Education's Underbelly: Incompetent Teachers Imprisoned In "Rubber Rooms"S

In New York City, 600 public school teachers spend every day in the school year crammed into tiny rooms where they are paid to do nothing. According to The New Yorker, these "Rubber Rooms" reveal basic problems with education today.

In a well-researched and disturbing article, Steven Brill portrays the city's Rubber Rooms as Kafkaesque bureaucratic purgatories, where teachers are sent because of misconduct (like molestation) or incompetence and must wait out the long process of arbitration. Brill describes one as "a windowless room in a shabby office building" in Manhattan, where the occupants sleep, play board games, or argue over folding chairs. They wait there until an arbitrator hears and resolves their cases — an average of three years. In a 2007 Times article, Samuel A. Freedman made the rooms sound even more hellish. He described one thus:

The room in question was about 1,100 square feet and on blueprints submitted to the Fire Department was designed to hold 26 people. On this day, it contained upward of 75. It had no windows, no land phone, no Internet access, no wall decorations, not even a clock. Any personal belongings left overnight were removed by custodians.

A disabled teacher with a service dog was initially allowed to sit outside this room — she was later forced to move inside, and several teachers who are allergic to dogs were forced to move out. According to Brill, several teachers confined to rubber rooms compared themselves to detainees at Guantánamo. The conditions obviously aren't as severe, but the rubber rooms are a little like prison, with an important difference — teachers who are sent there still get paid, and accrued benefits and seniority. Brill notes that one senior teacher, Brandi Scheiner, will earn $300,000 for three years in a rubber room, plus an additional $6,000 a year for the rest of her life in pension benefits — all without once entering a classroom. And that's not counting the hundreds of thousands of dollars it can cost the city to settle a teacher misconduct or incompetent case via arbitration.

Brill paints the rubber rooms as a poor solution to a difficult problem — incompetent teachers are almost impossible to actually fire. The United Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in New York, was founded in 1960 in response to a variety of injustices including "meagre salaries, tyrannical principals, witch hunts for Communists, and gender discrimination against a mostly female workforce (at one point, there was a rule requiring any woman who got pregnant to take a two-year unpaid leave)." Now, however, the UFT, like many teachers' unions across the country, has grown into an incredibly powerful body that mandates lifetime teacher tenure and compensation based on seniority rather than performance. The result: even teachers like Patricia Adams (Brill has changed her name), who was found passed out drunk in her classroom, cannot be outright fired — Adams spent two years in a rubber room and in arbitration hearings before finally being reassigned to an office job, where she passed out again and was finally fired.

Less extreme cases of incompetence are obviously even harder to deal with. Teachers' unions across the country resist the use of test scores to measure teacher performance, but the ratings system currently in place are inadequate. Brill writes that in districts that rate teachers as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, 99% receive a satisfactory rating. And even when there are more choices, 94% still get one of the top two ratings.

So why are teachers, unlike almost any other workers, exempt from any sort of performance accountability? It's tempting to chalk it up to unions unthinkingly protecting their own, but that's far from the whole story. Teacher Brandi Scheiner offers a telling perspective. Before reform efforts by Mayor Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein, she says, "everyone knew that an incompetent teacher would realize it and leave on their own. There was no need to push anyone out." Another teacher Brill talked to in a rubber room said, "we can tell if we're doing our jobs. We love these children."

But the two aren't synonymous. Many people Brill talked to got into teaching because of a love of children, and it is a profession that tends to draw people with high ideals. But loving children doesn't mean you can teach them math, and commitment to an ideal isn't the same as putting it into practice. Some teachers might say that teaching is different from all other professions, because teachers are motivated by passion rather than pursuit of the bottom line. But passion by no means guarantees the kind of honest, clear-eyed self-evaluation Scheiner talks about. If teachers truly love children, they should welcome such evaluation, even when it comes, as it sometimes must, from the outside. This doesn't necessarily mean rigidly tying teacher retention to test scores, but it does mean making sure that people who want to teach children actually can. And when they can't, districts should be able to fire them — not send them to to makeshift prisons for expensive, pointless years.

The Rubber Room [New Yorker]
Where Teachers Sit, Awaiting Their Fates [NYT]