Sunday, July 4, 2010

Week 26: The End of the Rubber Room

Last week, classes ended for New York City public schools. But something else ended as well, something so outrageous I literally do not know where to begin. "Rubber Rooms", more formally called Reassignment Centers, housing roughly 700 New York City public school teachers were officially shut down following a deal between Mayor Bloomberg and the city teacher's union. It's about time.

Rubber rooms consisted of education department facilities filled with teachers who for a variety of alleged disciplinary reasons were "reassigned" from their teaching jobs. Instead of facing allegations against them in a prompt, thorough way, these teachers were forced to sit in crowded, Spartan rooms from 8 AM to 3 PM each day, receiving full salary, awaiting their respective hearings. In many cases it would take months and even years before cases were heard. The allegations against teachers ranged from saying a curse word in the presence of a student to incompetence to physical abuse. Sometimes the teachers were told simply that they were being "reassigned", with no further explanation or justification. The end result? One percent of the city's teachers remained on payroll, sitting idly and waiting to either be fired or reinstated, costing taxpayers $30 million each year. What is wrong with this picture?

Interviews with teachers who spent time in the rubber room describe almost jail-like conditions. When a teacher would first report to the rubber room, he or she would show up with no instructions, and would find an extremely crowded, noisy room. The teacher would then quickly notice that the other teachers had segregated themselves by race. Making eye contact or encroaching in another teacher's space could result in a fist fight, which apparently happened often. Some teachers would turn the lights off to try and sleep, others would turn the lights back on to try and read. One particularly annoying teacher played guitar all day, every day. I heard a recording of the rubber room audio, taken by one of the interviewed teachers - it was pure cacophony. It's so bad a documentary film was made to highlight the absurdity of the situation(see the trailer here).

This system was clearly a disaster, on many levels. Teachers should not be treated like prison inmates, and disciplinary and performance issues should be addressed quickly and fairly. Taxpayers should not be paying $30 million per year for teachers to sit and watch paint dry. Students should not be able to blackmail teachers powerless to enforce discipline. How did this system exist to begin with? It is a complicated problem, encompassing macro and micro politics, principals' personal grudges, and poor school administration, to name a few... but the overwhelming problem across the board seems to be incompetence.

I'll end with a particularly depressing case and point. New York City has spent $2 million this year hiring lawyers to help fire incompetent teachers. (Of the roughly 80,000 NYC teachers, I'm sure there are more than a handful who fall into this category...) Guess how many were successfully fired? I'm serious, guess.

Three. The students deserve better than that.


  1. Sounds like they took a page out of Detroit's jobs banks playbook, and that turned out real well for everyone.

    Also, WTF, we have almost 1 Million teachers...say it ain't so Steve, I hope this is an error. There are 8M people in the entire city and 20M in the metro area. Assuming about a quarter of the population is in school that would mean the metro area has a 5:1 student-to-teacher ratio. I thought one of the problems with public schools was too many students per teachers (like 30:1 in most classes.) Either it's an error or we might have a ton of underutilized teachers sitting around somewhere, which cost a lot more than $30M/year.

  2. FIXED - definitely an error. I added that parenthetical at the very end of the post. Did some bad mental math... thanks for catching. It's about 80,000 total teachers, with about 1% who had been sitting in the rubber rooms.