Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

November 11, 2010

Respected Teacher Commits Suicide Following LA Times Published Ratings of All Los Angeles Public School Teachers

Rigoberto Ruelas was rated “less effective than average” by the school district. This was published in the Los Angeles Times.

Teacher’s Death Exposes Tensions in Los Angeles

By IAN LOVETT Published: November 9, 2010 NYTimes

LOS ANGELES — Colleagues of Rigoberto Ruelas were alarmed when he failed to show up for work one day in September. They described him as a devoted teacher who tutored students before school, stayed with them after and, on weekends, took students from his South Los Angeles elementary school to the beach.

When his body was found in a ravine in the Angeles National Forest, and the coroner ruled it a suicide, Mr. Ruelas’s death became a flash point, drawing the city’s largest newspaper into the middle of the debate over reforming the nation’s second-largest school district.

When The Los Angeles Times released a database of “value-added analysis” of every teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District in August, Mr. Ruelas was rated “less effective than average.” Colleagues said he became noticeably depressed, and family members have guessed that the rating contributed to his death.

On Monday, a couple hundred people marched to the Los Angeles Times building, where they waved signs and chanted, demanding that the newspaper remove Mr. Ruelas’s name from the online database.

“Who got the ‘F’? L.A. Times,” chanted the crowd, which was made up mostly of students, teachers and parents from Miramonte Elementary School, where Mr. Ruelas taught fifth grade.

The value-added assessments of teachers — which use improvements in student test scores to evaluate teacher effectiveness — has grown in popularity across the country with support from the federal Department of Education, which has tied teacher evaluations to the Race to the Top state-grant program.

But their use remains controversial. Teachers’ unions argue that the method is unfair and incomplete and have fought its implementation across the country.

The Los Angeles Times compiled its database using seven years of standardized test scores obtained through a public records request.

A. J. Duffy, president of the union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which helped organize Monday’s event, held up Mr. Ruelas as an example of the problems with value-added assessments.

“Value-added assessments are a flawed system,” Mr. Duffy said. “This was a great teacher who gave a lot to the community.”

The newspaper has refrained from commenting on the issue beyond a statement issued after Mr. Ruelas’s death: “The Times continues to extend our sympathy to Mr. Ruelas’s family, students, friends and colleagues. The Times published the database, which is based on seven years of state test scores in the L.A.U.S.D. schools, because it bears directly on the performance of public employees who provide an important service, and in the belief that parents and the public have a right to judge the data for themselves.”

Teachers’ unions have largely opposed moves away from the tenure system, in which layoffs are based on seniority, not performance.

Recently, in Washington, where the school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, used comprehensive teacher evaluations to fire hundreds of “ineffective” teachers, their unions poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to unseat her main supporter, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Mr. Fenty lost the Democratic primary in September, and Ms. Rhee resigned the next month.

Despite opposition from the teachers union, Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out in support of greater transparency in teacher evaluations, and the New York City Department of Education is also preparing to release data reports on its teachers, pending the result of a court hearing later this month.

In Los Angeles, where the school district has moved toward significant reforms, like handing control of some chronically low-performing campuses to charter school operators, members of the school board have increasingly pushed to implement value-added assessments.

“Not including value-added measures is not acceptable,” said Yolie Flores, a board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “But it also has to be part of a more comprehensive system of evaluation.”

Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who studies school accountability systems, said the value-added assessments should be combined with other factors. But he said the tenure system did not offer any meaningful evaluation of teacher performance.

“Now that The L.A. Times has published these scores, I think the genie is out of the bottle, and parents are going to want this information,” Mr. Hanushek said. “I presume the union’s opposition is a last effort of the teachers’ union to say that you should never evaluate teachers. This is their attempt to take a tragic situation and turn it into one that they can use for their own political advantage.”

But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argued that reliance on value-added assessments actually hindered efforts to carry out comprehensive teacher evaluations.

“Our union has proposed a comprehensive system of teacher evaluation that more than 50 districts have adopted,” Ms. Weingarten said. “The good work we’re doing trying to make comprehensive teacher evaluations will actually be hurt by this fixation on a value-added system.”

1 Comment »

  1. All of these “quantitative measures” come from our fascination with numbers, computers, and data. But this may all be a house of cards, a classic case of “garbage in, garbage out”. We want our children to come out of school more capable, more able to deal with adulthood in the 21st Century, able to contribute to society and support themselves. Has anyone shown that this outcome is what we are measuring? NO!! We just have standardized test scores, artificially inflated by teaching for the test, and multiple cases of fraud where teachers and administrators have changed answers to get the desired result. The truth is we do not agree on what we want to teach in school, and what we ought to be measuring, or how to measure it. How do you measure school success? For decades we have been relying on the SAT’s for college entrance, and they have been shown to be useless for predicting college success. But the numbers rule. We downplay music and art in our school curricula because they do not contribute to a life that can be measured and quantified, even when we know that quantification to be useless. And now this teacher is dead. Quantify that! Hundreds of teachers have been fired. Quantify that! But it all results in more ways to lock our kids up all day, out of the sunlight, out of sight, out of mind, and back home into empty lives, boob tubes, video fantasies, and meaningless homework. Teachers are supposed to give inspiration, vision, a hunger for learning. Quantify that!

    Comment by Robert Solomon — November 11, 2010 @ 3:59 pm | Reply


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