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.

Amen.

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.

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