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New York City's Bad Teacher Debacle, Revisited

This week, The New Yorker has a piece about New York City teachers. The story focuses on "Rubber Rooms," or Temporary Reassignment Centers, which are where the city sends teachers who have been accused of misconduct or incompetence. But the city's teacher's union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), insists that Rubber Rooms are where the city shoves senior teachers whose salaries have ballooned over the years and who often frown upon Mayor Michael Bloomberg's control of the schools. Teachers do pretty much nothing at these centers (the New Yorker article mentions teachers playing board games) until their cases are heard by arbitrators--a process that can take years. And, all the while, thanks to the UFT's vehement protection of teacher tenure, Rubber Roomers earn salaries, pensions, and benefits.

Put bluntly, Rubber Rooms are detention halls for teachers. Last year, This American Life produced an episode about them. You can listen here. (I'm a big fan of the bits about teachers staking out desk territory and stealing butter out of a communal refrigerator at one of the reassignment centers.)

The New Yorker also mentions the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), a pool of teachers who are supposed to serve as substitutes because they don't have permanent positions. Most of these teachers have been unable to secure new full-time jobs after their schools closed or were downsized. (Some of them haven't been hired because of their performance records, and some just don't want full-time positions.) I wrote a piece about the ATR back in May, describing its various flaws and how it could be reformed. In the piece, I quoted a New York City Education Department official who explained that, with the tens of millions spent paying ATR teachers each year, the city could invest more in "early childhood education or ... fund retention strategies to get our greatest teachers to stay."

Indeed, the ATR and the Rubber Rooms are using up much-needed money in a terrible economy. If there's an upside, it would seem to be that, with these rooms, the city is at least removing incompetent teachers from the classroom. But it appears even this isn't happening. According to The New Yorker, bad teachers often remain with kids:

Unsatisfactory ratings for tenured teachers have risen from less than one per cent to 1.8 per cent [in the past seven years]. ... Rubber Rooms house only a fraction of the 1.8percent who have been rated unsatisfactory. ... In a system with eighty-nine thousand teachers, the untouchable six hundred Rubber Roomers and eleven hundred teachers on the reserve list are only emblematic of the larger challenge of evaluating, retraining, and, if necessary, weeding out the poor performers among the other 87,300.

So, what does this all amount to? New York is in need of drastic teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation reform. Most importantly, the UFT has to stop protecting unqualified teachers. (The same goes for unions in many other cities, too.) The New Yorker points out that, with the distribution of federal stimulus dollars hinging on whether New York revises state law pertaining to teacher evaluations, compromise on how to more effectively assess teachers' classroom performance and subsequently determine their career fates may be possible. But, based on my conversations with some very angry New York City teachers and union officials, I'm not holding my breath.