Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Rubber Room

My maternity leave has not gotten off to quite as quick a start as I'd wanted (baby is now 8 days overdue) but at least I'm getting some extra time to catch up on the New Yorkers that are sitting around the house.

One particularly fascinating piece that I wanted to share with Gifted Exchange readers is called "Rubber Room" from the Aug 31 issue. In it, reporter Steven Brill pays a visit to one of New York City's "Rubber Rooms" -- places where teachers who have been charged with incompetence or misconduct, but who have not yet had a full hearing (which can take years), report every day in order to continue receiving their salary and benefits. I had read about a similar set-up for GM workers a few years ago (albeit not ones charged with misconduct -- just ones for whom there wasn't any available work). Basically, when union contracts specify that people have protected employment, but their employer decides that their services are either not needed or not desired, you have to do something with them. These rubber room situations arise because if an employer has to continue paying salary and benefits, it behooves them to make the experience as unpleasant as possible, in the hopes that people will quit. So rubber room policies tend to require people to clock in at a certain time, take certain specified breaks, and leave at a certain hour, but otherwise just sit there.

This sounds absolutely atrocious to me, but the fascinating thing is that often, people don't quit. In New York City, at least, teaching is pretty well paid (teachers with a master's degree start off around $50,000 with pretty good benefits, the contract is for a slightly-less-than 7-hour workday and tenure is granted nearly automatically after three years). So we New York City tax payers are funding the rubber rooms and also the bank of reserve teachers -- those let go because programs are cut but who either can't find or refuse to take another job in the system. They continue receiving their paychecks and benefits too. Given that excellent teachers are scooped up almost immediately, Brill makes the point that anyone on the reserve list after a year is probably going to be there indefinitely.

Of course, there's little point in writing a gee-whiz-isn't-this-crazy story; the broader question is whether this set-up can be changed in a way that is fair to teachers but doesn't waste massive amounts of taxpayer dollars. It is a question that turns out to be critical as a growing body of evidence shows that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in student achievement. In that sense, it is good that New York City isn't keeping incompetent (or in some cases, criminal) teachers in front of classrooms; on the other hand, the fact that hundreds of teachers sit in rubber rooms or on the reserve list, and continue to draw salaries, lessens any pressure on merely mediocre teachers to step up their game. Even after 7 years of what some people term "dictatorial" mayoral control of the schools, the percentage of New York City teachers who are not awarded tenure after three years has risen only a few points.

I'm not sure what the solution is. I think many people would be willing to pay for a system that lavished rewards on excellent teachers (with high value-add -- that is who can show student improvement even at the very high and very low ends) as long as bad ones could be weeded out. But this is proving very hard to do in practice. There is much hope that Pres. Obama and Ed Sec. Arne Duncan, who at least talk a good game of not being beholden to the education status quo, will shake things up with Race to the Top money. But we shall see if, over time, this manages to close the Rubber Rooms.


Lainie said...

There is an episode on "This American Life" detailing this very story. The title of the show is "Human Resources," show #350. Quite an insightful story.

Anonymous said...

Solution is "No unions". Unions are outdated. In a capitalistic nation, and especially in education, it's detrimental to have unions. We have seen what it has done to the Auto companies and we are seeing how damamging it is to our education system. There are more and more incompetent, under-educated and ignorant teachers still in the system because of the tenure system.

I like Obama's policy of pay based on performance. Just like any other professsion. Maybe then we will have more smarter people getting into the profession of teaching and there will have to be no rubber-room teachers hanging around getting welfare, wasting tax-payers money. I wish the tax payers had a say in this.

a said...

The existence of rubber rooms in the city of New York is the unfortunate proof that injustices can result when people and organizations are incapable of stepping outside their comfort zone and challenging standing perspectives.

Whether one supports labor unions or not, I think we should all be able to agree that teachers can be held to high professional standards, suffer the consequences if they do not perform adequately yet be assured due process in the event of unsatisfactory ratings that arise because the teacher has not gained access to an administrator's "inner circle." In other words these unsatisfactory ratings shouldn't be given for personal reasons.

Such hearings, to determine the true nature of a poor teacher evaluation can be completed in a very timely and inexpensive manner. Teachers that are found deficient should be terminated and the tax payer spared the expense of maintaining an adult play pen in the form of rubber rooms. Additionally, any administrator found guilty of granting poor teacher evaluations for personal reasons should clearly suffer the same consequences.

You'd be surprised at how many NYC public school teachers hold this view.