A recent article in the New Yorker investigates the practice of paying teachers to do nothing all day and sit in a “rubber room.” New York City has 7 rubber rooms occupied by about 600 teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence. The average length of stay in a NYC rubber room is three years, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries and pension benefits per teacher to keep them away from students.

What is this all about? Union requirements and job security for teachers.

After just three years of teaching, public schoolteachers are granted tenure and essentially guaranteed a job for the rest of their career. Burdensome documentation requirements, red tape, local politics, and multiple levels of appeal make it next to impossible for principals and superintendents to dismiss a teacher for poor performance, incompetence, or misconduct. A group in Colorado charted out all the steps to fire a bad teacher. This is mind numbing considering that research conclusively finds that having an excellent teacher for three years can be path to erasing the achievement gap for poor and minority students.

In Texas, many school districts dismiss less than 1% of teachers per year, compared to a 16% dismissal rate in the private sector. Over a five-year time period, Arlington ISD only dismissed two teachers out of the more than 4,000 teachers employed in the district. A large school district in Houston, Cy-Fair ISD, dismissed one teacher out of more than 5,200 employed at the district over five years – a dismissal rate of 0.01% per year. Public school districts across the state show a similar pattern. Clearly it is not easy or politically palatable to fire bad teachers.

But, the tide may be turning. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is pushing back on rigid teacher tenure rules. He recently told the largest teacher union, the National Education Association, that when the tenure system keeps an ineffective teacher in the classroom, “the system is protecting jobs rather than children.”

Good luck, Mr. Duncan. You will have quite a fight on your hands.

– Brooke Terry