Bad teachers! Evil union! Foiled heroes!

Steven Brill’s incendiary rubber room article in The New Yorker, a dyed-in-the-wool “can you believe this?!” shock piece, unequivocally blames teachers’ unions for obstructing quality education. Brill does this with sensational picture captions (“Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom.”), superficial stats (top quartile teachers get better outcomes than bottom quartile teachers), and the presupposition that Joel Klein and Michael Bloomberg are protagonist “reformers” while the UFT and its members are howling defenders of the failed status quo.

I want to scream.

Yes, the rubber room— where several hundred accused teachers on full salary wait years for their cases to be processed— is an abomination. Yes, there are many people in the rubber room who should find a new profession. Yes, performance evaluation of teachers needs to be retooled. However, the rubber room’s most outrageous facet, and the one that Brill and his counterparts consistently seize on— the extraordinary wait time for cases to be processed— is not exclusively the union’s fault.

A 2007 Village Voice article explains:

There are currently only 18 hearing officers handling misconduct cases. Each officer is contracted to meet only five times a month. The backlog of cases is immense.

“We have been saying for years that we want these people out of these places much more quickly,” UFT president Randi Weingarten says. “There is no reason for them to be sitting six months or longer without charges being filed.”

Hearing officers are chosen jointly by the DOE and the UFT, but are paid for by the New York State Education Department. With New York City officers making up to $1,900 a day, it’s a lucrative part-time job, which some critics say leads these officers to overly compromising opinions. “You make a lot of money,” says Julia Cohen, a lawyer who specializes in education law. “You want to satisfy both sides.”

So why does the union take the brunt of The New Yorker’s wrath?  For the casual reader, it’d be a no-brainer to view teachers as self-interested monsters. The few rubber room teachers Brill mentions come off as losers. One teacher in particular triggers reflexive disgust when she claims that she is “entitled” to every penny of her $85,000 salary.

The UFT is then demonized for pushing a law that bans the use of student test scores in determining teacher tenure. Anti-union talking points there are no-brainers (teachers are afraid of accountability, teachers refuse to use good data to protect their incompetent asses). However, the reporter utterly fails to describe a culture of high-stakes testing in New York which, under Bloomberg, Klein, and No Child Left Behind, has run amok. Test scores are the be-all and end-all under Bloomberg and Klein, and so many schools have been contorted into counterproductive test prep factories. I’ve seen it happen, as I documented in The Great Expectations School.

When a child’s entire year is reduced to a single test score, the effects for the student and teacher are deadening. The union resisted measuring teachers solely by student test scores because it’s inauthentic and destructive. This relentless fixation on standardized testing also denudes the eye-catching stat about top-quartile teachers getting top test scores out of kids. (Testing is a game, not a holistic measure of a teacher’s true effectiveness. Since education is a long-term, human enterprise, such conveniently reductive data may not be as accurate as the testing-advocates think it is.)

Teachers’ unions are nowhere near perfect organizations, but bashing them on this issue is misleading and precludes an important conversation about getting more learning and accountability in schools. Unions don’t have to be the monsters here. In fact, maybe they’ve got even better ideas than some of the self-styled “reformers” that The New Yorker et al. trumpet so surely.

A key example: in March 2008, the UFT put forth a four-pillared proposal for a new accountability model in New York City. The pillars are Academic Achievement; Safety, Order and Discipline; Teamwork for Student Achievement; and— a great idea— Department of Education Accountability to the School. The plan describes a smart, measured system that includes test scores but does not deify them. It makes a lot more sense than “counting” only the isolated, all-important minimum proficiency test score.

But there is so much money and power behind Bloomberg and Klein’s wings. They’ve got the news media, the billion-dollar test-making companies, and the policy-makers. Barack Obama has embraced what they’ve done in New York. Joel Klein has a roadshow with Newt Gingrich. These guys are running away with education, and slowly but steadily gutting the unions fits perfectly into their vision of privatization. The UFT accountability model was swept aside.

The rubber room is a soft target for ginning up revulsion, but it shouldn’t be aimed at a falsely exaggerated stereotype of lazy, fat-cat unionists. Instead, the string-pullers ought to focus on streamlining the cases for the accused and developing comprehensive teacher evaluation methods for all. Plenty of models that don’t disproportionately worship test scores exist. Then we can start to have a serious conversation about teacher quality.

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