Shutting the Rubber Rooms.

Yesterday, New York City finally shuttered its notorious "rubber rooms," the Kafkaesque solution devised by officials to deal with teachers who were deemed unfit to remain in classrooms but, armed with tenure, were essentially unfireable. Suspended teachers could only be dismissed from their jobs after a protracted appeals process that could stretch on for months or years, and during which they still received their full salaries.

The unfireable teachers were still required to show up every day to one of several rooms across the city on a schedule that approximated a normal school day. They sat there with nothing to do. It was a long, wasteful war of attrition, with the city hoping that the tedium would eventually compel the suspended teachers to quit. The rubber roomers have now been reassigned to the city's department of education offices, where they'll work until their cases are resolved.

It's hard to tell whether the rubber-room issue was a bigger embarrassment to the school system or to the teacher's union itself. It's the union's job to protect its members, of course. But the inability to fire even the worst teachers was an unmitigated disaster for students. A growing body of evidence suggests that teacher quality is so important a factor in student outcomes that it can offset other considerable factors in a child's education. That is, a good teacher can negate the effects of going to an otherwise bad school; a lousy teacher can negate the effects of going to a good one. 

But designating teachers as unfireable means any serious conversation about good and bad teachers -- of what they look like -- is essentially tabled. The end result is that the nation's largest public school system essentially grades all of its teachers "competent," leaving the difficult work of fixing schools undone in the face of maintaining polite fictions. 

-- Gene Demby

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