A teacher despondent over poor rating takes his own life, reopening the debate over public rankings based on student test scores

We have not discussed in depth the controversial LA Times project in which the newspaper obtained student test scores, correlated them with teachers and then rated teachers accordingly as effective or ineffective. The project is back in the news after the suicide of a teacher despondent over his rating by the newspaper.

The teacher’s death is reopening the debate about  public disclosure of teacher performance based solely on test scores. I do think a compilation of test scores tell you something about a teacher, as long as you also know something about the students as well.

In explaining what it did, the LA Times wrote:

About 6,000 Los Angeles elementary school teachers and 470 elementary schools are included in The Times’ database of “value-added” ratings. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers who taught at least 60 students from the 2002-03 through 2008-09 academic years were evaluated in the Times analysis. Most of Los Angeles Unified School District’s elementary schools are included. Test scores for charter schools that do not report directly to the district were not available.

A teacher’s value-added rating is based on his or her students’ progress on the California Standards Tests for English and math. The difference between a student’s expected growth and actual performance is the “value” a teacher added or subtracted during the year. A school’s value-added rating is based on the performance of all students tested there during that period.

I remain uncertain about how much of a role test scores should play in teacher evaluations, although I believe they ought to play some role. (Any student scores used to assess a teacher should reflect student progress/growth rather than any absolute numbers.)

Any suicide is a tragedy. I have written in the past about suicide and know that there is typically a history of depression in adult suicides and that it is very difficult to pinpoint one single event as the sole cause. I think it is clear that 39-year-old Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., a fifth-grade teacher, was upset over his rating, but I am not sure that anyone can quantify how much of a factor the rating was in his apparent decision to take his own life.

He sounds like a great teacher. His death is a loss to his family and his school community.

Here is the very good  AP story by reporter Christina Hoag:

The Los Angeles Times should remove teacher performance ratings from its website after the apparent suicide of a teacher despondent over his score, which was published in August, the union representing Los Angeles school teachers said.

United Teachers Los Angeles has also asked school administrators to join with them in the request to the newspaper, union president AJ Duffy said.

The body of 39-year-old Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., a fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, was found Sunday at the foot of a remote forest bridge. Investigators believe he jumped to his death, although the inquiry is continuing, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said.

The motive for Ruelas taking his own life is far from clear. But union officials said he had been upset since the Times published his district ranking as a “less effective” teacher based on his students’ standardized English and math test scores.

Ruelas scored “average” in getting his students up to acceptable levels in English, but “less effective” in math, and “less effective” overall. The school itself ranked as “least effective” in raising test scores, and only five of Miramonte’s 35 teachers were ranked as average.

The Times’ publication of individual rankings for elementary school teachers sparked widespread outrage among teachers. The rankings ranged from least and less effective to average, more effective and most effective.

The union protested in front of the newspaper’s downtown headquarters and called for a boycott of the Times, which published the rankings as part of a push for a better method to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

Although other factors may have been at play in Ruelas’ death, union official Mathew Taylor said Monday he believed the ranking was a contributing factor based on conversations with teachers at the school. Principals have been using the rankings to crack down on teachers, he said.

“He was a very well-respected teacher,” Taylor said. “He took the pressure being applied to him to heart.”

In a brief statement Sunday, the Times extended its condolences to the family and noted the death is under investigation.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines has said the type of teacher rankings published by the Times, known as “value-added,” shouldn’t be used as the sole criteria to measure effectiveness. The school board last month authorized the district to start developing a new method for evaluating teachers that incorporates value-added rankings, as well as in-classroom observation and other measures.

Detractors say value-added rankings place too much emphasis on test-score teaching, especially in schools like Miramonte, a large school in an impoverished, gang-plagued neighborhood about six miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. About 60 percent of Miramonte students are Spanish-speaking English-language learners.

“Test scores are directly related to the socio-economic status of the student population,” said Taylor. “The best teachers are given the toughest kids. This man had won many awards.”

By all accounts, Ruelas did not shy away from problem kids.

Parents and former students described him as a mentor to youth tempted to join gangs and a tireless booster that low-income children could make it to college. He often stayed after school to tutor struggling kids and offer counseling so they stayed on the straight and narrow.

“He took the worse students and tried to change their lives,” said Ismael Delgado, a 20-year-old former student. “I had friends who wanted to be gangsters, but he talked them out of it. He treated you like family.”

200 comments Add your comment

CLaytonretired

September 28th, 2010
9:55 am

What have they done to our best teachers? This can’t go on.

Eddie Longs Cadillac

September 28th, 2010
9:58 am

I must surmise there was more to this suicide than mere teaching scores. Perhaps embezzlement, extortion, selfishness, bank robbey, inadequacy, low self-esteem, drug abuse, alcholism etc.

seen it all

September 28th, 2010
10:04 am

Listen,

Nobody killed themselves over a teacher “ranking”. Nobody kills themselves over a teacher evaluation. I used to be a “union” rep (remember we don’t have unions here in GA, only professional organizations). Our professional organization dealt with countless cases of teachers receiving unsatisfactory evaluations. The worst thing that happened– somebody lost their job. Nobody died and went to hades. This guy killed himself for another reason.

Lawyer

September 28th, 2010
10:08 am

Really amazed

September 28th, 2010
10:11 am

@seen it all, I couldn’t agree more!!! Much more going on with this guy then his students test ? The teachers can’t give Susie an F for failing, can hardly give out a C because it will hurt students self esteem. Now we can’t judge teacher test scores because it will hurt his/her self esteem. Where does this madness stop???? Why don’t we just have online school this way the only person that will be accountable will be the parents! I think this is what it is going to boil down to in the future. Seriously! The ones that truly want to learn will go online the one that don’t will just sit around watching TV.

Proud Black Man

September 28th, 2010
10:11 am

@ seen it all

That about sums it up. My condolences to the family.

November

September 28th, 2010
10:13 am

For gosh sakes people, just go back to teaching.

teacher&mom

September 28th, 2010
10:14 am

This story breaks my heart. I remember thinking when the LA Times published that list how demoralized the teachers in LA must have felt. Then to have Arne Duncan and others praise the LA Times for publishing the list, that was salt added to the wound. While the list probably wasn’t the sole reason he committed suicide, I have a hard time believing it didn’t create a tipping point.

When you work closely with at-risk students, it is really hard not to be depressed. Sometimes you feel like you are digging a hole at the beach. No matter how hard you try, how much effort you expend, the hole keeps filling up. Life for these students outside the walls of your classroom is often very cruel and unfair. I felt that way when I left work yesterday. A student I have mentored for the past year has decided to quit school and live with her boyfriend. Her parents don’t care, she’s of legal age, and the boyfriend is one incident away from jail. At this point, nothing I can say or do matters. While I’m not suicidal, if I had gone home and opened to local paper to see my name under the “less effective” column, I probably would have thrown in the towel and left the profession.

EnoughAlready

September 28th, 2010
10:45 am

I don’t think it was the ranking or grading; I think this guy had other issues. I hope his family can get through this sad ordeal and make a positive out of his life.

special teacher

September 28th, 2010
10:46 am

In Gwinnett County, there was a case of a principal that killed herself after a meeting over test scores. When teaching is your life, it is easy to become depressed when scores do not turn out the way you want them to. I am a special education teacher, and my students take the same test as all other students on their grade level. Some, with reading disabilities, read two grade levels behind. Yet, there scores still count. If all students could perform the same, then we no longer need classes like English Language Learners, gifted education, or special education. It is not fair to assume that all students can do it. What about students that just do not test well? Students that have rough home lives also have much on their minds during testing. You cannot evaluate a year’s worth of teacher over 60 math questions on one test.

Dr. Tim

September 28th, 2010
10:47 am

You know, if this is the way that teacher handled criticism, then he probably had bigger issues. Let’s not assume a cause and efefct here. That’s asinine.

Tuckergirl

September 28th, 2010
10:47 am

“I do think a compilation of test scores tell you something about a teacher, as long as you also know something about the students as well.”

Maureen, I think you hit the nail on the head. To lump the weight of a class’ test scores, good or bad, solely on the teacher is unfair. It lets the students (and their parent/parents) off the hook entirely.

While a teacher is certainly accountable, the student should take some responsibility as well. I am convinced (and I know I’ll catch heck for saying it) that there are simply kids, for whatever reason, who don’t even attempt to try to perform well. Their peers are telling them it isn’t cool to be smart. At home, they’re being left to their own devices to do whatever they please. To ask a teacher to undo a history of this is asking a lot and in many cases (after a certain point), it just can’t be done.

Carolyn

September 28th, 2010
10:48 am

It’s always tragic when someone takes his or her own life. But suicide is not something that just happens. It’s the result of mental illness. Don’t skew this issue.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:01 am

as you can see, the uber liberal downey can not stand for personal accountability to occur. THerefore, she must demonize a process by which an employee is evaluated – even by a third party. By creating the air of “improper” action by the paper, she is providing cover for the most overpaid (and underperforming) sector of government employee – the public school teacher.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:03 am

tuckergirl – i concur with you – but you are assuming that one teacher has a bunch of these kids, while another teacher has none – I would surmise that all teachers have one or two of these Tom Sawyer/Hucklebery Finn kids – a good teacher overcomes the shortcomings of their students – if the teacher is making $60,000 and has less than 20 kids, plus a para-pro – there is absolutely no reason these type of kids can not be reached.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:05 am

also, tuckergirl – this should be a problem in the first 2 or 3 grades, after that, the child should have been persuaded that the benefits of public education are obvious and good for the child – they should be taught that learning is enjoyable – thus the “individual teaching plan” for each kid that teachers have to author.

Maureen Downey

September 28th, 2010
11:05 am

@Paddy O, Not sure what you do for a living, but I would bet that you would not want a public evaluation of your work based on a criteria that major studies have said is not reliable. I do think teachers should be judged in part on student performance, but not sure scores should be the only factor.
Maureen

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:06 am

special teacher – you adequately demonstrate the failures of NCLFB – the special ed kids should NOT be counted – it provides an unequal playing field when evaluating student performance.

Teacher GA

September 28th, 2010
11:08 am

So, seen it all, I guess everyone that commits suicide is thinking rationally and chooses rationally the reasons to commit suicide. You must live in a world of absolutes, huh? Simple people need simple explanations, don’t they?

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:09 am

if I was making $60,000 after 10 years of work, with two months off in the summer, plus schedule weeks off three or four times a year, my evaluation would not bother me – unless it was unfair – in GA – how kids do on the CRCT (curriculum referenced test – no?) should be a fair evaluation tool – if less than 50% of my kids (as stated, special ed kids would be exempt) fail, then I should probably fbe fired.

Teacher GA

September 28th, 2010
11:11 am

If politicians would like to pay teachers based on performance, then I think they need to do the same for themselves. Let’s have them make a contract with the public and let them get paid based on that contract. I’ll have the same attitude they have for teachers when they are not able to fullfill what they set out to do Do we really think that basing teacher pay on test scores alone is fair? I mean, is it the teacher’s fault if the parent’s keep the kids up all night? If they don’t make their kids study? Should teacher’s be held accountable for the parent’s lack of oversight or their situation?

kris

September 28th, 2010
11:13 am

people make too many assumptions. Maybe this man was a great teacher, who was distraught over the test scores being publicized. Maybe he did feel terribly about his performance and decided to end it. Maybe he was just at wits’ end. It is not anyone’s place to presume why he did what he did. The only one who knows why he ended it is no longer available for consultation, and that is very, very sad.

The problem is that there is so much that is expected from our teachers, yet they are not fairly compensated for the work that they do. They are expected to perform miracles with children, and you know what? Some children are not going to learn, no matter what you do. Some kids are not going to pass all the tests that they are supposed to pass. God Bless Teachers for trying.

and no, I am not a teacher.

Fulton County Observer

September 28th, 2010
11:15 am

The teaching profession is indeed stressful. You wake up one morning and hanging over your head is a “threat” to make AYP or else. Parents play a major role in this entire NCLB failure process. I could talk about the ones who are upset over the teacher taking a cell phone, but will not return calls to attend a conference when their child is failing. The list goes on and on and on. Just as the President stated, it takes more than money to fix what’s broken in education. God bless the family of the teacher who tried to do his job…in spite of…

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:16 am

per the 11:09 post – if 85% at the least of your kids pass, you should be on some type of probation – if that occurs in consecutive years!

Public Education

September 28th, 2010
11:17 am

My heart goes out to this teacher’s family and friends. Unfortunately the publication of this article pushed this teacher over the edge. I agree that he already had some issues that he had dealt with and may have been dealing with when this article was published.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:19 am

teacher in GA – what state level “politician” is full time paid at the $60,000 level? PLus, they cover the entire state – a lot more variety in problems to overcome – teachers are local government employees – of those other local employees – who earns as much with the terrific benefits, yet has very little accountability?

V for Vendetta

September 28th, 2010
11:20 am

Paddy O is a troll. He/she obviously knows nothing about the profession or its current woes. As others have said, I am sure this teacher had other issues. Still, it remains a tragedy, and I hope his family and friends are doing as well as can be expected.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:20 am

each teacher should have their crct passing test scores published on the local BOE website – if a teacher is scoring under 70%, they should be fired.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:20 am

V – yea, good argument & such a striking rebuttal !!!

Reality

September 28th, 2010
11:20 am

It’s sad for sure, but if you can’t handle a critical review of your performance, then you aren’t cut out for your career.

Kaleb

September 28th, 2010
11:22 am

When can we start evaluating student performance based on parental involvement? No matter what any study anywhere says, learning the value of an education starts at home. Students today who value an education get one, regardless of anything else. Those who aren’t taught to value an education will never get one. We live in a society that likes to pass the blame. Parents love to pass the blame for their mistakes on to the teachers and school systems.

And like kris, I am not a teacher either.

Vince

September 28th, 2010
11:28 am

@ Paddy-O

It would be great if your perfect world existed where special ed kids’ test scores were not factored in…but they are. Each spring we give the CRCT to dozens of children at our school who cannot read, write, hold a pencil, or even speak.

Furthermore, we give the CRCT to children who cannot speak English. In doing so, we are not testing what these children know. We are testing their English skills.

The push for accountability has birthed an illogical monster that no one is willing to stand up against. I keep hoping someone, somewhere will stand up and admit that NCLB and its inclusion of ALL students is insane. I had always hoped things would change before I left the profession. I now am coming to the realization that won’t happen.

Vince

September 28th, 2010
11:30 am

@ Paddy -O

terrific benefits???

Reality

September 28th, 2010
11:31 am

@ Vince- The CRCT proves nothing, no matter its language or that of the student. It’s an absolute waste of time.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:32 am

vince – tell us about your health insurance & pension – far better than any other local government official or state employee, no?

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:32 am

plus, what about all that paid time off? 2 months in the summer, Christmas, Easter, other?

Teacher GA

September 28th, 2010
11:33 am

So Paddy O, I guess the politicians should get a break because of all the “issues and complexity” they have to deal with. I think humans, especially children, are far more complicated to understand than you think. They successful or failure of a teacher certainly cannot be summarized to a test score.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:35 am

vince -we are in agreement – the identified students who do not learn information as normal kids do (special education kids) should be separated out and evaluated on a separate system – what it is, I could not tell you. If you wish to administer the CRCT just to see how off the normal kids they are, or if maybe a program is working more efficiently than others, that is fine – but DO NOT count them is the AYP #ers – it is impossible to meet with these type of students evaluated similarly.

PappyHappy

September 28th, 2010
11:35 am

There are a lot of stressful jobs, and given the current status of the US public schools, teaching is probably going to become increasingly stressful for those who are not prepared, or are not capable of delivering. Agree with many of the comments on this site: parents are going to have to be held more accountable, but the only way their attention will be captured is with a stick and a lot less carrots! The question is: DO OUR ERSTWHILE POLITICIANS HAVE THE BACKBONE TO ESTABLISH POLICIES TO GET PARENT’S ATTENTION? What if a parent were to lose the child as a ‘deduction’ if the child consistently fails ( and who’s test suggest they are of at least average intelligence); is a constant disruptive force in the class room, or drops out of school prior to age 17 — yes — 17??

Additionally, our erstwhile policy makers need to make major changes in the following:

* Bring significant rigor (heavy on math, science and foreign languages) to schools of education, including looking for successful CEOs to take on leaders of such schools.

* On a quarterly basis, publish for local media, results of comparative high school grad rates; comparative test scores; and college acceptance rates.

* Revise the basic delivery system of education using state of the art technology, and age specific. If distance learning is effective for older kids, we can do the same for younger kids (those of you who say ‘NO CAN DO’, just remember Big Bird!)

* More money is not the answer. Today, the US is spending the most of any other industrialized nation on public education — AND GETTING LESS FROM THE INVESTMENT! Korea spends less than half of what we spend, and beating us in both math and science — go figure (if you can)!!

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:37 am

teacher GA – you are drinking the liberal kool aid (there is no personal accountability)- kids are not that grossly different – they should ALL learn the basics – the CRCT evaluates how much of the basics they have absorbed. Why should not the students’ performance be well known to the taxpaying public?

David

September 28th, 2010
11:37 am

while I feel bad for the dead man I don’t have too much simpathy for the teachers unions. Sorry but LA unified school district is one of the worse in the country. Teachers need to be held accountable. I am sick of hearing the unions argue how can you measure a teacher when the students, and the parents don’t care. Really there is not a single student that doesn’t care? There are no teachers that have ever gotten though to the poor and under privilaged? Sorry but the story may be that the teacher is unable to handle that situation. Sure they may be able to teach students that have family involement and students who care. If that is the case go and work at a school in a better area, in the mean time find the men and women who can really make a difference at the under performing schools and pay them better becuase they are doing a better job.

Jan

September 28th, 2010
11:38 am

I consider myself to be above average in Mathematics. When I look at the Math homework my son brings home it brings tears to my eyes. The way Mathematics is being taught in this state (nation?) will never lead to desired results. Stating this, the question arises: how can we judge the teacher’s performance on test scores when the material and the methods are questionable? I am all for accountability but I have not found a way that allows me to measure a teacher’s performance in a way that makes sense toward the system and toward the individual. We are all looking for silver bullets, quick and easy answers that do not require us to make the tough choices. Simply blaming the teachers does not solve this issue. Simply throwing more money at it will not solve this issue. We need to look at everything involved and we need to truly make this issue a priority. We just found out that the resources are not bottomless but we still pay enormous amounts abroad (military). It’s a choice. Yesterday I heard it again: you don’t go into teaching for the money. I dare to ask: why not? Everybody else invests to get into better paying jobs. Why should the same not hold true for teachers? We pay contractors in Iraq enormous salaries but we won’t do the same for good teachers… That’s an economic choice. We tell our teachers what to teach and how to teach it without their expert input but then we turn around and make them responsible for the results after we call them back from their day of furlough. That does not solve the problem that was so adequately stated yesterday in “Education nation”: we are a Superpower with a third world educational system and we refuse to make it a priority!

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:40 am

teacher in GA – you are blowing smoke to hide the weakness of your own argument – state & local politicians ARE NOT FULL TIME EMPLOYEES – teachers are! Do you understand that this utterly undermines your desire to compare the two? You argument not only has the apples and oranges error, you have like a tricycle and a mercedes benz logic error.

@Padie O

September 28th, 2010
11:45 am

I’ve been teaching ten years, and I don’t even make $50, 000 – from where did you get your numbers? I also have no “paid time off” – teachers are only paid for their contracted days (and everyone who works Monday Friday gets Easter off – it’s a SUNDAY). Health insurance is the same as all state employees, from what I understand, and like everyone else in America, the cost has gone up while the benfits have gone down. We’re vested in TRS after ten years – when I worked in the private sector, I was vested after 5 – don’t see how that is better. We get 50% of the average our last two years pay after 25 years, and 60% after 30. I don’t know if that’s better or not, but I wouldn’t call that a “full” pension like many refer to it as. You were called a troll because you came on stomping about and spouting so-called “facts” that we know are untrue. Add to the debate, sure, but back it up with real facts. For the record, I have a minute to post because I am waiting on a parent to show for a conference – the conference was scheduled for 11:30.

Sam

September 28th, 2010
11:46 am

Teachers are only paid for the time they work (190 days in most cases). It’s prorated over 12 months. Teachers do not have “paid time off” in the summer or during breaks. We don’t get paid for the days we don’t work.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:47 am

Jan – what do you think are the salaries for teacher with all the paid, schedule time off they have? Most start at over $30,000 – which compared to other local government jobs, is quite good.

Paddy O

September 28th, 2010
11:48 am

Sam – stop the crap – you are paid for a year of work, you just have a whole lot of off time – if you were being paid less than $30,000 – that argument would hold water, when the average salary is close to or over $50,000 – you are full of it.

@Padie O

September 28th, 2010
11:48 am

And do those local government jobs require a college degree?

Teacher GA

September 28th, 2010
11:49 am

So, Paddy O, you are fine with teachers just teaching to the CRCT? Is that what you want? Because that is what is going to happen if teachers are getting paid based on test results. They will teach toward the standardized test and that is it. That’s all you will get out of the teachers. That is simply not a good approach. I know you want to simplistically group everyone in a category but, my friend, life is not that simple and it is a naive thought process.

White Man

September 28th, 2010
11:50 am

Any teachers on the blog?