The New Yorker's big political story this week is an attack on the New York City teachers' contract, by Steven Brill. By now, most people who follow education news know about the "Rubber Rooms" in big city school districts -- reassignment centers for teachers who have been found guilty of misconduct or incompetence but who continue to earn a regular paycheck and accrue pension benefits. Brill visits one such Rubber Room and highlights the cases of a few teachers inside. One is an alcoholic whom the United Federation of Teachers falsely claimed was removed from her job due to discrimination against older teachers. Another has a history of filing merit-less lawsuits. A third teacher featured in the article regularly lost control of her classroom, claimed to be unaware of basic teacher training material, read her negative performance evaluation out loud to her class, and assigned one student to be the "enforcer" over other children.
These three individuals certainly shouldn't be working with kids. Indeed, there is a very strong argument to be made that teacher contracts need to be rethought from the ground up. Even if one is skeptical of test score-based merit pay as an education fix-all -- as I am -- there are other commonsense reforms. And there is little reason, during a recession when jobs are scarce, to pay incompetent teachers indefinitely for work outside the classroom, or, in the case of the rubber rooms, to pay them to simply sit around doing nothing. Teachers are college-educated professionals. If they leave the school system, many of them will be able to find other, decent work.
All that said, the Brill piece, in its relentless depiction of teachers as bad guys and principals and administrators as good guys, leaves readers with a few misconceptions. It highlights no examples of excellence in teaching, while admitting that only 1.8 percent of New York teachers have been rated "unsatisfactory." Brill also gives the impression that the Obama administration, under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, maintains an attitude of pure confrontation with teachers' unions. In fact, the White House has been careful to formulate policies that can earn at least begrudging acceptance from Randi Weingarten, the most influential national teachers' union leader, and a villain in Brill's piece. The latest example of such compromise lies in the fine print of the "Race to the Top" education reform grant guidelines: States whose applications include a signed statement of support from a union leader will earn a leg up in the process.
From a public relations perspective, the appearance of this article is certainly disastrous for teachers' unions. A lot of influential people read The New Yorker, people who may not bother to learn more about the nuances of education policy. And those readers have just been treated to a scathing -- though incomplete -- review of teacher contracts and the state of urban education.