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.
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.)