Shutting the Rubber Rooms.

Ed. Note: I’m guest-blogging at The American Prospect this week. This post is cross-posted from TAPPED.

Yesterday, New York City finally shuttered its notorious “rubber rooms,” the Kafkaesque solution devised by officials to deal with teachers who were deemed unfit to remain in classrooms but, armed with tenure, were essentially unfireable. Suspended teachers could only be dismissed from their jobs after a protracted appeals process that could stretch on for months or years, and during which they still received their full salaries.

The unfireable teachers were still required to show up every day to one of several rooms across the city on a schedule that approximated a normal school day. They sat there with nothing to do. It was a long, wasteful war of attrition, with the city hoping that the tedium would eventually compel the suspended teachers to quit. The rubber roomers have now been reassigned to the city’s department of education offices, where they’ll work until their cases are resolved.

It’s hard to tell whether the rubber-room issue was a bigger embarrassment to the school system or to the teacher’s union itself. It’s the union’s job to protect its members, of course. But the inability to fire even the worst teachers was an unmitigated disaster for students. A growing body of evidence suggests that teacher quality is so important a factor in student outcomes that it can offset other considerable factors in a child’s education. That is, a good teacher can negate the effects of going to an otherwise bad school; a lousy teacher can negate the effects of going to a good one.

But designating teachers as unfireable means any serious conversation about good and bad teachers — of what they look like — is essentially tabled. The end result is that the nation’s largest public school system essentially grades all of its teachers “competent,” leaving the difficult work of fixing schools undone in the face of maintaining polite fictions.

Image: cinderellasg/CC 2.0.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • semianonima

    educational reform is not, and will never be, simple. replacing bad teachers with good teachers is not a simple issue. not in a field with high stress, a high attrition rate and low pay for a much more than 40 hours a week job. not in a field where political football means that teachers and students can have half baked standards and curriculum that may or may not be particularly relevant pushed onto them as their metrics and their classes get larger (does a high school student really need to know what synecdoche is? i don’t think so, but i was required to teach it when i did teach). not in a field where teachers are pushed to make sure every child succeeds/graduates, even if that success is graduating unskilled with a 1.5 gpa, or graduating with a 3.0+ (but still heading off for college unprepared) or that child is still functionally illiterate at graduation. not in a field where the current trends are to have schools run like a giant business, ignoring the fact that each school and its community are different, kids don’t typically get paid to show up, and they are more or less forced to be there, and there is no hiring process to become a student in a public school. compound the fact that schools often have hiring/firing practices that are ethically questionable and possibly legally so. and new teachers are thrown into the mix, expected to sink or swim–and half of them leave in the first five years (i was one of those. i will admit that i wasn’t that good, but i’m not sure that i couldn’t have become good if i had had stronger support and more control of what i taught in the classroom). and let’s not even start on those multiple choice tests that determine so much of students’ and teachers’ lives, not to mention a strong emphasis on data collection and analysis (even if the data is inherently faulty).

    oh, and i think the rubber rooms were a humiliation, especially if you have a wrongfully accused teacher in there or a teacher in there put in by an admin with an ax to grind and an eye open to any mistake said teacher might make. and yes, i think the schools should be able to let go of teachers. however, school is such an environment that a lot of teachers bail ship without that kind of push. i am 95% sure i would never go back.

    children and teachers deserve a fair system that not only pushes them to be their best, but helps them to become their best. unfortunately, the educational system we have now does not work well for either party.