Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rubber rooms

Steven Brill has an article about that New York City institution, the rubber room, which has attracted some attention among bloggers. Rubber rooms arose because firing teachers is an extremely lengthy and difficult process (because of arbitration provisions in their union contract). But they can assigned to rooms where they sit and do nothing (with full pay and benefits) while their arbitration hearings drag on year after year. This is done when the school administration thinks it is necessary to remove a teacher from contact with children. These assignment rooms became known as "rubber rooms" . This process provides a ready supply of horror stories about teachers collecting for pay for years after instances of extreme misconduct. Steven Brill is the latest writer to mine this supply.

On the narrow point I agree with the critics, this process is indefensible and should be changed. I would suggest a no-fault termination system in which the administration could fire anyone with payment of say 2 years salary as severance. However it is not really that important in the whole scheme of things. 600 rubber roomer teachers out of 89000 is less than 1%. So just budgeting for this like you would for sick days is going to increase your costs by less than 1%. Not good, but eliminating it is not going to drastically improve school performance.

Brill suggests the real problem is that the firing process is so onerous that it is generally only used for misconduct and merely incompetent teachers stick around forever. My view is that teachers don't matter much so it is not all that important to get rid of incompetent ones.


  1. James' quote, "My view is that teachers don't matter much so it is not all that important to get rid of incompetent ones."

    Teachers don't matter much? Who taught you to read, do Math and walk quietly in a straight line?

  2. I, too, disagree with that statement, at least as far as basic education is considered (in higher education the degree of individual self-study becomes increasingly important thus decreasing the importance of teacher quality, somewhat). After many decades, I still can "feel" my past teachers in the (lesser or greater) comfort moving through various areas of knowledge. Retrospectively, some of them turned out to play an extremely important role in career decisions. But that is just my story, I can imagine others see it differently based on their personal experience.

    Though the cost of rubber room teachers may be a negligible component of the budget, I think the moral cost is high. Just like today's norm of settling frivolous lawsuits: rel. small cost on paper but a high cost for society by giving in to jerks. I'll have to wait for another Ronald Reagan to fire the unions.

  3. That is so sweeet. I wonder sometimes if the students that I have taught over the years ever benefited from my instruction. There are very few students who did, I suppose, since few of them ever went on to college. The idea of teaching in inner city NY makes my skin crawl. I spent one year teaching in a Hudson Valley district in one of the river towns, and I almost lost it. I suppose the "rubber rooms" are filled with burned out teachers. We start well, but then burn out.

  4. Re: "My view is that teachers don't matter much..."

    Hmm. The wikipedia article on the Coleman report you indirectly reference summarizes the report as saying that student socioeconomic status and background are more important than per-student funding in determining educational outcomes.

    How do you get from that to teachers don't matter much? Pretty big leap there.

  5. oops, I should have said "much more important"; this i/f doesn't seem to allow cut & paste (perhaps intentionally) so I'm thrown back on my dubious clerical skills..

  6. Well if schools that pay teachers more aren't hiring teachers that perform better either there isn't much difference in how teachers perform or schools aren't very good at judging teachers.

    And I believe it isn't just that per-student funding doesn't make much difference between schools but that there is little difference seen between schools in general once adjustments are made for the composition of the student body. Which would mean if teachers vary widely in quality the good teachers and bad teachers are somewhat mysteriously distributed uniformly among schools.

  7. The good and bad teachers aren't distributed magically and uniformly among schools....the intelligent teachers find a school where their efforts may count for something. Only a poor teacher with no prospects or who can't move on, stays in a school where the scores are sub par....thus the poor schools get worse, and the better schools, which actually need fewer great teachers, get better.

  8. I recently discussed the article regarding “Rubber Rooms” with a friend who teaches middle school in a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. She reports that it is indeed difficult to fire a tenured teacher in her school district also. But she thinks teachers in the Rubber Room should never have been given tenure in the first place, because it is obvious which teachers are doing a good job and which are not during the three year probationary period. However, since beginning salaries are so low, there is a shortage of qualified applicants in her school district. The school district has no choice but to give poor teachers tenure. Since this is a fairly affluent community with a high proportion of parents with PhD's in science, who value education, one can only wonder what the pool of teaching applicants looks like in a poor inner- city school district.