After Teacher’s Suicide, Union Demands Removal of Teacher Performance Ratings From Newspaper’s Web Site

September 28, 2010 - 6:01 AM
Union officials said the teacher had been upset ever since the Los Angeles Times published his ranking as a "less effective" teacher, based on his students' standardized English and math test scores.

South Gate, Calif. (AP) - 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."

Ruelas was last seen Sept. 19 when he dropped off a birthday gift for his sister. He notified the school to get a substitute for his classes Monday and Tuesday, but he did not return to work Wednesday and his family reported him missing.

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."