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August 27, 2009 1:52 PM   Subscribe

The Rubber Room: The Battle Over New York City’s Worst Teachers.
posted by Oxydude (81 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's a documentary, which I have seen the trailer of. There has also been a edition of "This American Life" from the makers of the documentary. Now and article? When are we going to get the chance the see this film!
posted by Napierzaza at 1:54 PM on August 27, 2009


The Rubber Room covered on This American Life.

You'd think it would be cheaper to hire more arbitrators to expedite the process.
posted by GuyZero at 1:55 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here is the TAL link.
posted by JBennett at 1:55 PM on August 27, 2009


Web site for Rubber Room: the Movie which sounds a little more exciting than it probably is.
posted by GuyZero at 1:56 PM on August 27, 2009


This American Life had a Rubber Room story last year, it was fascinating and also infuriating to hear about it.

(Apparently, the story was in collaboration with filmmakers making a feature-length documentary about the Rubber Room.)
posted by paulesque at 1:58 PM on August 27, 2009


Curse you, GuyZero. This is worse than slashdot! :p
posted by paulesque at 1:59 PM on August 27, 2009


I think I sniped everyone, but not providing links makes me lose points anyways. But hey, that's not how mefi works.
posted by Napierzaza at 2:05 PM on August 27, 2009


Link to the single page version of the article.
posted by Librarygeek at 2:08 PM on August 27, 2009


I read these articles and they always forget the fact that the Union has to represent the teachers--they are bound by law to do this. Agencies always, always whine about having to give due process. But if they would just buckle down and hire a few more arbitrators and lawyers to get the process going, things would go faster and less-qualified teachers would have less incentive to drag any process out.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:09 PM on August 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Higher standards are okay to a point, but our schools are failing because of parents, not teachers. Even good teachers can't do their jobs with bad kids.
posted by spaltavian at 2:12 PM on August 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


In 2002, with the city’s public schools clearly failing, the State Legislature granted control of a new Department of Education to the new mayor, who had become a billionaire by building an immense media company, Bloomberg L.P., that is renowned for firing employees at will and not giving contracts even to senior executives.

Between retaining corpses in the classroom and firing at will, I'm not sure who I'm rooting for. So far, the corpses are winning (my mom was a teacher, and now my wife is: neither were incompetent, but have too many stories of terrible teachers who keep teaching because they don't know what else to do).
posted by filthy light thief at 2:13 PM on August 27, 2009


Richard Thompson, the cartoonist behind the wonderful Cul de Sac, did the illustration for this article. Here's a short blog post on its development.
posted by martens at 2:15 PM on August 27, 2009


Even so, the number of teachers staying on reserve for more than nine months is likely to exceed eleven hundred by next calendar year and cost the city more than a hundred million dollars annually. Added to the six hundred Rubber Roomers, that’s seventeen hundred idle teachers—more than enough to staff all the schools in New Haven.
posted by Perplexity at 2:16 PM on August 27, 2009


GuyZero: "You'd think it would be cheaper to hire more arbitrators to expedite the process."

It sounds like it's not that easy. They're only allowed to have hearings a few days per month, the arbitrators need to be approved by the union, and they're already short of money.

It might be a case where spending a million dollars now to shove the cases through the system as fast as humanly possible might turn into a significant savings down the road, but if they don't have the money to do that right now—and if they're ineligible for Federal money because of agreements made with the union that prevent teacher accountability—then it might not be possible. They get stuck in the Sam Vimes' boots hole.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:19 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Just curious, and not to derail, but: Steve Brill essentially copied this story idea from This American Life (who at least cited to Radio Diaries' people having produced it). Does Brill get in trouble for not being original in coming up with this story?
posted by anniecat at 2:21 PM on August 27, 2009


Yuck, I know a little about it.

A lot of the teachers really are incompetent, but by no means all. Quite a lot of them are perfectly decent people who have been screwed over by one of the endless turf battles.

If these cases were processed in a timely fashion, the vindictiveness and incompetence of the management would be exposed. So they put people into limbo, hoping the decent ones will get tired and leave and by the time they get to litigation, only the creeps are left.

There are huge quantities of incompetent teachers in the New York City school system. There desperately needs to be a system to quickly and fairly remove them. I'm a huge union supporter but the teacher's union is not a union that's easy for people to support.

In a sane country, this sort of thing would be rectified immediately. As America slips deeper and deeper into madness, the chances that this is rectified are about zero.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:22 PM on August 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


out of curiosity, is there a rubber room for incompetent principals?
posted by shmegegge at 2:25 PM on August 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


There are a lot of speeds between "shove the cases through the system as fast as humanly possible" and "waiting for months or years". The inability to do the maximum doesn't mean they should do nothing. As the kids say, it's straight-up power trippin, G.
posted by GuyZero at 2:26 PM on August 27, 2009


what, no, kids do not say that, you are a crazy person.
posted by boo_radley at 2:29 PM on August 27, 2009 [22 favorites]


The author of this article certainly has an interesting background.
posted by maxpower at 2:30 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I should add one more thing and that's that this all goes down because the teacher's union openly contributes huge sums of money to state Democratic representatives.

In my view of the world, bad governance due to political influence through campaign contributions is responsible for the lion's share of the problems that beset America on every side today and it's not going to get fixed until the whole system collapses...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:34 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


The contrast between the New Yorker story and the one featured on This American Life definitely seems to be where sympathies lie.

The overarching question of the TAL piece seemed to be "Why are these people in here for so long?" where Brill seems to be asking "Why can't these people just be gotten rid of?"

Maybe it's because I heard TAL's story first, but it's a little unsettling to hear the Rubber Room's inhabitants blanketly referred to as bad/incompetent teachers. It's like calling every defendant awaiting their trial in court a criminal.
posted by pokermonk at 2:39 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Whoa, NYC teachers only work from 8:15 to 3:15? That's hours less per day than I and my fellow New England teachers did during my brief stint of teaching. That seems like it might be a wildly inaccurate detail.
posted by XMLicious at 2:45 PM on August 27, 2009


Does Brill get in trouble for not being original in coming up with this story?

So The New Yorker is MetaFilter in your example, and This American Life is Boing Boing. Very astute!
posted by dhartung at 2:50 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Higher standards are okay to a point, but our schools are failing because of parents, not teachers. Even good teachers can't do their jobs with bad kids.

Amen, to some of that. I joined Teach for America with idealistic visions of how I would be better than the teachers they had before. But I'm only marginally better than most, and worse than some. It's just a hard job. I spend mindless hours making worksheets for my struggling 8th grade readers (my kids are reading on 4.8 level, and this is a good year) because I can't use most of the resources I'm given.

I don't speak the languages of their parents, so I have to seek out a translator, which usually proves to be more trouble than its worth. On back to school night, I saw 12 parents... of 155 kids. I wake up at 3:30am, hit the sack at 8pm, and I'm literally working the whole time... and I don't finish everything that I'd like to.

I'll say it again: It's just a hard job. It's really too much to ask of someone, at least on this pay scale. I feel remorse for those people who aren't cutting it as teachers, because at the types of schools where we're failing our kids, the amount of work you have to do in order to teach them is incomprehensible, if you are to do the kids any justice. Nobody tells you this stuff when you enter the classroom-- or they do, like Teach for America, but they overestimate the success you'll have and underestimate the stress you'll endure.

Despite all this, I take issue with the "bad kids" mantra. Its not the kids fault. Sure, they're culpable for not learning when the opportunities were there, but many have never been raised to appreciate academics. They all want to learn, but many literally don't know what is necessary: long hours of studying, reading a book instead of playing Xbox, drilling math equations, paying attention, writing down homework, asking for help, etc. My kids are raised in front of the television set or on their own, they barely got any education in Mexico, and they have nobody at home who knows what academic success looks like. Their parents know that going to school is good, but they don't know what being successful in school is.

It's nobody's fault-- teacher, student, or parent; it's just a perfect storm of shitty.
posted by jstef at 2:53 PM on August 27, 2009 [38 favorites]


This is an important issue, but "the rubber room" is a red-herring for a more complicated issue than tenure. Schools aren't only as good as their teachers, they are only as good as their teachers, their administrators, their budgets, the tax base that supports those budgets, their state oversight, the legislators that coordinate that oversight, the prevailing attitudes of the taxpayers that elect these officials, and last, but most certainly not least, the parents, many of whom who treat the education of their children as something that happens magically with magical resources that magically appear out of thin air. The teachers, they are supposed to be the Merlins.
posted by mrmojoflying at 3:03 PM on August 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm a huge union supporter but the teacher's union is not a union that's easy for people to support.

A friend of mine was a union rep at her school last year. She isn't anymore, and the story she told me about why sounds like the lost sequel to Hoffa. They broke her right quick.

Maybe it's because I heard TAL's story first, but it's a little unsettling to hear the Rubber Room's inhabitants blanketly referred to as bad/incompetent teachers. It's like calling every defendant awaiting their trial in court a criminal.

I hard TAL's story first too. Brill's pretty clear about what side his on, fo' sure. But his larger point --- that it should not be harder to get dismissed for incompetance than convicted of murder --- seems to me excellent. Teachers should have a right to a fair trial. But "innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" is going to send an awful lot of terrible teachers right back to the classroom. That's too high a price. Even the teachers in the TAL story --- who were, or could convincingly sound, sympathetic* --- didn't seem to think much of the bulk of the colleague with whom they shared their plight.

*Not to cast aspersions on them. I just think the ones most likely to talk to a doc crew in a case like that are inevitably going to be the ones who can make themselves sound best. The cream of the soured milk.
posted by Diablevert at 3:04 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I had read the piece in the New Yorker. My impression: yes. sucks. unions, parents, the system etc etc But in fact look at Death Row--you wait for years to get killed. Look at the many cops and other city employees in most cities who get huge sums for overtime, early retirement, and, if in difficulty, put on hold but paid while pending an outcome...and the ease of disability compensation.

What we seem to have in this rubber room is what Dante recognized as the holding pattern called Purgatory.
posted by Postroad at 3:14 PM on August 27, 2009


So the article says the tenure system was set up to solve a serious problem — political patronage. In other words, it's bad for the schools if you let each new administration fire the old teachers and replace them with buddies and donors.

And thinking about that, I find myself wondering about the contrast with the US civil service. We've got a professional civil service — with pay grades and hiring tests and all that bureaucratic hoo-ha — to prevent the same sort of politically motivated hiring and firing. But I don't get the sense that the civil service is forced to warehouse en masse people they can't fire.

Or are they? Am I just wrong about the facts? Is there a big room somewhere full of incompetent-but-unfireable NASA engineers and falsely-accused embassy staff, only nobody's written an article about it yet?

And if there isn't, why not? What is the federal civil service doing right that the state board of ed is doing wrong?
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:14 PM on August 27, 2009


Whoa, NYC teachers only work from 8:15 to 3:15?

Most are in way earlier than that and many leave much later. Those are the official school hours, but some schools do vary on that. My high school was special and had an extended day, and some other schools let students out at 2 or so. My boyfriend's high school had a tiered day due to overcrowding and also let out later.

Even with that, what appears an abbreviated workday is definitely not, as jstef points out quite well. I'm not a teacher, though I know several.
posted by cmgonzalez at 3:16 PM on August 27, 2009


it's a shame teaching can't be more like the corporate world where incompetent people are fired right away and never promoted.
posted by geos at 3:17 PM on August 27, 2009 [16 favorites]


Yes. Also, it's a shame unions can't be more like the corporate world and forswear lobbying and political contributions out of respect for the sanctity of the democratic process.
posted by enn at 3:20 PM on August 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


This is the downside to having the system we have. It's quite prone to abuse, and this is an extreme example.

I wouldn't change our system to any other, but this story shows that nothing is perfect.
posted by reenum at 3:24 PM on August 27, 2009


NYC is an anomaly caused by its own stupendous size, and this article is a worthless, agenda-driven, steaming pile. If the teachers wrote about the ridiculous nonsense forced down their throats by the likes of Joel Klein, the article would fill a few volumes of the New Yorker.

But, by and large, they don't. Because they like their jobs and it's actually pretty easy to fire teachers in most places, even tenured ones. So most keep their heads down, play the stupid games, and try to get some teaching done in between a staggering amount of B.S. implemented by people who think "business" is a good model for everything.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 3:29 PM on August 27, 2009 [10 favorites]


Yes. Also, it's a shame unions can't be more like the corporate world and forswear lobbying and political contributions out of respect for the sanctity of the democratic process.

Yes. I agree. Also, it's a shame public school teachers in NYC have a union which defends their employment reflexively despite the obvious intelligence, integrity, and high-mindedness of school administrators and politicians. They should look to the police and fire fighters unions as an example.
posted by geos at 3:29 PM on August 27, 2009


Despite all this, I take issue with the "bad kids" mantra. Its not the kids fault.

My post laid blame on parents. But regardless of where we put blame, children who refuse to behave or refuse to show even small amounts of respect or are violent are bad kids. That doesn't mean they were born like that or that they can't change- but if parents aren't dedicated to turning bad kids into at least neutral kids, there is very little a teacher can do. A teacher's time with a child is split between other kids, other subjects, the weekend, holidays and then it's over in 180 days.

Maybe it's just me, but as a society, it seems we expect way too much out of our teachers. Parents are key.
posted by spaltavian at 3:31 PM on August 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Even so, the number of teachers staying on reserve for more than nine months is likely to exceed eleven hundred by next calendar year and cost the city more than a hundred million dollars annually. Added to the six hundred Rubber Roomers, that’s seventeen hundred idle teachers—more than enough to staff all the schools in New Haven.

The NYC school system is huge, so anything involving it seems out of proportion. 80,000 teachers. 1 million students. A budget of $17 billion.
posted by smackfu at 3:35 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't think the idea of tenure is a bad one, but it ought to take longer then 3 years to kick in.
posted by delmoi at 3:36 PM on August 27, 2009


100k and benefits after three years? Why the fuck am I teaching at a university for a fraction of that?

* reads rest of article *

Oh, that's why.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:46 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seven of the fifteen Rubber Room teachers with whom I spoke compared their plight to that of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay or political dissidents in China or Iran.
This seems like what I've heard called a teachable moment. Let's start with the fact that these Rubber Roomers get to go home in the middle of the afternoon. Can I see a show of hands of those people who think prisoners at Guantanamo or political dissidents in China and Iran get to do that?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:57 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


My post laid blame on parents.

Cheers! I wasn't disagreeing, but trying to point out that you can't really blame anyone. My evidence is that more involved parent = more involved student, just as you said. But some parents just don't have the means to be more involved. Some because they have too much on their plate, others because they don't know better. And then there's ones in jail. Fuck those ones.
posted by jstef at 4:06 PM on August 27, 2009


But regardless of where we put blame, children who refuse to behave or refuse to show even small amounts of respect or are violent are bad kids.

It's a shame we can't 'fire' bad kids.... those kids need to learn to take some responsibility for their actions when their behavior harms the people around them. They should take the banking industry as an example, especially all those hard-working Bloomberg news-subscribers on Wall Street as a lesson in responsbility.
posted by geos at 4:12 PM on August 27, 2009


Dhartung's astute mom got put in the Rubber Room for posting on Metafilter and keeping a browser open for BoingBoing at the same time.
posted by anniecat at 4:13 PM on August 27, 2009


But I don't get the sense that the civil service is forced to warehouse en masse people they can't fire.

Uh, not sure where you got that impression. It's not as high-profile because most people don't interact with the civil service in the same way that they interact with teachers, but it's got many of the same problems. I, or just about anyone else who's ever done work for any government agency ever, could tell you great stories about people who seem to do nothing but sit around and do crosswords while waiting until they can retire, and yet still manage to pull down a GS-12 or GS-13 salary. (Hell, I know of an entire outfit that's basically a repository for these people; we called it "The Agency of Misfit Toys". When you can't fire anyone, you find ways of shuffling them off somewhere they can't screw anything up.)

There's an ongoing battle—which will probably still be ongoing long after all of us today are wormfood—over "pay for performance" in the civil service, to try and combat the timeserver culture. I think every one of the last three presidential administrations has tried it, and all have failed. Apparently Obama is going to take a crack at it; I wish him well, but if he can do it, it'll be like beating the Kobayashi Maru.

Blurring the issue is that many (if not most) Federal agencies hire huge number of contractors on a temporary basis, who can be brought on for a short duration and then terminated when they're no longer needed. (Full disclosure: I have been, at various times, one of those people.) This doesn't exist, at least that I'm aware of, in most public schools, and it probably lessens the stultifying effect that the civil service system has on the government in general. Although hiring contractors isn't cheap, it's generally much cheaper for the agency—and by extension, the taxpayer—than taking on a lot of new civil service people as de facto lifetime employees. (Although this is, admittedly, debated. It depends on the duration.)

Before anyone flames me: I'm not saying that all GS people are lazy or incompetent; I have met a lot of really bright and dedicated people wearing white badges, and it is these people, in large part, who keep the public sector running on a day-to-day basis. It's just that there also seem to be a lot of the other kind of people too, and the civil service system does a poor job of eliminating them—even compared to other really big private-sector corporations at which I've also worked. And I have seen some deeply dysfunctional private-sector companies. None of them really prepared me for working with the government.

tl;dr: The civil service at the Federal level isn't much better, but it's not as obvious.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:26 PM on August 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Thanks for posting this, instead of that insipid tennis article that followed it. It might (might) have been interesting for 3 pages, but for 6+ it was terrible.
posted by paisley henosis at 4:44 PM on August 27, 2009


While we're figuring out who to blame, many of the "bad kids" come from the kind of poverty and chaos where they miss out on meals, don't get enough sleep, have siblings in jail and on drugs, have no health care, etc. They show up at school and are expected to forget about what ever family crises happened last night and instead are yelled at by teachers whose priority is control of the classroom (and had better be!) and learning is secondary.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:45 PM on August 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Gosh, when do we get the Rubber Room action figure playset?
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:53 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lessons (poor?) children learn:
incompetence is not punished

Lessons teachers learn:
game the system
everyone who was the teacher has the right to remain a teacher

I once knew a junkie that lived in a semi-legal artist loft space in Seattle, the same building I lived in. The landlord had three rules - no bands, no needles, and I forget the third. The lofts shared two communal bathrooms - the 'no needles' rule was to spare the tenants from worrying about needles in public spaces. This was a legitimate concern, as the junkie and his junkie girlfriend occasionally did leave needles in the bathroom (luckily I never stepped on one).

I liked him. He was a nice guy. He was a good junkie (he didn't steal from people he knew). One day he told me about his impending eviction for failure to pay rent. I made the tactical mistake of talking about how Seattle had very strong tenant rights, and evicting someone could be quite a process if one were to engage the system. The junkie proceeded to engage the system to its fullest (he was unemployed, had time on his hands). My landlord was frustrated, and unhappy about the junkie's appeal, but also engaged the system. The junkie stayed rent-free in that apartment for another six months. A year or so after that he quit renting out loft space after 20 years of doing so.

Do I believe in strong tenant rights? I sure do, been a renter all my life (and lived in places with weak/non-existent renters rights). Do people game, abuse, and manipulate those rights to gain benefits they should never gain? Yes, yes they do.

The teachers that know they cannot be easily fired, even when demonstrating gross incompetence are victimizing their students. They are alienating children to the learning process. They are inadvertently teaching them very bad lessons.

While the importance of supportive parents and the dangers of incompetent administrations are worthy of their own posts, I don't see how an honest person can conclude that the current arbitration and firing processes in NYC are anywhere close to reasonable. Reform is needed.
posted by el io at 4:59 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Whoa, NYC teachers only work from 8:15 to 3:15? That's hours less per day than I and my fellow New England teachers did during my brief stint of teaching. That seems like it might be a wildly inaccurate detail.

"every minute of the six hours, fifty-seven and a half minutes of a teacher’s work day, including a thirty-seven-and-a-half-minute tutorial/preparation session and a fifty-minute “duty free” lunch period."

Looks like five and a half hours, then, of actually teaching. And as a group, they don't seem to merit their pay on brainpower, either (pdf).
posted by Kwantsar at 5:15 PM on August 27, 2009


GuyZero: The Rubber Room covered on This American Life.

Back when I listened to that (excellent) TAL episode I was convinced they made that whole segment to justify dropping Fugazi's Waiting Room into their show. Granted I was a few beers into the evening, but TAL went from 8 to 9.75 like that.
posted by Glee at 5:28 PM on August 27, 2009


Looks like five and a half hours, then, of actually teaching.

I'd just like to quickly point out from my part-time community college teaching contract, actual language about what I get paid for:

"The amount is for course preparation, teaching, student assessment and evaluation, student contact, and submission of final grades."

"Teaching" or "contact hours" account for probably a little less than 1/2 of this time. I also get paid, on a pro-rata basis, less than half of what a NYC public school teacher gets paid.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:34 PM on August 27, 2009


Just curious, and not to derail, but: Steve Brill essentially copied this story idea from This American Life (who at least cited to Radio Diaries' people having produced it). Does Brill get in trouble for not being original in coming up with this story?

It looks like the AP ran yet another version in June too.

Whoa, NYC teachers only work from 8:15 to 3:15? That's hours less per day than I and my fellow New England teachers did during my brief stint of teaching. That seems like it might be a wildly inaccurate detail.

That seems fairly normal. My high school in NJ had hours of 7:40 a.m. to 2:35 p.m (and still does, many years later).

At some level, I imagine the limit is due to the students, not the teachers.
posted by smackfu at 5:52 PM on August 27, 2009


Looks like five and a half hours, then, of actually teaching. And as a group, they don't seem to merit their pay on brainpower, either (pdf).

So I don't have a fancy College Board pdf to back myself up, but I think you're making an incorrect assumption. You're presuming that only Education majors enter the field. Anecdotally, most math and science teachers at my school majored in those subjects. I majored in history and worked for a credential after graduating from my undergraduate university. I think a lot of teachers don't intend to enter the field, but don't call the whole lot of us stupid based that assumption.

My girlfriend is a grad from the U of Chicago and she works at one of the worst middle schools in California. She made $34,000 dollars last year. Not every situation is the same as NYC's.

Besides, I think to "clear" your credential in NYC, these days, teachers need a master's degree.
posted by jstef at 5:54 PM on August 27, 2009


A study of the Los Angeles public schools published in 2006 by the Brookings Institution concluded that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.”

Man, if you can't believe the Brookings Institute, who can you trust?
posted by mecran01 at 6:08 PM on August 27, 2009


but don't call the whole lot of us stupid based that assumption.

I didn't intend to. That's why I wrote "as a group".

My girlfriend is a grad from the U of Chicago and she works at one of the worst middle schools in California. She made $34,000 dollars last year.


I'm not going to pretend it's an epidemic, but in light of the automatic-pay-bump-for-a-Masters-Degree-no-matter-where-it-came-from policies (here and here, in 30 seconds of googling), I'd probably feel a bit cheated if I were her. If she's smarter and better-educated than her peers (probably a safe assumption), is she happy making $34,000?

Anyway, on balance, I think the research supports my position.
posted by Kwantsar at 6:21 PM on August 27, 2009


Looks like five and a half hours, then, of actually teaching. And as a group, they don't seem to merit their pay on brainpower, either (pdf).

So my pay as a teacher should be based on the SAT scores of teenagers who are intending to major in education?

I'm sure that you're much, much smarter than I am. After all, why would I be teaching if I could possibly do something else? Oh, and in addition to being stupid, I'm also lazy - since I only actually teach for five and 1/2 hours a day. I know that I sound defensive, and your comment was not a personal attack. I'm just crabby after putting in a full (unpaid) day preparing for the start of the year. Please keep random teacher-bashing out of the thread.
posted by shrabster at 6:21 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


el io: Do I believe in strong tenant rights? I sure do, been a renter all my life (and lived in places with weak/non-existent renters rights). Do people game, abuse, and manipulate those rights to gain benefits they should never gain? Yes, yes they do.

That metaphor is a brilliant one, el io. Needless to say, teacher quality is a huge issue with a ton of related sub-issues and potential reforms, but most boil right down to professionalism. Name another profession where someone cannot be fired for poor performance (save clear endangerment of children) after their third year on the job. Similarly, name another profession which is supposed to be white-collar and middle class where the job description of a 23-year-old is exactly the same as a 65-year-old.

Union rights are important, both in principle and in practice. When teacher's unions were created, firings truly were arbitrary and sexual harassment was rampant (depending on who you ask, it still is). But the the true professionalization of teaching takes a lot more: letting teachers evaluate and be evaluated by their peers, giving teachers a voice in policy and curriculum development, paying teachers who teach in high demand fields (science, math, special ed) more, giving student teachers and novice teachers more mentoring time with veterans, and being a lot more comprehensive about how we evaluate teachers. Take these simple ideas, which are standard practice in most other fields, and a corresponding investment and belief in the system under which teachers work will follow. Provide a monotonous, unrewarding, exhausting and frustrating work environment and at least some teachers will irrationally lash out at the system or punish their kids by phoning it in. Let's start over: it was everybody's fault, nobody needs punishment, let's now put kids first.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:25 PM on August 27, 2009


Full disclosure: I am a former student of Ms. Schiener's, and a daughter of one of her colleagues. If anything, at the time that I was her student, Ms. Schiener had a reputation as something of a hardass (aided, in part, by the brassy accent mentioned in the article). As far as I know, her conflict with the principal was not related to her teaching ability, but to taking time off for an injury sustained on the job.

That said, I'd like to focus on these lines from Brill's article:
"Until this year, the city was hiring as many as five thousand new teachers annually to fill vacancies, while the teachers on the reserve list stayed there. This meant that, in keeping with Klein’s goals, new blood was coming into the schools—recruits from Teach for America or from fellowship programs, as well as those who enter the profession the conventional way."

Brill makes the assumption that the Absent Teacher Reserve is an example of meritocracy in action—that teachers are left out of work because they're incompetent. But the model of reform taken by Joel Klein (and, in turn, Bloomberg) reaches meritocracy by the way of market economics. Principals are given a budget, and have a set number of positions to fill. Each teacher with a masters degree (or higher) and eight years experience costs almost twice as much as a first year teacher with only a bachelor's degree, who's experiencing the trial-by-fire that is Teach for America or the NYC Teaching Fellows program. Out of necessity, this often means that quality is forgone for quantity. It also means that the Department frequently skimps on mandated special-needs and team teaching positions.

This is particularly true in a school year with a minimum $500 million budget shortfall. It's a little odd that Brill doesn't mention economics when discussing the ATR, since it's sort of central to the debate.

Now, new blood is a good thing. It brings in a diverse group of energetic teachers who're determined to confront adversity. But it can be a detriment when it, in turn, forces out dedicated, experienced teachers, thus disincentivizing long-term professional development, and generally screwing with continuity across school years. (In addition to inadvertently pushing out teachers who've developed relations with the community they serve, programs like Teach for America have seemingly low retention rates. Despite this post's glowing title, the study it cites lists a 43.6% post-program retention rate for TFA instructors in their schools of placement—which drops to 14.8% after just one year.)

The best part of Bloomberg and Klein's reforms to date was probably the wholesale reorganization of the byzantine then-Board of Education (notwithstanding the recent failings of our glorious State Senate), bringing a degree of transparency to the system. And while I can see drawbacks to the strong focus on test scores, the use of statistical analysis and online reporting have likewise resulted in greater accountability and clarity. Would that the same could be said for labor relations. From the seemingly unconstitutional law that prevents teachers from striking, to the resulting years-long struggles to even get a contract, it seems like reform is sorely called for. But reform wouldn't just mean concessions on the part of the UFT, but of the city government.

After all, it would be nice if inept teachers were removed from the system. But also if decent teachers weren't made to languish until they quit, never seeing their day in court. And if the city couldn't surreptitiously cut budgetary corners—and recklessly end the careers of some of the city's most dedicated and qualified staffers—without taking responsibility for doing so.

Sorry for the tl;dr post, guys. But, you know.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:48 PM on August 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


Oh, and as goes some of the comments above: You don't just make $100k after three years. My mom has a masters, more than 30 degrees toward a doctorate, has been teaching in the city for 17 years, does professional development, works on curricula, and has a separate teaching job after school on Wednesday afternoons, Saturdays, and for most of the summer. She still doesn't break six figures.

Her average day involves waking up around 5 so she can commute to her school by 7 or 7:30 a.m., where she often stays until 6 p.m., at which time teachers are required to go home, because the security guards are heading out, and the DOE can no longer "guarantee her safety." Then she goes home and grades papers until she passes out (with twice-weekly breaks for a language class, and, shockingly, a weekly shrink visit).
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:56 PM on August 27, 2009


Her average day involves waking up around 5 so she can commute to her school by 7 or 7:30 a.m., where she often stays until 6 p.m., at which time teachers are required to go home, because the security guards are heading out, and the DOE can no longer "guarantee her safety." Then she goes home and grades papers until she passes out (with twice-weekly breaks for a language class, and, shockingly, a weekly shrink visit).

She appears to be an outlier.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:05 PM on August 27, 2009


Kwantsar- Yes, although not entirely. Teachers "were more likely than other professionals to do some work at home," and "more likely to work on a Sunday than other professionals," and maybe most relevantly, "teachers aged 50 and older worked more hours per week than teachers who were younger."

But, as other people have pointed out, the NYC school system is, in and of itself, an outlier. (I'm assuming the BLS report is based on national stats.) So I'm not that surprised.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 7:15 PM on August 27, 2009


I teach sixth grade. I wake up at 5:30 and get home at 5:30 most days, and take work home and do it in the evenings and on the weekend. I start going into school three or four weeks before the students come back, and work a good two weeks after they're finished. I spend a lot of my own money on my classroom. I have been teaching sixteen years. And I'm not the only one in my school who works this hard; in fact, I'd say that though I work harder than many, I don't work as hard as some.

My school day is 8:00 to 3:30, but I work much longer and much harder than most people with longer work hours. I know because I used to do another job before I taught. On that job, I had time to not only get everything done that I was supposed to do, and do it well, but also write a couple of novels and analyze my data for my dissertation during work time.

Teaching when done right is one of the hardest jobs in the world. And we treat teachers like garbage in the U.S.
posted by Peach at 7:56 PM on August 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


Brill's Content Contempt for the teachers was clear.
posted by lukemeister at 8:03 PM on August 27, 2009


If she's smarter and better-educated than her peers (probably a safe assumption), is she happy making $34,000?

Clearly she isn't. But the way the education system works is that where qualified people are needed most (low-SES, high ELD %), they are paid less. So while she should be in med school, she's teaching life science to poor black and latino kids, and then dodging bullets after dark. But try to find other overqualified people who are willing to do that. Her school is a dumping ground. And why not? $34,000 is a joke, so guess who ends up working there!

evidenceofabsensce said it much more eloquently than I could have (and has links, *gasp*, to make it look more official). Your statistics don't do anything besides further putting down a group of downtrodden. If you want to see better people in the classroom, put up the dough or shut up.

The underlying theme of your argument seems to be "teachers as a whole don't do much work (or are incapable), therefore, pay them less." Tenure isn't going anywhere, so what's the solution?
posted by jstef at 8:37 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


What bothers me about this article is the same thing that bothers me about Kwantsar's comments in this thread: the obsession with putting all teachers into one of two categories:

a) The "good" teachers who make superhuman effort on behalf of their students, with test scores to prove it

b) The "bad" teachers who sleep at their desks, are stupid, don't deserve the money they make, and are the root of all problems with the educational system.

The effort to find and villify examples of bad teachers in news accounts in widespread, and by allowing the discourse to run that way we lose several things:

1. Good teachers are not born, they are shaped by their training experiences and the climate of the schools in which they teach. Depressing, dysfunctional schools pull everyone down into the pit of cynicism no matter how well-intentioned they are to start, while good schools with good leadership develop the abilities of their teachers.

2. There is a lot of middle ground between the best and the worst teachers. There are the well-intentioned but incompetent, those that are reasonably intelligent but are stuck on the wrong methods, those that maintain order but teach boring lessons. . . teachers are people, they are diverse.

3. In extreme cases of abuse or negligence, teachers should absolutely be fired. But it shouldn't require "an elite team of lawyers," to make this happen. Such energy would be better spent increasing the pedagogical skill of all the other teachers, by actually offering some "professional development" that wasn't a huge waste of time the way most is.
posted by mai at 8:38 PM on August 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


“When we announced the T.P.U., the U.F.T. called a candlelight vigil”—at City Hall—“to protest what they called the Gotcha Squad,” says Chris Cerf, a deputy chancellor, who, like Klein and Weisberg, is an Ivy League-educated lawyer.

CERF DURF RUBBER ROOMER
posted by the_bone at 9:45 PM on August 27, 2009


mai: Such energy would be better spent increasing the pedagogical skill of all the other teachers, by actually offering some "professional development" that wasn't a huge waste of time the way most is.

Oh man, quoted for motherfucking truth.
posted by the_bone at 9:51 PM on August 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your statistics don't do anything besides further putting down a group of downtrodden. If you want to see better people in the classroom, put up the dough or shut up.

I'm an 80-hour-per-week wage slave New Yorker who pays 12.62% of my income to the state and city. I am putting up the dough to keep the worst of these "downtrodden" teachers in deep clover.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:35 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thought experiment for the non-teachers in this thread:

In terms of pay, benefits, and perks, what would someone have to give you to convince you to teach, say, 7th grade math in a low income neighborhood?

Why don't we give our teachers anywhere near that?
posted by desjardins at 5:48 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


While the focus of this article and thread attributes the blame of not being able to fire incompetent teachers on the unions, it also needs to be mentioned that any attempt to reward good teachers is also thwarted by the unions. The UFT in NYC is vehemently opposed to merit pay for its union members, which should be discouraging to say the least for the vast number of competent teachers already in the system, or anyone else looking to enter the teaching field.
posted by otto42 at 6:55 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Traditionally, the effect of poor compensation in a profession results in more and more women in that profession. Not sure how true that is today, but there are certainly more women in the teaching profession than men. Anecdotally, I know that many of my friends wouldn't be a teacher because (in their words), "you couldn't pay me enough."
posted by maxpower at 7:07 AM on August 28, 2009


It's a shame we can't 'fire' bad kids.... those kids need to learn to take some responsibility for their actions when their behavior harms the people around them.

You're right, We shouldn't teach kids to take responsibility. I mean, they have no control over what they do. And if good kids who are willing to learn have to suffer because of the brats, so be it.
posted by spaltavian at 7:12 AM on August 28, 2009


In terms of pay, benefits, and perks, what would someone have to give you to convince you to teach, say, 7th grade math in a low income neighborhood?

I'll take a crack at this, as a vocal non-secondary-ed teacher.

First, unless I am working in conditions where I have adequate material resources to do the job that I am contractually obligated to do, it's a non-starter. I refuse to be set up for failure.

Second, unless I am given the appropriate administrative support to meet the outcomes of the courses that I'm contractually obligated to meet, it's a non-starter. I refuse to be set up for failure.

Third, unless I am working in a school culture that has informed and supportive parents, it's a non-starter. I refuse to be set up for failure.

If, and only if, I am working in an environment with the appropriate administrative support, educational culture, and material resources to teach those children well, I may do it for just enough money to cover my ten years of college and graduate school and meager living expenses.

But, we all know that any one aspect of the above working conditions are a fantasy in a 7th grade low income math class, so the point is moot.

For what it's worth, I used to think they were moot at the university level as well (and I've taught at a few), but the current community college where I am teaching has a fairly remarkable union-administration relationship, which I've been told by admin and union alike has produced a quality education environment.

I'm paid a competitive part-time wage (including my time for administrative meetings and required professional development). I receive new, quality materials like file folders, dry erase markers, etc. I have adequate preparation space. I have students who come to class with books in hand (because they aren't waiting three weeks for financial aid or spending it on handbags or new kicks), I have an entire classroom with 100% working computers, smart board, digital projector, and command console. I have very clear objectives provided to me and pre-developed resources if I choose to use them. I have a fair, comprehensive, and useful oversight and evaluation of my teaching. I have free access to hundreds of hours of in-person and online professional development seminars that are specifically geared to teaching in two-year environments and at this particular institution.

For all of these resources, I've agreed to offer my services for $45.60 per contact hour, which works about to about $18-$20 per hour overall (probably less, but I like to fool myself).
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:16 AM on August 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Frankly, the problem is not teacher pay. It has never been teacher pay. Higher salaries will not bring more teachers, nor better teachers because, simply put, no one goes into education for the money. Why else would I have four degrees and sixty-large in debt for a 40k/year job?

No, the money needs to go into MORE teachers, not just paying more to the ones we have. There is no silver bullet for all of our educational problems, but here's a simple fact:

1. A great teacher can do very little with a class of 35-45.
2. A mediocre teacher can make significant strides with a class of 20.

And, yet, in all of these discussions, no one ever argues for simply hiring MORE teachers to cut down class sizes. Small class size means better education. Better education means better results.
posted by absalom at 7:17 AM on August 28, 2009 [6 favorites]


In terms of pay, benefits, and perks, what would someone have to give you to convince you to teach, say, 7th grade math in a low income neighborhood?

Having been a 7th grade math student in a low income neighborhood, there’s no amount of money that you can throw at me to make me think that teaching would be a good idea. Dealing with the bureaucracy as a student was bad enough. And this was at a supposedly good 7-12th grade program. (7th grade was the year that I couldn’t get anyone help me replace my Spanish textbook-eventually I had to forge a signature and get the custodian to show me where the textbook room was. It was also the year that I learned how to type on a typewriter, despite this being 1998 and there being two full working computer labs in the school).

Smaller class sizes would be great-but you need more than more teachers: you need more space, more materials, more custodians, more security, ect.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:35 AM on August 28, 2009


Higher salaries will not bring more teachers, nor better teachers because, simply put, no one goes into education for the money

Well, but that assumes that higher salaries wouldn't bring people into it for the money. It would, at a certain level (maybe higher than is reasonable, but eventually it would). And being in it for the money doesn't make you necessarily any less good, assuming skill/merit matters (they're all judged the same, if you're in it for the money and also good at it, great!). In my field (programming), plenty of people are both good at it and primarily in it for the money. I'm not convinced teaching can't be that way. Certainly most teachers TODAY aren't in it for the money, but that's because the money sucks. It's great that we still manage to get many good teachers who do it because they want to (my mother was a teacher for 40 years, and obviously not for the money), but we would have a larger pool to draw from if the money was higher.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:03 PM on August 28, 2009


I don't think more money would bring people into teaching. It's too bloody hard. Not that I buy into the quasi-religious vocation that seems to be what's expected of would-be teachers. Not that I'd turn down good money, either. I just think no one is willing to work that hard just for money. Teaching is harder than most jobs that pay well.

However, getting one heck of a lot more respect for the profession from everyone--parents, administrators, community members, reporters--would make a big difference. I'm sick of the belittling way people speak of other teachers to me sometimes, and of the way they talk about how bad all teachers are--and then they say, "Of course, I don't mean YOU."

Right.
posted by Peach at 7:49 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


An interesting thing to keep in mind about teacher salaries is that many elite private schools don't pay much more (in some cases significantly less) than public schools, and generally have little trouble getting enough teachers to maintain small class sizes. There are ways to attract people that don't involve throwing cash at them, if you can make the workplace an attractive enough place to work and lower the barriers to entry.

Oddly, the requirements for being a teacher at many high-end private schools are minimal—no teaching certificate, no education degree, just a background in the subject matter and an interest in teaching (maybe a willingness to live in a student dorm)—and yet people are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to send their children there, on top of the taxes they're already paying to maintain public schools.

It makes me wonder whether all the requirements we place on public school teachers, like mandatory apprenticeships / "provisional educator" periods, certification tests, or expensive professional education, are misplaced. Maybe we need to make it easier to become a teacher, and easier to fire people who just aren't—for whatever reason—a good match, and see if that doesn't bring more people into the profession and bring class sizes down.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:19 AM on August 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well, as someone who has been offered jobs at several private schools, let me say that the pay is actually substantially less, to say nothing of the uncertainty of year-to-year contracts. The "quality of student" (what a hateful phrase) is much higher, though, which makes one job easier in a lot of ways.

Private schools, though, have significant advantages over public schools that make comparisons pretty difficult. First off, right of refusal. I went to a middle-class oriented private school with a special education program. When the bingo money that kept the place running was made illegal by the tennessee baptists, the school finally had to sell to the Diocese in '88 or so. That was the last time I saw a special needs classroom in private education. Public school is required to take all comers.

Secondly, right of expulsion. Kids that are too much of a hassle are not allowed in or simply removed. Since every state constitution (rightfully) mandates a "free and fair public education" for the entire citizenry, problem - even criminal - children are not a mandate the public schools can set aside.

Thirdly, resources. I went to one of the top private high schools in my town. When I graduated, in 1995, there was a window looking into the library. The band room was modest, but served the "oldest continuous band in the nation" well. One donation drive and a few years later, the school has a brand new field, a million dollar aquarium where that window into the library once was, and an entire building dedicated to the band. Find me a public school that can bring resources like that to bear with such speed. Contrast - the school where I now work, founded in the 19th century, finally opened a new building a year or two ago, replacing the original that had been in service - more or less without modification - since around 1929. So, in 119 years, two facility upgrades. In that century old building, I somehow managed to end up in a classroom with no actual blackboards. (To be fair, I did get one eventually, shortly after the first progress report went out.)

It's actually past my bedtime, so I'll have to trim the wall of text into a mere hedge, but let me bullet point some other points I would have gone into more detail about :
1. Parents who pay 10k per semester always return phone calls.
2. Private schools are generally immune to punitive legislation such a No Child Left Behind.
3. No Child Left Behind.
4. The toxic relationship between school boards and teachers associations.
5. Funding Structure : Endowment vs. Local Property Tax
6. I said I wouldn't make this into a wall of text, so we'll call this one "etc."
posted by absalom at 7:51 PM on August 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


My father has been a teacher at a small Catholic school for a little over 40 years now. He's qualified to teach almost anything but science and math, including a foreign language. He's also the maintenance guy at his school because he started doing that decades ago to supplement his summer income, which at the time was nothing. That place is his second home and it's HIS place.

Even if he wasn't my father, I would still say that he's one of the absolute best teachers I've ever seen in action. He tells you why it's important to learn even the boring stuff and then makes it not boring. It's incredible.

He's outlasted so many principles that I've lost count. The previous one argued with him about something as petty as what color he was painting the lockers. She was a micromanager and not really cut out for the job. At one point, she threatened to take the color of the lockers issue to the school board. He pointed out that most of the school board had been students of his. As had a number of their parents, at that point. Please keep in mind that he had a number of other things that had to be done by the end of summer in buildings with no AC, and he's a guy who gets up at 5:30am and works his butt off.

The newest principle, he's a good guy. He gives my dad room to work. He asks my Dad for his opinions and listens. Same with the parish priest who, during his first year there, decided to sit in on history class when Dad was covering the Inquisition. The priest is about my age, has a Harley, and had pet snakes until his secretary said she couldn't work in the rectory with the snakes. Nowadays, Dad has him over sometimes for steaks, beers, movies, and conversation.

When my paternal grandmother died a few years ago, the principle, school counselor, and priest all drove 2 hours each way on a Saturday to be at her funeral. The priest was a secondary officiant in the service. All out of respect for my dad. None of us knew they were going to be there.

As a result, I'm communicative with my kids' schools and teachers. I'm not in the PTA, but I show up to events. I call. I send notes and emails. If one of my kids is rude to a teacher, they better apologize and mean it (it's happened), and it better not happen again or else I'm gonna have Grandpa talk to them and they know it. I've only ever had one teacher that I've had a problem with so far, and well, I don't think my kid was the problem that year. I visited the class, and that woman had no control over a room of 3rd grade students and had written misspelled words on the board.

My point is, I have a huge amount of care and respect for the people who teach.

I've also seen people who should NEVER be in charge of a classroom. Unfortunately, too many people think it's easy. And too many other people think it's easy, too. I saw the hours my Dad put in. I know what effort is involved to do it right.

When people ask me why I'm not a school teacher, I tell them they couldn't pay me enough. There is no way I could ever fill my father's shoes with the amount of patience, endurance, and love for so little in return. So, instead, I teach on a case by case basis in a university computer lab for little pay and getting the privilege of being someone's angel a few times a day. Dad was right about one thing. Seeing that lightbulb go off in someone's head is worth it.
posted by lilywing13 at 1:35 AM on September 8, 2009


He's outlasted so many principles that I've lost count.

Heh. Most people look down on the unprincipled, especially principals.
posted by GuyZero at 9:22 AM on September 8, 2009


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