
"Three divided by 6 equals 18," Welsh told the students at Palm Springs Elementary School in Dade County. "Three divided by 60 equals 180. Three divided by 600 equals 1,800."
As Welsh talked, she showed the class a chart on which she had written out the same problems, using division signs in each one. The answers, of course, were for multiplication problems.
When asked why she was teaching that way, Welsh replied, "That's the way I always learned it."
Welsh, who could not be reached for comment, was fired after the 1994 school year because she did not have knowledge of her subject matter and had problems maintaining classroom order.
Those are two of the four criteria on which teachers must _ by Florida statute _ be evaluated every year. The other two are ability to plan and deliver instruction and ability to evaluate instructional needs.
Many districts also evaluate attendance and punctuality. Most evaluate teachers' grading.
The criteria are laid out on the evaluation forms that, ultimately, become the permanent record of a teacher's performance.
The forms are built for speed. In Pasco, principals put an "X" in the satisfactory or unsatisfactory box for each criterion. In Pinellas, principals fill in a letter grade, indicating the teacher meets expectations, exceeds expectations, needs improvement or does not meet performance requirements.
Most forms include areas for comments, which principals can use for a pat on the back or a warning.
Generally, that's all it takes _ if the evaluation is a positive one. If the principal points out problem areas, however, they must help devise an improvement plan and then work with the teacher in the subsequent year.
"These cases are tough and time-consuming, and the principals know that," said Ron Wright, director of professional standards for Broward. "All of a sudden, one teacher is taking up 20 percent of your time."
Regardless of how the system is organized, it is meaningless if school principals don't know what's going on in classrooms.
Just about every school day Robert Ammon, principal at Southern Oak Elementary in Largo, visits every classroom in his school. He usually does it right after the bell rings. The meetings and phone calls have to wait.
"You have to make it a habit, because there are too many excuses that can come in to prevent you from doing it," Ammon said. "It's tough some days, but I feel like it's money in the bank."
The frequent visits, Ammon said, let the students and teachers know the principal is in charge and in touch. And it takes the surprises out of the evaluation process.
But many principals can't or don't get around much. As a member of the Education Practices Commission, teacher Toni Brummond has seen many cases where it was clear principals didn't know what was going on in the classroom.
"For too many years, too many teachers received tenure and continued along in their careers, and nobody observed them in the classroom," said Brummond, a Hillsborough County teacher.
When principals fail, deficient teachers don't get help, and bad teachers don't get weeded out. Parents and students must fend for themselves.
"Nobody wants their child to have that teacher _ the one that doesn't want to even be there. But how do you know?" said parent Lexey Covell, an officer with a countywide group of school advisory councils in Pinellas. "Most parents trust their child's education to the experts _ until they have a problem. Then they start finding ways to check out the teachers."
Over the years, Covell has volunteered at school. She has walked the hallways and gotten a sense of which classrooms are buzzing with learning and which are noisy and out of control.
For students, working the informal system is a natural part of being in school.
"You have to ask around," said Deana Sibilia, a ninth-grader at Boca Ciega High School. "A bad teacher can make you hate that subject for a long time."
"I talked to some people and they warned me not to take certain teachers," said Blair Osten, also a ninth-grader at Boca Ciega. "That gets really important in high school. This year I got all tough teachers, and that's what I wanted."
Parents have to work a little harder.
"Administrators cannot divulge information to parents about whether a teacher is on (probation)," said Antonio de la Luz, who spent 15 years as an assistant principal in a Dade County middle school before becoming principal of an adult education center. "But students themselves know if a teacher is good or bad. Older students have information that gets passed back to families with younger students. Parents talk."
Elizabeth Reed didn't tap into that informal system until it was too late. When her daughter, Courtney, had trouble in school, Reed went to the teacher, who reacted defensively. Next stop was the principal, who sent her back to the teacher.
Luckily, Reed was able to get advice from other parents and from another teacher. She was told to get her daughter transferred. But it was too late. Several other parents moved faster to get their children out of Alice Collier's class.
"Now I know to ask around," Reed said. It has paid off. Reed reports Courtney's third-grade teacher was dedicated and competent and put in extra hours to help Courtney make up for lost time. Now Courtney is getting good grades and loves to read.
_ Times researchers John Martin and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
Here's how to get teacher evaluation
Teacher evaluations are public records in Florida, so parents have a right to ask to see how their child's teacher has fared over the years. All it takes is a call to make an appointment with the personnel department of your local school district. Those numbers are listed below.
Evaluations from before 1983 are not public record. Also, the most recent evaluations are not public record until a year later, when a newer evaluation is done.
Remember: Evaluations are not always accurate reflections of a teacher's performance, and you easily could learn more by spending time at your child's school.
Citrus: (352) 726-1931.
Hernando: (352) 796-6761 ext. 411.
Hillsborough: (813) 272-4906.
Pasco: (813) 996-2353.
Pinellas: (813) 588-6279.
Each year, hundreds of Florida school teachers got their teaching certificate suspended or revoked, or received some other punishment for conduct unbecoming a teacher. Generally, criminal charges, sexual misconduct, and drug allegations are the most common problems. Each year, incompetence in the classroom is the least common. Below are the types of allegations that got teachers in trouble.
1992-93 1993-94+ 7/1/95-12/31/96
Sexual misconduct 4 11 19
Sexual misconduct 26 59 51
Drug related 25 48 94
Inappropriate 24 20 30
Criminal conduct 62 78 146
Fraudulent teaching 6 29 28
Incompetence 3 9 16
Miscellaneous 65 53 62
Multiple allegations 79 65 324
+ The state stopped collecting its statistics in annual reports after 1993-94, so numbers for subsequent years have not been collected. The state collected numbers for part of 1995 and 1996 in response to requests from lawmakers.
Source: Florida Department of Education