NYC's Rubber Rooms, Not a Grey Area

A few years ago, I first heard about NYC's teacher "rubber rooms," where teachers who are incompetent or under investigation are held with pay because it was cheaper than going through the process of firing them.  It was a colleague of mine who first mentioned them to me.  At the time, we ruminated on how ridiculously difficult it is to fire bad teachers and how utterly moronic and bureaucratic it is to have rubber rooms.  We thought, if you want to fire a teacher, you should just be able to fire a teacher.  I'd seen my share of horrific teachers, and believed that granting increased latitude to districts and principals in deciding who to keep and who to let go of at the end of the year could be nothing but a good thing.  Anything would be better than the so-called "dance of the lemons" or rubber rooms.

But, as usual, there's another side to this story.  Thanks to BAMN and Candi Peterson of The Washington Teacher, last week I attended a protest that began at the Department of Education and ended in a conference room at the American Federation of Teachers building on New Jersey Avenue.  There, I heard a teacher who'd been consigned to one of these rubber rooms provide testimony about her experience.  She was in the process of going through a lawsuit because she felt she had been discriminated against.  She said she'd been in the system for 30+ years, and after a few students accused her of acting inappropriately, she was moved to one of these rubber rooms.  She said she was found innocent rather quickly after the students admitted they were lying, but the contract she was working under allowed her principal to stop her from returning from the rubber room to her school.  The teacher said she was told she would need to find a new building principal to hire her within a certain amount of time or else she would lose her job.  She explained that she was going to court this past Wednesday to fight this injustice she felt was targeting more expensive teachers as well as minority teachers.

Although I've done a poor job of relating her story here, you got the sense as you were listening that she had every reason to be pissed off.  I never really understood the working rights fight that many teachers (or people of any profession) deal with on a daily basis until I moved to DC.  The school I worked at was a perfect example of that.  Whenever we were asked to break our contract and work longer than we were supposed to, management generally appealed to our sense of social justice: "Don't you want these kids to succeed?  Don't you want to close the achievement gap?  Then you need to be willing to sacrifice your lunch and your planning time every now and then." Also, they fired last year's union leader, and were later found to have wrongfully terminated her.  The Washington City Paper recently put out a story about "union busting" (sort of) at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School.  You get the sense that such violations are more common in high-profile inner-city districts, where the political costs of low test scores are immense.  The idea is to find the formula that will allow you to maximize tests scores and minimize cost (which might lead a shrewd education economist to find a formula to equate dollars with test scores in order to find a place where marginal cost equals marginal revenue).

I feel like I've seen two extremes.  When I taught in Washington state and Tennessee, I taught with many talented people, but I also taught with many jaded and unenthusiastic people. I saw virtually no accountability for teachers and nobody getting fired or mistreated.  I was left with the impression that unions are generally bad things that promote the ugly status quo in some classrooms.  DC has shown me quite the opposite.  Here I feel like I've only met highly enthusiastic and talented (albeit inexperienced) teachers, but they are generally treated as disposable. It's not desirable to have them stay in the system for too long because they begin to become expensive.  As a result, I've begun to seriously support union action to protect teachers' rights.

I think the rational solution here (as always) must exist somewhere in between the two extremes.  Education is fundamentally about doing what's right for students, but we can't deny that those employed by public school systems also have the right to be treated well.  So it always bothers me when people say that teachers don't have a right to complain because they should be thinking about the kids, not themselves.  Frankly, that's just ridiculous, and if you say something like that, your opinions about teachers, schools, and unions should be automatically be rendered worthless because you've failed to recognize a simple reality: it's not sustainable to expect people to be so selfless that they lose their own humanity in attempting to provide it to others.

So - yes, we do need to make it easier to get rid of teachers who hate their jobs and do them poorly, but we also need to provide positive environments for people to nurture whatever it was that brought them into teaching in the first place.  Black and white silver bullet solutions will never provide long-term results.  The best answers are always somewhere in between.


  1. Good for you, RE - for understanding the role of unions and the need for them to protect teachers.

  2. Did you see the editorial in today's NY Times?:

    April 20, 2010
    Do the Math
    Last fall, Michelle Rhee, the tough-minded and creative schools chancellor in Washington, laid off 266 teachers, citing a budget crunch. She has since reported finding a budget surplus. The city’s teachers’ union, which challenged the layoffs unsuccessfully last fall, has now asked a judge to review them again. The atmosphere has grown increasingly toxic.

    Some of Ms. Rhee’s critics have implausibly suggested that she might have withheld information to justify the layoffs. It would be terrible for the city’s children if the dispute reached a point where it upended the innovative union contract that Ms. Rhee and union leaders provisionally agreed to earlier this month.

    The contract, which changes the terms under which teachers are paid and evaluated, could pave the way for better schools for the District of Columbia’s students and could become a model for agreements between school districts and teachers’ unions around the country.

    It calls for a salary increase of 20 percent over five years, for which the union has agreed to a teacher evaluation system that takes student performance into account and a differential pay scale that will boost compensation for the most effective teachers. In addition, the city will significantly improve mentoring and professional development programs, with the clear aim of helping teachers learn and master the craft.

    Mayor Adrian Fenty needs to get to the bottom of the budget flap as quickly as possible. The situation was further confused when the city’s financial officer issued a statement saying that there is no surplus, as claimed by Ms. Rhee. She says the city is committed to finding the money to pay for the raises in the new contract — although under the law, any proposals she puts forward must be approved by that same chief financial officer.

    One bright spot is that the union’s leadership has wisely separated the two issues — last year’s layoffs and the new contract. They need to keep tempers cool so their members make the right choice and ratify the agreement. And Ms. Rhee and the mayor need to quickly and fully disclose who messed up the math.


    How about you write a letter to the editor and set them straight?

  3. Good lord. How could anybody with even a modicum understanding of DC politics believe that Rhee hasn't been withholding information. She admitted that she kept what she "believed" to be a surplus silent during the contract negotiations. It's all far too convenient.

    Nice example of how the national media (and often the local media - ie the WaPo) play this saga up as something that is removed from reality.

  4. I like this that you said RE...

    "Black and white silver bullet solutions will never provide long-term results. The best answers are always somewhere in between."

    Couldn't agree more. I guess the issue is that one person's moderation is another's extreme!

    Those in favor of tenure reform see the current system as an unworkable extreme. Unions see practically any movement from the status quo as an unworkable extreme.

    You are right that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

    Can we get a referee? :)

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO


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