More Michigan – Funky Rubber Room!

Yesterday we checked in on the Race to the Top debate in Michigan.  Today, Detroit News editorial writer and columnist Amber Arellano writes up a guest post on the debate in Motown over the possible arrival of “rubber rooms,” which as we’ve noted on this blog aren’t as fun as the name implies.

Detroit’s New Rubber Room

New York City’s embarrassment is Detroit’s education reform “revolution”

This month the Detroit Public Schools posted the lowest student achievement results in the 40-year history of the NAEP. Educators began weeping when briefed on the news. And city charter schools, once Motown’s hope for change, on average are performing just as terribly as the school district.

As if Detroit’s education reputation couldn’t get any worse, consider: a new teachers’ contract, if ratified today, would create Detroit’s first Rubber Room.

Call it a “creative” contract as some economic analysts have — or call it devastating for school reform. Either way, the Rubber Room is a long way from Detroit’s state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb’s earlier negotiating goal of ridding of teacher seniority.

Bobb faced two significant hurdles during contract talks: 1) among the most militant and backward teacher union locals in the U.S.; 2) improving the worst performing urban school district by almost any measure.

He and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, his academic czar (former Cleveland supt and leader of NYC’s special chancellor’s district) got the Detroit Federation of Teachers to agree to create a new High Priority District within the district for chronically failing schools. High Priority teachers must be district-certified through a new evaluation process. The unfit “teachers-at-large” will be booted.

As Bobb and Byrd-Bennett readily admitted during an exclusive 90-minute interview, Detroit’s new “teachers-at-large” essentially will be put into a Rubber Room — unless they end up at a non-High Priority school — costing the bankrupt district millions and more national humiliation.

That’s because Detroit’s new contract doesn’t include an exit strategy for ridding of bad teachers. Plus, bumping rights remain at non-High Priority schools.

Anyone familiar with New York City’s infamous Rubber Room knows there are tremendous financial and human costs to Rubber Rooms — and such “special” districts.

NYC has drained its classrooms of millions to pay for salaries of teachers wasting away in Rubber Rooms.

Students in non-Priority Schools also are at risk for being dumped on with the low-performing “teachers at-large.” That is precisely the problem that Washington D.C schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is grappling with now due to teacher contract limitations, Rhee told the Detroit News. 

So why did Bobb agree to this insanity?

“To get a contract, both on economic issues and on reforms,” he said. “Clearly we could’ve gotten there through bankruptcy, but with measurable impact on all of Michigan’s municipalities and school districts” and their bond ratings. “So we looked at how to move the dial in low-performing schools . . . There are contracts out there that include seniority.”

Added Byrd-Bennett: “I think there’s a place for a rubber room.” Her argument: Isn’t it better to have bad teachers in Rubber Rooms, rather than teaching students?

Bobb promises there won’t be many “at-large teachers” once his team creates an evaluation process — the first system-wide one in Detroit, ever — in January.

That change, though, depends upon whether the teachers’ union members ratify the new contract. Dissident union leaders are charging DFT president Keith Johnson with compromising too much on reforms, calling him a sell-out, among other choice words. His allies are championing the new contract as “revolutionary.”

As Bobb so aptly put it: “Anywhere else in the U.S., this contract would be considered evolutionary. In Detroit, it’s revolutionary.”

At the rate of this revolution’s change, Detroit kids will wait another century for better schools.

Amber Arellano is an editorial writer and columnist at The Detroit News.

8 Replies to “More Michigan – Funky Rubber Room!”

  1. I have a solution to “Rubber Rooms.” If teachers follow my advice they will never end up in one:

    Apply only to teach in high-scoring schools. If you can’t get a regular job in one of these schools, substitute in one of them. When a teacher becomes ill or quits abruptly, you will have a good chance of being hired. Another option is to teach in a private school until public schools have openings.

    If you are already employed in a low-performing school, but are still young, get your applications out ASAP. It’s teacher-bashing time now because of the economy, but teachers are quite capable of playing the game.

  2. Bobb had enormous emergency authority and chose to work with Johnson, who put his position on the line with the agreement. Ms. Arellano, do you really think Johnson could have made an agreement that was any better and have his members approve it? Do you think Bobb should have chosen bankruptcy, along with even further destruction of credit ratings for all sorts of municipal agencies? And do you think that with a declaration bankruptcy, Bobb would ever have had the buy-in from teachers to construct a different evaluation system? Impose one, maybe, but that wouldn’t mean it would be effective.

    The simple fact is that Detroit’s teachers approved a contract that gave a substantial no-interest loan to the city schools and that changed the evaluation system. I understand the impatience with change, but this guest post is the educational equivalent of my fellow liberals who would like to kill health care reform because it doesn’t do enough and, more than that, will blame Harry Reid for the flaws in the legislation.

  3. I think Linda’s reply is the downside of these High Priority Zones. However, that cost may be worth creating the flexibility needed to staff those schools correctly. It would actually be fantastic if the federal government focused some legislative effort on low-income schools (title I schools) to push hiring/firing flexibility. Those of us who’ve spent a long time in these schools know that schools which reach the federal “failing” designation often are a result of years of inability to make serious changes to school staffing. Can we get ahead of the game and get the flexilibity early so that we don’t get into the drastic restructuring later? Now that we’re all serious about the fact that somewhere north of 5000 schools in this country are in serious need of a turn-around, we also have to think about how to prevent the next 5000 from getting there.

  4. Linda,

    There are many factors at play and many things that need to be addressed. For a bigger picture context, you may want to check out These scenarios are so beyond the point of protecting turf and one-dimensional “blame throwing.” Meanwhile,
    the kids are on the side-lines – maybe it’s time for adults to grow up.

  5. If an employee is labeled incompetent or worse, I assume there is specific information that exists and can be used to back up such charges. If so–then how come they aren’t fired? And if they’re not incompetent but just not easy to get hired elsewhere, could the fact that they are on a higher salary scale a possible reason for the dilemma they face?

    In short, how can we distinguish a legitimate process for eliminating teachers who should not be teachers from teachers whose principals don’t like them or would prefer to hire two cheaper teachers in their place? Until we have a “system” in place capable of dealing with such questions, it strikes me as odd to keep talking about these human beings in such a demeaning manner.


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