The Rubber Room

Over in the New Yorker, Steven Brill discusses “the battle over New York City’s worst teachers“:

These fifteen teachers, along with about six hundred others in six larger Rubber Rooms in the city’s five boroughs, have been accused of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or, in some cases, of incompetence, in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent.

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

“You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it,” says Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seven years ago.

Neither the Mayor nor the chancellor is popular in the Rubber Room. “Before Bloomberg and Klein took over, there was no such thing as incompetence,” Brandi Scheiner, standing just under the Manhattan Rubber Room’s “Handle with Care” poster, said recently. Scheiner, who is fifty-six, talks with a raspy Queens accent. Suspended with pay from her job as an elementary-school teacher, she earns more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, and she is, she said, “entitled to every penny of it.” She has been in the Rubber Room for two years.

Brill paints a picture of a stunningly costly and, frankly, stupid system for handling teachers who are accused of misconduct or incompetence.

Although some critics think Brill is over-selling his case, I think everyone would admit that the system — which can involve two or three years of semi-judicial review during which the teachers twiddle their thumbs — is ridiculous.

That system is about as far as possible from the now-famous system at Netflix:

Adequate performance gets a generous severance package.

I am not suggesting that the New York City public schools can or should become quite as, er, nimble as Netflix. That doesn’t make sense. But the schools ought to take a few steps in that direction — rewarding excellence and humanely but promptly terminating those who aren’t good enough. Anything less isn’t fair to the students or, in the long run, to the would-be teachers who ought to be doing something else, somewhere else.

Let me close then, by quoting some remarks by President Obama that Brill cites in his article:

If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances to improve but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.


P.S. For an opposing view, check out this this post and the accompanying comments.

For other, broader accounts, there is also a documentary and a radio show.

About Donald Marron 294 Articles

Donald Marron is an economist in the Washington, DC area. He currently speaks, writes, and consults about economic, budget, and financial issues.

From 2002 to early 2009, he served in various senior positions in the White House and Congress including: * Member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) * Acting Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) * Executive Director of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee (JEC)

Before his government service, Donald had a varied career as a professor, consultant, and entrepreneur. In the mid-1990s, he taught economics and finance at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He then spent about a year-and-a-half managing large antitrust cases (e.g., Pepsi vs. Coke) at Charles River Associates in Washington, DC. After that, he took the plunge into the world of new ventures, serving as Chief Financial Officer of a health care software start-up in Austin, TX. After that fascinating experience, he started his career in public service.

Donald received his Ph.D. in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his B.A. in Mathematics a couple miles down the road at Harvard.

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2 Comments on The Rubber Room

  1. I am not acquainted personally with any teachers in the “rubber room”. However, I know a teacher who was discontinued for a trumped up charge. She has a Masters in Education, graduating with a 3.93 average. She borrowed $30,000 to get her Masters so she worked hard to try and keep her job. Her students went from 2 to 3’s on their English Language Arts exam. She worked diligently every night preparing lessons. Her students loved her and so did all the teachers that worked with her. However, the Assistant Principal used something out of context to give her an “Unsatisfactory” on her last formal classroom observation. She was given an “Unsatifactory” because she did not have conference notes for the entire year, which were only a suggestion. She was getting a satisfactory up to this point (middle of May). She was not given the sufficient amount of classroom observations according to Department of Education Contract and then in June she was suddenly “discontinued”. Teachers “tenured” and “untenured” pay union dues. A contract exists. If you are familiar with contractual law, the Dept of Education is violating the basic principals of employment contract law. This violation of law eventually can affect you and me. Setting this precedent alone is dangerous.

    Has it ever occurred to you that the government may be trying to privatize the school system making it a “profit gain system”? The principal that did this to her is a very ignorant man. Many of her coworkers also told me this. He barely speaks English correctly and has only 3 years of former teacher experience. This may be hard to believe but I am working as a teacher in the private sector and I have heard many horror stories like this about public schools and teachers in bad neighborhood. If schools become Charter schools then someone is making a profit. Also, these ignorant principals are usually hidden away in bad neighborhoods (such as bad sections of the Bronx) with parents that do not know how to complain or fight back. This is a present day atrocity that is happening to many of our good NYC teachers. We cannot and should not write this off. Popular opinion would condemn these individuals. However, popular opinion changes. My belief is these individuals will eventually be vindicated. It has become a witch-hunt. It is almost like black listing people. This type of employment (teaching) is different and often difficult than working in the private sector with difficult children. Please be careful before you pass judgment on all these teachers.

  2. Hi JC,

    The case you mentioned sounds unfair, but it’s unwise to rely on the single narrative to make broader judgments. If she’s a great teacher, another school will recognize that, hire her, and value her skills. The principal who did this to her has shot himself in the foot by getting rid of one of this best teachers, and he’ll be on the line soon when the students’ performance decreases.

    One more thing: NO ONE is making a profit off charter schools … because they’re public schools, just like “traditional” DOE schools! They receive the same per-pupil money but are simply free from some of the DOE regulations.

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