Every day, Tom Robinson, a Newark public school teacher, meets his classes and feels a little sick to his stomach. He feels sick because he knows he is not qualified to teach the course he has been required to teach since the beginning of the year, chemistry. It is, of course, not the first time he has been required by the Newark Public Schools (NPS) to teach outside both his knowledge and his license. And, at least, he is working, something more than he has been doing for most of the last two years when he either was home or hanging around what even the school administration calls “rubber rooms”–places where money is wasted paying teachers not to teach.
“I really don’t know anything about chemistry,” says Robinson. “I took one course while I was in college but that’s it. I’ve never been taught how to teach chemistry, how to set up a lab, to do anything like this.”
Tom Robinson is a real person, although that is not his real name. I’ve met him and spoken with him on the phone many times. I’ve seen the documentation that backs up his story. I believe him. He says he is afraid to give his real name because, while he is tenured, he says he personally knows too many teachers who have been punished for speaking out against the corruption and ineptitude inside the Newark schools. I have withheld the names of the schools where he has taught to protect his anonymity
“I’ve already felt their vindictiveness,” says Robinson, the father of three children. “They will set me up to fire me.”
Robinson is most haunted by the thought he is responsible for teaching more than 70 high school students a subject he doesn’t know. He has documents that show he has informed the school administration and central office at 2 Cedar Street that he is not qualified to teach the course. He is certified as an elementary school special education teacher and, until last year, he has taught nothing else but elementary school special education for more than a decade.
“When we had parents’ night, only two parents showed up,” Robinson says. “I told both of them that I was not qualified to teach chemistry. They both asked me whether I would give their children passing grades. I said I can’t fail them. That seemed to satisfy them, but I felt really bad about it. Their children deserved to have qualified teachers. They deserved a chance to learn.”
The law requires parents to be informed when their children are in a classroom with an unqualified teacher. He figures he has obeyed the law, telling the parents. He also has told his students. He says they try to help him teach.
He does try to learn as much as he can about chemistry. He reads books about chemistry. Robinson hasn’t had a chance yet to demonstrate any laboratory experiments because, well, he hasn’t had access to a laboratory.
The tragedy of Robinson’s experience is, in many ways, a symbol of the rot that pervades the Newark schools under state control–most especially, under the regime of Cami Anderson, who has been the state-imposed superintendent of Newark schools since 2011. Certainly, one of the most serious issues that neither Anderson nor the state Department of Education under Commissioner David Hespe has addressed is the persistence of placing teachers in classrooms when they are not legally qualified to teach those classes.
That isn’t simply a matter of legality–however much we should want state officials to obey the laws they so frequently use against others. More important, it means Newark school children simply are not getting the instruction they need and deserve. Does anyone believe children in Glen Ridge or East Brunswick are taking chemistry classes with teachers unqualified to teach chemistry–or any high school science? This is the state, after all, denying even minimal education to children–probably because the children are black or brown and almost certainly poor.
But there is more to Tom Robinson’s story. A few days ago, I wrote about Newark’s “rubber rooms” and how they contain teachers in good standing who have not been charged with misconduct or found inefficient but are warehoused because some favored principals would rather have their friends and favorites teach in their schools.
For no reason at all beyond the whims of Anderson’s minions, these teachers are taken out of classrooms they served for years and placed either at school headquarters or in gyms or cafeterias where, while drawing full pay, they do nothing. Robinson was one of those teachers for two years. Indeed, for a good part of his time as a so-called “educator without placement,” or EWP, he stayed at home, out of touch with the NPS and receiving his $80,000 a year in salary.
“I kept thinking I’d be called back,” says Robinson. “I couldn’t believe they would be wasting money like that.”
But, in effect, the NPS under Cami Anderson simply lost track of Tom Robinson as it undoubtedly has lost track of many school employees. Anderson put more than 400 perfectly qualified and experienced teachers in rubber rooms while hiring almost as many new teachers from an organization she once led, Teach for America (TFA), a real waste of money in a district facing a $57 million deficit.
Here is the way it happened: For years, Robinson was working as a special education teacher in School X, an elementary school. He had a good record and received positive evaluatiions. In February of 2012, a parent filed a complaint against Robinson with the state Division of Youth and Family Services. Robinson was suspended but, in a few weeks, DYFS declared the charges “unfounded” and he was returned to his teaching position.
Unfounded–as in it never happened.
Robinson couldn’t return to School X the following September because Anderson had turned it into a so-called “renew” school and the principal fired virtually the entire staff. Robinson ended up spending the entire school year in a rubber room.
At the beginning of the 2012-2013 year, Robinson was hired at School Y, another elementary school, as a special education teacher. He had interviewed for the position and was hired by the principal, a decision confirmed by a letter from Vanessa Rodriquez, the so-called “chief talent officer” for the NPS.
Barely a week after receiving the letter, Robinson found out someone else had been given his job at School Y and he was ordered to report back to the rubber room.
Now get this–a week after he’s back getting paid for doing nothing at 2 Cedar Street, he gets another letter from the same “chief talent officer” telling him he has been placed on administrative leave while she conducts her own investigation into the same–yes, the exact same–complaint that had been considered “unfounded” by DYFS almost two years earlier. (I’ve already written how Anderson illegally tried to strip teachers of their licenses even after they were cleared of wrongdoing).
Not only is Robinson now not teaching, he is sent home for almost the entire school year–with full pay–while NPS investigates what already has been investigated. Investigated by DYFS, an independent state agency that found the charges against him were “unfounded.”
And guess what the chief talent officer found? Nothing. He was cleared again. A second time.
“I was completely cleared the first time but, even if someone still suspected me of doing something, they had the entire school year of 2012-2013 to investigate me while I was in the rubber room,” says Robinson. “They didn’t.”
After Robinson was once again completely cleared of the same abuse complaint, he was returned to a high school, a kind of school where he had never taught before–to teach outside his license–late in the 2013-2014 school year. In September, when he returned to the same high school, he was told he had to teach chemistry.
True, the children he would teach were all classified–but the law requires the district to provide them with a fully qualified chemistry teacher as well and Robinson is not. He has occasionally received helping teachers in his classes, but none is certified to teach high school chemistry.
So, welcome to Cami Anderson’s Newark. Chris Christe’s Newark. Far from the “100 excellent schools” she says she will create, Anderson provides the neediest students with unqualified teachers. Instead of providing the labs these students need as well as qualified teachers, she wastes millions by paying hundreds of idle teachers to do nothing, while hiring friends from the TFA.
Where the government breaks the law.