Archive for September, 2010

Honoring Rigoberto Ruelas

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.

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My family and I moved to Japan in August for a one-year sabbatical.  I wanted to share the experience of what it was like to enroll my kids in school.  Since kindergarten is not mandatory here, it’s actually somewhat of a complex process, so perhaps this information will be helpful to others in similar situations.

Mandaratory Japanese school starts in first grade at the age of 6.  Whereas American kids typically have 1-2 years of (voluntary) preschool before they start (mandatory) kindergarten, Japanese kids typically have 2 years of (voluntary) kindergarten before they start (mandatory) first grade. These two years are called KG-1 (for 4 year olds) and KG-2 (for 5 year olds).

Our three kids were ages 4, 4, and 6, when we arrived in Tokyo in August — but the Japanese school year starts in April.  So their placement in the educational system was determined by their age on April 1 of this year, and on that date they were 4, 4, and 5, thus all 3 qualifying for kindergarten.

Since kindergarten is not mandatory, placement in it is not guaranteed, so we had to spend some time looking into these matters and hope we would find a good place.  It was even more complicated since we were coming some 4 months into the school year.  Finally, each of the 23 “ku’s” (wards) in Tokyo has its own school system, so we pretty much had to figure out where we were going to be living before we could pursue any details.

Fortunately, we had a lot of good advance information, mostly from extremely kind and knowledgeable people on the Education in Japan Yahoo Group. (They also have a Website and a blog.)  My big thanks to Aileen Kawagoe and all the helpful people in that group. The fact that my wife also speaks Japanese made a huge difference too.

My wife is originally from Japan (though has lived in the US a long time) and I am American.  Since one of the motivations for our coming to Japan was immersing our children in Japanese language and culture, we early on ruled out international schools.  That left us with two main choices: “yochien” and “hoikuen.”

A Japanese yochien is pretty similar in many ways to a US kindergarten–a half-day of learning that prepares children for the first year of school.  One main difference is that there are very high demands on mothers’ participation.  Moms are expected to make their children elaborate box lunches every day (bento) and participate heavily in the school experience.

In contrast, hoikuen are especially designed for working parents.  They last all day and most provide lunch.  Parents are not expected to be heavily involved.  However, they tend to be less academically oriented than yochien, and many parents thus prefer yochien as they believe they will better help their children prepare for the competitive Japanese educational system.

Finally, both yochien and hoikuen exist in both public and private variants.  All cost money, but public ones are subsidized and presumably cost less.

Since both my wife and I are here as visiting scholars conducting research, we chose to seek a hoikuen, and we sought entry into a public one.  Basically, we had to go to the ward office before the 15th of the month (August 15 in our case) in order to enroll our kids by the 1st of the next month (September 1 in our case).  We live right next to Waseda University campus, which is in Shinjuku ward, so that is where we went.  The office maintains a list of all the public hoikuens in the ward and how many spots they have open.  We had to consider the local hoikuens and request admission into a first, second, and third choice.  Fortunately, there was one a few minutes walk from our house that appeared to have sufficient spots, so we requested that as our first choice.  However, we had to worry about other families that might have been requesting spots during the same month and thus might be competing for placement in the hoikuen.

Another complicating factor is that our oldest son has Down syndrome.  Japanese primary schools of course accept all children with disabilities.  However, since Japanese kindergarten is not mandatory, children with disabilities are accepted in kindergarten on a space available basis.  In other words, each yochien or hoikuen only has space for a few children with disabilities, and once that number is met, the child would have to be assigned to another yochien or hoikuen.  Again this was aggravated by the fact that we were seeking spots in the middle of the school year.  We had to find a site that not only had spots for three children–two in KG-1 and one in KG-2–but that also had a spot in KG-2 for a child with a disability.  And, before all this happened, our son had to have a few evaluations to learn more about his disability and what kind of support he would need in kindergarten.

After going through all the registration procedures, we waited anxiously, and, in the end, things turned out magnificently.  All three children were placed in our first choice public hoikuen that is only a few minutes walk from our house.  Our two younger children are in a regular KG-1 class.  Our older son is in a regular KG-2 class, but has an individual aide to help him.  The wardis hiring a new person to work as an aide for him, but, in the interim, the hoikuen has reassigned a teacher from elsewhere in the school to work with him as an individual aide.  This reassigned teacher also speaks some English, which is even more helpful. (Our younger twins went to Japanese pre-school in the US and thus know more Japanese, but our older son hasn’t had as much exposure to Japanese so its great to have an aide who knows some English during his first month or two.)  Our twins can go to the school anytime from 9 am to 6:30 pm (we usually pick them up about 5 pm). Our older son, due to his special aide, can go for a little shorter time–from 9 am to 4 pm. We hired a local university student to pick him up at 4 pm and work with him on his English reading for an hour a day after hoikuen.

From what we can gather, the hoikuen is very play oriented, without much focus on academics or explicit instruction.  That’s fine with us.  So far we are very pleased with the program there.  The teachers all seem really dedicated and the facility is reasonably nice (given how crowded things are in Tokyo).  The food is great too and are children are adjusting there nicely. The only thing we don’t particular care for is that the children take naps every afternoon, which is unusual for children that age in the US and which ends up keeping them up until much later than their US bedtime.

Oddly, our kids attended the hoikuen for nearly 3 weeks before we received a statement from the Shinjuku ward office indicating how much we would have to pay for all of this.  Payment is determined based on salary in the previous year — and since both Keiko and worked full-time last year, we came out in the maximum payment bracket.  We waited anxiously every day to find out how much we would have to pay. When we finally got the letter, to our pleasant surprise, we learned that the total payment for all three children is only 30,600 Japanese yen a month ($357 total for the three children at today’s exchange rate).  That is based on 18,000 yen ($210) for the first child, 12,600 yen ($147) for the second child based on a two-child discount, and the third child free.  These rates vary from ward to ward and I’m not sure if every ward has such low rates and a policy of third child free. But in our case, we are of course very pleased.

Thanks again to everybody who provided information to help us get through all this.  It was quite a chore, but in the end it worked out perfectly.

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