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Teacher Jails and Rubber Rooms Are a Travesty

In some districts, teachers who are accused of substandard performance or unprofessional conduct are removed from the classroom and a determination is quickly made whether they should be fired or be allowed to return to their original assignment. But in large urban districts, the process is agonizingly slow and humiliating. For example, teachers are placed in teacher jails in Los Angeles ("L.A., Unified's 'teacher jail' policy ends up punishing students," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 10) and in rubber rooms in New York City ("The Rubber Room," The New Yorker, Aug. 31, 2009). Before remanding teachers to these purgatories, I think it's important to make a distinction between instructional incompetence and moral turpitude.

I'm not minimizing the negative impact of ineffective instruction on students. But what seems to be incompetence often is the result of the kind of students that teachers happen to be assigned. Given classes filled with Talmudic scholars, teachers are going to shine in spite of, rather than because of, their instruction. Conversely, given a schedule with classes populated by future felons, the same teachers are going to flop. Therefore, removing these seemingly sub-par teachers and placing them in holding pens is unfair.  Yet it happens.

When teachers are accused of moral turpitude, however, the issue is different.  Molestation allegations put students in immediate danger. But even here, great care has to be taken to protect due process. That was not the case in 2012 when the entire 110-member staff of Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District was removed from the school and spent the rest of the school year in a not-yet-opened center after two teachers were accused of sexual abuse.  The district clearly overreacted.

Even when teachers are ultimately found innocent of charges, however, their reputations are forever ruined. I'm thinking now of the infamous McMartin preschool case, which was the longest and costliest criminal trial in this country. It began when a mentally disturbed mother complained that her child had been sexually abused at the school. At the end, all charges were dismissed, but the lives of those accused have never been the same. That's why I dislike teacher jails and rubber rooms.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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