The Teachers' Union and the NYC Department of Education deserve praise for agreeing to eliminate the "rubber room" holding pen for teachers accused of misconduct and incompetence. We hope that their compromise reflects a new approach on both sides of the divide between the city government and the teachers.
Rubber Room Embarrassment
The Rubber Room was a name for a practice more than for a place.
New York City Department of Education practice had been to place teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence together in special rooms during what would have otherwise been their work-day and to pay them their full compensation while their cases were adjudicated.
This approach has brought embarrassment upon both the Teacher's Union and the Department of Education. Recently, the number of teachers in the Rubber Room had grown more than 700, and the cost of the compensation for those in the Rubber Room had grown to more than $65 million annually.
Teachers assigned to the Rubber Room were found to have major business activities run from the Rubber Room, and teachers whose horrible conduct made their place in the public payroll an outrage had the luxury of receiving full pay for years while having no responsibilities within the school system - no accountability without any reduction in compensation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, high quality teachers were assigned to the Rubber Room by threatened superiors when those teachers sought to expose the incompetence of those superiors. It was the ultimate lose-lose approach.
The Rubber Room persisted because the process of adjudicated was so painfully slow, and the Rubber Room became the symbol of our city's educational focus on teachers instead of on the needs of students and parents.
The End of the Rubber Room
Last week, the end of the Rubber Room at last emerged on the horizon. The NYC Department of Education and the Teachers' Union agreed to shorted the adjudicated time frame to six months (from a current average of 18 months), but it could result in incompetent, dangerous, or unethical teachers returning to the class room while their cases are still under consideration.
Many are skeptical that the plan accepted by both sides will have the desired impact, but the fact that the Teachers' Union and the City have agreed to a plan at all is cause for celebration. Cooperation between the teachers and those responsible for the educational system in our city has been rare, but such cooperation is the key to making progress on one of the most important issues affecting the future of our city, our state, and our country - how will we catch up to the rest of the world and prepare our children from the world that awaits them if we continue to accept a poor quality public educational system for the bulk of our children?
In NYC, we will only be able to make progress when teacher quality is permitted to be a key factor in compensation, promotion, termination, and lay off decisions. Moreover, until the Teachers' Union becomes more focused on benefiting from the best practices of its finest teachers and less focused on defending the careers of its worst performers, it will be unlikely to find common ground with parents or with current or future Department of Education leadership that truly sets excellence as its goal.
Let us hope that the pact which will eliminate the Rubber Room is the beginning of the end of a lack of excellence in NYC schools.