Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr. served as a dedicated teacher of low-income immigrants at Miramonte Elementary School in what was described as an “impoverished gang-ridden neighborhood” of Los Angeles for 14 years. He lived a few blocks from the school and had worked as an instructional aide there for four years before becoming a teacher. From the age of 22 to 39, much of his life revolved around the school.
On August 29, 2010, the Los Angeles Times published a database, with individual teachers’ names, of “value-added” ratings of 6,000 elementary school teachers. The controversial ratings come from how much individual students in the teachers’ classes increase in standardized test scores over the course of a school year. Ruela’s published rating suggested that his “overall value-added effectiveness” in comparison to other teachers in the district was “less effective.” He was rated in the “20th to 40th” percentile in “math effectiveness” and in the “40th to 60th percentile in “English effectiveness.”
Less than one month later, Ruelas was dead. Police determine he committed suicide by leaping from a cliff. Newspaper reports suggest that he was distraught over the L.A. Times ratings, and particular stressed about having to meet with parents and explain the situation to them.
All indications are that Ruelas was an outstanding teacher. According to a report after his death, he had nearly perfect attendance during his time as a teacher, and he was a “mentor to youth tempted to join gangs and a tireless booster that kids could make it to college.” Even on the value-added assessment measure, his performance was above the average performance of other teachers at the school since, overall, Miramonte was rated as a “least effective” school in value-added measures by the LA Times.
A recent report from ten of the most prominent educational researchers in the U.S., including the co-director of the National Center for Evaluation Standards and Student Testing, outlined many of the flaws in the value-added approach, which include great variability from year to year, lack of reliability due to nonrandom assignment of students in teachers’ clases, a narrow focus on only a subset of what is important to learn, and the complex matrix of educational and social factors that affect individual students’ performance. In spite of these flaws, many educators agree that value-added measurements should be part of the conversation in evaluating teachers. However, they need to be taken in context and complemented by a broad range of other factors.
All this brings us back to Rigoberto Ruelas. It’s natural to assume that there must have been other things going on in Mr. Ruelas’s life, that mentally stable people do not commit suicide over a subpar work evaluation. However, there were several very unusual things about this particular evaluation. It was not performed by his employer, but by an outside agency according to criteria that Ruelas was not informed about or judged on. Teachers in L.A. did not even have this information before it was published by the L.A. Times. And L.A. Unified had never communicated to teachers that this was a principal means of evaluating them. Even more importantly, this evaluation, which reduced a teacher’s entire career to a single dubious rating, was published by one of the most prominent newspapers in the world. I don’t think there is any precedent for having any employees publicly rated in this manner.
As a research professor at a major university, I have to carefully adhere to rules of ethics in carrying out research. One of those rules is anonymity–I am not allowed to publish people’ names without their permission if there is any way that my doing so can bring unnecessary or disproportionate embarrassment, humiliation, or other harm to them. If I wished to do a study of this type and publish teachers’ individual names with their ratings, my university never would have permitted me to do so.
There are of course differences between journalism and scholarly research, and journalists thus operate by different rules. And the rules that journalists operate by are not codified in the way that university research rules are. One would hope, however, that a respected news organization such as the L.A. Times would operate with at least a modicum of ethical concern, which was clearly violated by publishing individual names of teachers and thus bringing public shame and humiliation, without sufficient evidence that the rankings even accurately reflected teachers’ actual contributions.
Imagine, then, the situation of Rigoberto Ruelas. He lived a few blocks from the school and had experienced first hand the harsh conditions of life in the neighborhood. Perhaps he himself rose from difficult conditions and became a successful educator. He dedicated his entire life to improving the conditions of youth in his school and community. He almost never took a day off because he didn’t want to leave his students in the hands of a substitute. He spent time at lunch, after school, and weekends mentoring youth, doing whatever he could to keep them out of gangs. Even by the narrow measure of test scores, he was one of the better teachers in his school. For years he may have despaired over the directions of “reform” in L.A. schools and elsewhere, which, by focusing narrowly on test scores, made it increasingly difficult for him and other teachers to provide his students the kind of broad, rich learning experiences that would keep them engaged and successful in school year after year. But all the hardship was worth it to him, because, he had a strong self identity as a teacher, someone who gives his all for the children in his community. Then, one day, that identity is attacked, by a humiliating rating that ignores all his contributions. What’s worse, because it is public, he is forced to defend himself to parents and the community.
Nobody knows, of course, exactly what was going on in Rigoberto Ruelas’s mind in the weeks and days before his death. However, we do know that it is a terrible idea to publicly humiliate dedicated public servants based on inaccurate and incomplete value-added ratings. The L.A. Times should take the ratings down. That’s the least the newspaper can do to honor Ruelas’s memory.