Law in Contemporary Society

A Solution That Misses the Mark

-- By JacquelynHehir - 17 Apr 2010

Just this week, School Chancellor Joel Klein and United Federation of Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew made an announcement that was both delivered and received as though it were revolutionary.

They are closing the "Rubber Room".


"Rubber Room" is the colloquial term for the infamous holding pens for New York City school workers who have been accused of serious misconduct. The sites are intended to function as reassignment centers. In practice, however, most of the accused languish in idleness for extended and indeterminate lengths of time. Those involved wryly note the parallels between this experience and that of the asylum inmate; hence, the nickname.

The approximately 650 educators in these reassignment centers continue to receive their full salary, at an estimated cost of over 30 million dollars a year.

The Proposed Solution

This paper does not address the admittedly pressing problem of wasted resources. Instead, it examines the proposed solution from the perspective of those who are wrongly accused. Does this solution offer hope for those educators who are detained unfairly?

Some hypothesize that many educators who are relegated to the Rubber Room have no real case against them. As always, there are exceptions: many of those accused are guilty and should be disciplined or fired. This system, however, is far too vulnerable to abuse. For example, a principal can easily convince a student or parent to make an exaggerated claim, exposing a teacher to serious allegations and career-altering consequences. As a former teacher I can confirm that, sometimes, efforts to change the status quo or challenge school policy are enough to convince a principal to use this tactic to scare a teacher back into conformity or get her sent away entirely. The new system does little, if anything, to address these significant due process concerns.

The Particulars

The proposed solution involves three main components: 1) The Department of Education (DOE) will hire more arbitrators to hear cases against teachers. 2) There will be a strict schedule requiring certain steps of the investigation process to take place in clearly defined lengths of time. 3) Most educators that have been accused of misconduct will perform clerical work in schools while they await their trial; those who have been accused of serious misconduct will be suspended entirely.

Will it Work?

This is not the first time that the DOE has tried to solve the Rubber Room problem. The last time the city and union tried to fix the situation, they reached an agreement to, well, hire more arbitrators. However, due to budget concerns, only three new positions were created, which did little to alleviate the workload. History, therefore, casts doubt upon the practical application of this solution.

Even if a substantial number of new arbitrators are hired, however, problems remain. Arbitrators are not the only people involved in making decisions as to teacher misconduct. The cases need to be investigated, prepared, and argued. Creating more positions at the final step of the process does nothing to alleviate the still-burdensome workload in the earlier stages. If the investigation and hearing process are not changed, the system remains one that deprives accused teachers of a fair and unbiased review.

Further, the New York City school system is sprawling, and many administrative decisions are made by schools on an individual basis. These schools are still, in theory, accountable to a centralized body. In practice, however, the DOE rarely has any idea about the politics of or experiences within a particular school. To make matters worse, the Department of Education has developed an elaborate system to indentify each school by a single letter grade. This reductive system ensures that anyone (other than the creator of the report) can identify a school with the minimal amount of personal knowledge, increasing the problems inherent to decentralization.

The proposed solution to rubber rooms may help this disconnected central body process cases more quickly. Yet because decentralization is still a problem, the misuse of the disciplinary system by administrators in individual schools will remain unseen.

A more effective solution to the issue of case overload would not only aim to hear cases more quickly, but to decrease the number of cases in the first place. This could be accomplished, in part, by better investigation of claims of misconduct, and by holding principals and other school administrators accountable for misuse of the hearing process. By lightening the overall caseload and reducing spurious allegations, the system will work more efficiently. This will also ensure that the teachers who should be removed due to incompetence or misbehavior will be dealt with expediently.

The Clerical Work Issue

Under the new system, an accused teacher is required to do clerical work rather than simply wait for time to pass in a special room. This is another reason for systemic overhaul; sitting in idleness against your will is bad enough, but to be co-opted as labor for an educational system that is wrongly persecuting you is a particularly egregious fate. At the same time, it is not so troubling when the allegations have some grounding in reality. In fact, it seems like an appealing middle ground: potentially harmful teachers are out of the classroom, yet their salaries are not simply being thrown away. The problem is, once again, that this solution targets the problem too far down the line; a better one would not only aim to solve problems associated with teachers who are already accused, but also create accountability mechanisms that would reduce fraudulent accusations in the first place. This way good teachers, who have done nothing more than cross their administration, would be less likely to be forced into unwanted clerical duties.


A better solution would seek to remove ineffective or dangerous teachers while protecting educators targeted for whistle-blowing, and it would do so by holding school administrators and principals accountable. Simply hiring more arbitrators, who participate at the very end of the process, without holding school administrators accountable, is unlikely to accomplish these goals.

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r9 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:25 - IanSullivan
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