Brill Rakes Muck in NYC Schools

Fine urban-affairs reporting in the New Yorker. More please.

Steven Brill’s New Yorker story on the quagmire that is the New York City school system is an example of the power of facts in the hands a journalist who knows what to do with them.

Brill’s piece, the “Rubber Room,” looks at the standoff between the city’s Board of Education and the United Federation of Teachers—and unabashedly sides with Mayor Bloomberg’s schools superintendent Joel Klein and his team. They’re “reform-minded” and “reformers,” while Randi Weingarten, the UFT’s president until this month, is left to defend the status quo. But what a rotten status quo it is.

The story in its essence is a brief in favor of performance testing for public school teachers.

One can sympathize with unions (and I do) and see all manner of possible abuses that could come from trying to separate the great from the merely good from the truly incompetent among teachers, a job for which quality is so difficult to measure. One can even wish the facts in the piece were otherwise, but there they are, and even union sympathizers must deal with them. That’s journalism for you.

Brill is the entrepreneur and founder of American Lawyer and CourtTV and a notoriously cantankerous boss himself. Here he shows that those who manage can also do.

“Rubber Rooms” are the Department of Education’s Temporary Reassignment Centers, detention centers where teachers facing disciplinary charges must sit, wait, and do nothing for months or even years while their cases move through a Dickensian arbitration system.

The absurdity, cost, and psychological toll of warehousing 600 grown-ups is nicely portrayed:

It’s a June morning, and there are fifteen people in the room, four of them fast asleep, their heads lying on a card table. Three are playing a board game. Most of the others stand around chatting. Two are arguing over one of the folding chairs. But there are no children here.

This weird institution has already been described in recent years by all of New York’s major papers.

But Brill uses Rubber Rooms as an entry point to look at larger issues in a system in which teachers are tenured after three years, compensated in lockstep based on seniority, treated generally as interchangeable parts, and are essentially unmovable unless charged with an offense and removed via a Dickensian arbitration proceeding.

Brill reports that only 1.8 percent of the system’s 89,000 teachers are given an unsatisfactory grade in annual performance reviews and only 50 teachers alleged to be incompetent had actually been taken out of class and put in a Rubber Room

As a longtime member of newspaper unions, I’ve seen both sides: ambitious reporters frustrated by what Brill refers to as the “widget effect,” contracts that treated all reporters the same, no matter what, and supervisors who don’t always do the right thing.

But what is entirely clear after reading Brill is that the system for resolving disciplinary charges in New York schools is a flat disaster. Brill’s account is so beautifully written you feel like you’re traveling back to a time of gas lamps and quill pens. In one passage, he describes the hearing of Rubber Roomer Lucienne Mohammed, a veteran fifth-grade teacher removed from an East New York school in June of 2008 on charges of incompetence. She allows Brill access to her file (though, inexplicably, her lawyer convinces her to decline an interview).

The evidence of Mohammed’s incompetence—found in more than five thousand pages of transcripts from her hearing—seems as unambiguous as the city’s lawyer promised in his opening statement: “These children were abused in stealth… . It was chronic … a failure to complete report cards… . Respondent failed to correct student work, failed to follow the mandated curriculum … failed to manage her class.” The independent observer’s final report supported this assessment, ticking off ten bullet points describing Mohammed’s unsatisfactory performance. (Mohammed’s lawyer argues that she began to be rated unsatisfactory only after she became active with the union.)

And this particular case comes after the installation of a peer-review program designed to streamline the process:

This was the thirtieth day of a hearing that started last December. Under the union contract, hearings on each case are held five days a month during the school year and two days a month during the summer. Mohammed’s case is likely to take between forty and forty-five hearing days—eight times as long as the average criminal trial in the United States. (The Department of Education’s spotty records suggest that incompetency hearings before the introduction of P.I.P. Plus generally took twenty to thirty days; the addition of the peer observer’s testimony and report seems to have slowed things down.) Jay Siegel, the arbitrator in Mohammed’s case, who has thirty days to write a decision, estimates that he will exceed his deadline, because of what he says is the amount of evidence under consideration. This means that Mohammed’s case is not likely to be decided before December, a year after it began. That is about fifty per cent more time, from start to finish, than the O.J. trial took.

The section goes on and on, and that’s the point:

While the lawyers argued in measured tones, Mohammed—a slender, polite woman who appeared to be in her early forties—sat silently in one of six chairs bunched around a small conference table. The morning’s proceedings focussed first on a medical excuse that Mohammed produced for not showing up at the previous day’s hearing. Dennis DaCosta, an earnest young lawyer from the Teacher Performance Unit, pointed out that the doctor’s letter was eleven days old and therefore had nothing to do with her supposedly being sick the day before. The letter referred to a chronic condition, Antonio Cavallaro, Mohammed’s union-paid defense counsel, replied. Siegel said that he would reserve judgment.

Brill also catches the union misrepresenting on its Web site the story of another Rubber Roomer, who had supposedly been vindicated by this tortuous arbitration system.

The account quotes a speech that Adams [a pseudonym for the teacher] made to union delegates; according to the Web site, she received a standing ovation as she declared, “My case should never have been brought to a hearing.” The Web site account continues, “Though she believes she was the victim of an effort to move senior teachers out of the system, the due process tenure system worked in her case.”

It turns to have been fiction. The teacher had been found passed out drunk in a class of 34 students in 2005 and had returned only under a sealed agreement that allowed her to teach for one more semester then be assigned non-teaching duties. In February, she flunked an alcohol test and was fired.

The union here looks bad:

Randi Weingarten, the president of the U.F.T. until this month (she is now the president of the union’s national parent organization), said in July that the Web site “should have been updated,” adding, “Mea culpa.” The Web site’s story saying that Adams believed she was the “victim of an effort to move senior teachers out” was still there as of mid-August. Ron Davis, a spokesman for the U.F.T., told me that he was unable to contact Adams, after what he said were repeated attempts, to ask if she would be available for comment.

It gets worse:

In late August, I reached Adams, and she told me that no one from the union had tried to contact her for me, and that she was “shocked” by the account of her story on the U.F.T. Web site. “My case had nothing to do with seniority,” she said. “It was about a medical issue, and I sabotaged the whole thing by relapsing.” Adams, whose case was handled by a union lawyer, said that, last year, when a U.F.T. newsletter described her as the victim of a seniority purge, she was embarrassed and demanded that the union correct it. She added, “But I never knew about this Web-site article, and certainly never authorized it. The union has its own agenda.” The next morning, Adams told me she had insisted that the union remove the article immediately; it was removed later that day. Adams, who says that she is now sober and starting a school for recovering teen-age substance abusers, asked that her real name not be used.

One could call this gotcha-ism, but the union here was gotten fair and square.

True, other parts of the story don’t hold up quite as well. One Rubber Roomer’s claim that she was disciplined because she was a whistleblower is dismissed by Brill on the grounds that the school where she worked, P.S. 40, is rated highly, and, Brill writes:

I spoke with five P.S. 40 parents, who said that Scheiner [the disciplined teacher] would have had nothing to “blow the whistle” about, because, as one put it, the principal, Susan Felder, is “spectacular.”

That doesn’t really prove anything. Neither is Brill’s case in favor of rating teachers based on students’ test scores fully developed or entirely convincing.

Reformers like Cerf, Klein, Weisberg, and even Secretary Duncan often use the term “value-added scores” to refer to how they would quantify the teacher evaluation process. It is a phrase that sends chills down the spine of most teachers’-union officials. If, say, a student started the school year rated in the fortieth percentile in reading and the fiftieth percentile in math, and ended the year in the sixtieth percentile in both, then the teacher has “added value” that can be reduced to a number. “You take that, along with observation reports and other measures, and you really can rate a teacher,” Weisberg says.

But, listen, this is a New Yorker article, not a policy paper.

We’re starved these days for great urban affairs reporting in general—ever wonder what great stories go uncovered at the MTA, the Port Authority, the police department, the School Construction Authority, Albany? I do. And that’s just New York.

If Brill’s piece is a way into a discussion of what ails New York’s sclerotic school system, I’ll take it.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.