classroomDocumentaries have been defined as attempts–often by small, inde­pen­dent film makers–to “doc­u­ment” real­ity.  Most are cre­ated and pro­duced on small bud­gets and receive lit­tle in the way of main­stream pub­lic­ity.  But one soon-to-be released doc­u­men­tary has been get­ting a fair amount of atten­tion.  The Rubber Room, a film pro­duced by Five Burroughs, an inde­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pany in New York City, promises an inside look into “reas­sign­ment cen­ters” for teach­ers in the New York City School District who have been removed from the class­room for var­i­ous rea­sons but because of their union con­tracts, can­not be fired.  During the last cou­ple of years, these re-assignment cen­ters, nick­named “rub­ber rooms,” have become a hot topic for blog­gers and news­pa­per edi­to­r­ial columnists. 

 

Why has this topic gen­er­ated so much inter­est?  It may be help­ful to start with some back­ground infor­ma­tion.  Rubber rooms are, first of all, a union nego­ti­ated arrange­ment.  Teachers accused of “crimes” rang­ing from insub­or­di­na­tion to molest­ing stu­dents are removed from class­rooms in the New York City School District.  But since union con­tracts granted tenure after just three years, most can­not be fired with­out due process.  Furthermore, it can take months, some­times years, for these teach­ers to get a for­mal hear­ing.  So unable to work in the class­room but unable to be fired, they must report, day after day, to these re-assignment cen­ters located in var­i­ous parts of the city.  They have no stu­dents to teach, no papers to grade, and no other real duties or respon­si­bil­i­ties.  To pass the time, some sleep, some read, and some spend their time talk­ing or play­ing board games.  In the mean­time, they all con­tinue to draw their full salary and get the usual vaca­tions, includ­ing sum­mers off.  Taxpayers foot the bill, at an esti­mated cost of tens of mil­lions of dol­lars a year.

 So are these teach­ers actu­ally vic­tims, as many of them con­tend, forced to spend time in some night­mar­ish human resources pur­ga­tory?  Or are they oppor­tunists, gam­ing the sys­tem at tax­pay­ers’ expense?  The sub­ject of rub­ber rooms almost seems to raise more ques­tions than answers.  In the­ory, their exis­tence seems logical—after all, no rea­son­able per­son would want some­one who has been accused of molest­ing a stu­dent or being drunk in the class­room to con­tinue teach­ing chil­dren.  But being accused of some­thing doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that you are guilty, and teach­ers have a right to due process before being fired.  The most seri­ous con­cern seems to cen­ter around the length of time—an aver­age of three years–that many teach­ers are required to wait before they receive a hear­ing.  A short­age of qual­i­fied arbi­tra­tors who are able to hear these cases is cited as one of the pri­mary rea­sons for these long delays.  But if that is true, one has to won­der why the teach­ers’ union, with all its nego­ti­at­ing power and sup­port, hasn’t lob­bied harder to speed the process.  Perhaps it is cheaper to pay these teach­ers to sit around and do noth­ing than it is to fire them?  Or could it have some­thing to do with the fact that the union con­tin­ues to col­lect dues from these teach­ers while they wait for their hearings? 

 Of course, union rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the teach­ers them­selves will argue that they can­not be fired with­out due process because they have tenure.  But one can rea­son­ably argue that tenure has been granted too quickly and too eas­ily in the past.  The sub­ject has gen­er­ated a fair amount of national inter­est recently, par­tic­u­larly in Washington D.C. where schools chan­cel­lor Michelle Rhee has fought to mod­ify the prac­tice.  In return she has offered teach­ers the oppor­tu­nity to earn six fig­ure salaries, pro­vided they agree to be eval­u­ated on merit, not senior­ity.  There are also those who argue that the entire con­cept of tenure for ele­men­tary and high-school teach­ers is out­dated and needs to end.  In a recent edi­to­r­ial in The Kansas City Star, Jonah Goldberg rea­sons that, while there may be a seri­ous argu­ment for giv­ing col­lege pro­fes­sors the free­dom to offer unpop­u­lar views, tenure for kinder­garten teach­ers is “just crazy.”  But the teach­ers’ unions fought long and hard to obtain tenure for their mem­bers, and it is not a ben­e­fit they will relin­quish with­out a seri­ous fight.

 As it turns out though, it may be the con­tro­versy over rub­ber rooms has pro­vided a tip­ping point with regard to the public’s per­cep­tion of teach­ers’ unions.  In September 2009, Steven Brill wrote a scathing arti­cle in The New Yorker in which he crit­i­cized rub­ber rooms and the teach­ers’ union.  A month later, The Wall Street Journal pub­lished an arti­cle titled, How Teachers’ Unions Lost the Media, cred­it­ing the Mr. Brill’s arti­cle to con­tribut­ing, at least in some part, to unions falling out of favor with the main­stream media.  Once seen as defend­ers of a sacred pub­lic insti­tu­tion, teach­ers’ unions are now just as likely to be viewed as obsta­cles to needed edu­ca­tional reform.  It is prob­a­bly fair to say that most teach­ers are hard work­ing, car­ing pub­lic ser­vants who deserve to be treated with respect.  But in a period of reces­sion and ten per­cent unem­ploy­ment, it may be hard for many indi­vid­u­als to sym­pa­thize with teach­ers who believe they are enti­tled to a job for life, regard­less of how effec­tive they are in the class­room.  It also seems like a bit of a stretch to say that there is no such thing as a bad teacher, and that no teacher ever deserves to be fired.  The pub­lic may be los­ing patience with the unions whose pri­mary respon­si­bil­ity is not to edu­cate our chil­dren, but to pro­tect its dues pay­ing mem­bers.  So per­haps the most impor­tant ques­tion is not whether the teach­ers assigned to the rub­ber rooms are vic­tims or oppor­tunists.  Maybe instead we should ask whether teach­ers unions have lost—or are about to lose—widespread pub­lic sup­port, and what that means for the future of pub­lic education.

 

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