School Reform 101

In a victory for common sense, City Hall and the teachers’ union have agreed to shut down the infamous “rubber rooms,” where hundreds of suspended teachers gather every day to collect a paycheck while doing nothing. The deal should not be the last accommodation between the city and the teachers—if schools are to be reformed, if every child in New York City is to receive a quality education, more agreements are necessary, including one on merit pay for outstanding educators.

The so-called rubber rooms were not necessarily a case of union protections run amok, although that’s how they were presented in some media outlets. The United Federation of Teachers certainly has been aggressive in defending tenured teachers who have been removed from classrooms for an array of alleged offenses, including incompetence. The other side of the story, however, involves management: Schools Chancellor Joel Klein implicitly conceded that the process of investigating cases against individual teachers has been anything but timely. Some teachers spend months—even entire academic years—in rubber rooms before the city gets around to holding a hearing about their cases.

Teachers have rights just like anybody else, and an accusation of incompetence or unprofessional behavior is just that—an accusation, nothing more. So they are entitled to legal protections. But the new agreement between the UFT and City Hall ensures that they will be put to work on administrative duties rather than spend hours upon hours, days upon days, doing nothing.

The accord on rubber rooms should be followed up with more common-sense reforms. Manhattan Assemblyman Jonathan Bing has introduced a measure in Albany that would allow the city to lay off teachers without regard to seniority. Layoffs are, of course, a last-ditch measure that no politician wishes to implement. But if they are necessary, they ought to be carried out on the basis of merit, or lack thereof, rather than simply on seniority. “Last in, first out” is no way to run a business—or a school system. Mediocre teachers with seniority ought to be dismissed ahead of promising young teachers.

And speaking of merit, it is time the teachers’ union dropped its opposition to merit pay for its members. Excellent teachers—those with glowing evaluations, those whose students show improvement in standardized test scores—ought to be rewarded for their talent and effort. The UFT bosses have insisted for far too long that, in essence, all teachers are excellent. Sorry, folks, but the facts and common sense suggest otherwise. Not all teachers, save perhaps those in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, are above average. Some excel, others go through the motions. They should not draw equal pay.

To advocate for merit pay is to advocate for excellent teachers. It’s time the union got on board.