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The Suicide of Rigoberto Ruelas

by SARAH KNOPP

Rigoberto Ruelas attended Miramonte Elementary as a student and returned to work there for 14 years, first as a TA and then as a 5th grade teacher. In 14 years, he almost never missed a day of work. But Sunday September 19th he called in sick. His body was found a week later at the underneath a 100-foot high bridge in the Angeles National Forest. Suicide is the leading theory of the cause of death, although no note was found.

Suicide rarely has a single cause, and usually follows a long chain of socially preventable adversity, but Ruelas had been distraught in the most immediate sense over the August 14th publication in the Los Angeles Times of an article called “Who’s Teaching L.A’.s Kids?”

And although it‘s still speculation at this point that the Times article was a leading cause of Ruelas’ distress, at the very least it was an extremely dark storm cloud over his last days. Ruelas’ brother Alejandro told KABC-TV that “he kept saying that there’s stress at work” since the publication of the article. According to parents and some staff at Miramonte, the principal had been pressuring Ruelas intensely since the publication of the piece to improve his students’ scores. LAUSD officials claim that they sent a memo to principals stating that using the data for discipline of teachers against the contract, but there are reports that some principals are not taking heed. Ruelas’ family is boycotting the Los Angeles Times.

“This guy was 100% teacher, that’s what his whole life was about. When this hit, it crushed him,” explained Mat Taylor, chairperson for the South Area of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, after spending time with the staff at Miramonte Elementary on Monday.

To write the article, Times reporters Jason Song, Jason Felch, and Doug Smith filed a public information request with the Los Angeles Unified School District to get test scores for the students of 6,000 third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers. LAUSD complied with the request although they had never before used or published student test data disaggregated by teacher. Readers can click a link called “Find a Teacher” on the Times’ website and find out whether one of these 6,000 teachers is, according to student test data, “Most effective, more effective, average, less effective, or least effective.” Ruelas was rated “less effective,” the second-to-worst category.

But according to students, coworkers, and parents, nothing could have been further from the truth. Christian, a former student of Ruelas’ now attending high school in LAUSD explained that, “for me, he was a good teacher. My parents were shocked to hear this. A lot of parents had respect for him. He was always there, whether he was sick or not. He was always smiling. He was happy with the students, and friendly with the parents. He taught well. I liked being in his class.”

Mayra Vega had stayed in touch with Ruelas since leaving the school six years ago. “He just told me two weeks ago that he was proud of me for applying to college,” she said at a lunchtime meeting recently with classmates. “He would always help you, even if you weren’t his student. He always made me feel good about myself, like when he told me to go ahead and wear my glasses at graduation. Thanks to him, I stopped confusing my ‘b’s and d’s. “ Vega began immediately trying to organize parents and fellow alum of Miramonte for a vigil or protest to defend Ruelas’ reputation as a teacher.

According to Mat Taylor, “He teaches the toughest fifth graders. Those are the kids he wants, even though they may be the ones who are the hardest to test.”

Kristal O’Neil*, a teacher at a different elementary school who also suffered from being labeled “least effective” said of Ruelas’ death “I’m only surprised that this hasn’t happened more. The issue here is that you have stripped people of their identities.” For over 20 years O’Neil has used her USC Fine Arts training in drama to lead students in plays and historical dramatizations. She had a reputation among teachers and parents for succeeding with students with special needs and creating a nurturing and inspiring learning environment in her classroom. She didn’t “teach to the test.”

But when the Times study was printed, she felt “like I was on public display, like a human being on the auction block or something.” O’Neil attended a protest at the Los Angeles Times with thousands of other union brothers and sisters, but was so intimidated by what had happened that she remade her curriculum from whole cloth, focusing almost entirely on helping students to pass the test. Whereas she had previously prided herself on her work with special needs children, she now felt anxious that they would pull down her scores. “For 22 years I couldn’t wait to get up everyday and go teach. I feel like someone came along and put me in prison.”

The sleepless nights and crises of self-worth that standardized tests impose on teachers are only one part of the story. Imagine kindergartners bubbling answer sheets just after they learn to hold pencils, high school students who complete all their graduation requirements but aren’t able to pass the exit examination and graduate because they haven’t received the remediation they need, or students being asked to take high-stakes tests in a language they haven’t mastered yet. The tidal erosion of students’ innate love of learning and self-confidence is the consequence of corporate values imposed on human beings and their development.

***

“Value Added” is the latest consensus in the “accountability” movement that encompasses Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and Eli Broad and their corporate think tanks, and evangelically self-promotional non-profit start up charter operators. They have conceded that it would be wrong to measure teachers by raw test scores because some students start so far behind. But, they say, “Value Added” methodology controls for differences in student populations by measuring how many percentage points a student gains in a year, comparing this year’s test to last’s. The difference is the ‘value’ that teachers have ‘added.’

The problem is that there is no evidence that VAM (Value Added Measures) is an effective way to rate teachers. In a briefing report issued on August 29th, the Economic Policy Institute surveyed current research on VAM. They report that “one study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%. Another found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4% to 16% of the variation in such ratings in the following year. A teacher who appears to be very ineffective in one year might have a dramatically different result the following year.” (“Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers”)

The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences stated, “…VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable.”

Further, fifth grade teachers were the best predictors of fourth grade results. In other words, we can do a better job of predicting a student’s test scores based on which teacher they will get next year in school than any other factor! Since one’s fifth grade teacher has nothing to do with her fourth grade education, we can only assume that VAM is measuring something other than teacher quality.

A prestigious study by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University recently released found that merit pay based on students’ test scores in Nashville didn’t work. Teachers were offered a $15,000 bonus to raise test scores of their students in math. The students whose teachers had been offered the bonus made the same gains as students whose teachers were in a control group and had not received the offer. This was significant because the National Center on Performance Incentives was generally understood to have a pro-accountability, merit-pay bent, but even they couldn’t prove VAM methodologically sound.

Teachers have an enormous public relations campaign to undertake; no credible research suggests that students’ test scores are a valid way to measure teachers. Since the onset of No Child Left Behind we have lost enormous ground on the argument that high-stakes objective standardized tests are illegitimate measures of children’s’ progress in the first place. Rather than measuring learning, they measure students’ socio-economic and racial backgrounds, much like the eugenicist IQ tests of the past. To regain the integrity of learning and development, and to fight for the dignity of the work of teaching, we will have to campaign around these ideas.

***

“Who’s Teaching L.A.’s Kids,” was published August 14th as a first in a Times series. On August 31st the Los Angeles School Board met and voted with the dissent of only one board member, Marguerite LaMotte, to accept a proposal by the newly knighted Deputy Superintendent John Deasy. He recommended that Value Added measures on tests should account for 30% of teachers’ evaluations. This is subject to collective bargaining with the teachers’ union.

Other districts have enacted worse; in Florida and Denver, Value Added may account for up to 50% of evaluations. The current debate among educational professionals and policy-makers is whether student test scores should (or should not) be one among a number of criteria by which teachers are judged. In a speech that she gave to an audience of 700 UTLA members, the U.S.’s preeminent education historian Diane Ravitch argued, “The problem with using Value Added in any form is that, because it has a pseudo-scientific aura about it, and in this climate, it will dominate all other forms of evaluation.”

Following the LAUSD meeting, the California state Board of Education voted on September 16th to create an online database to track teachers by students test scores. The resolution was brought by Ben Austin, whose career ii nth Clinton White House led him to Green Dot charter schools where he led the takeover of Locke High School and launched the “astroturf” group Parent Revolution . He is the author and salesman of many of the privatization and teacher-union-bashing schemes in Los Angeles.

And to add the icing to the cake, the Obama administration offered $442 million in grants to school districts that enacted merit pay schemes for teachers based on their students’ test scores. The announcement was made at the end of September, the day before the public release of the Vanderbilt study critiquing the validity of merit pay based on student test scores. But as Diane Ravitch noted, “Ideology trumps evidence.” The irony of those riding the war horse of “data” and having no data to back up their policy prescriptions would be funny if it didn’t ruin so many lives.

United Teachers Los Angeles held a protest at the offices of the Los Angeles Times September 14th that was attended by several thousand teachers. With the announcements of Ruelas’ death two weeks later, the union is demanding that the Times take down the weblink that rates individual teachers by name. A public mass overflowed on Wednesday the 29th overflowed a Southcentral church and the front lawn of Miramonte Elementary. Hundreds of students, teachers, and parents came to pay their respects.

It will be essential that we channel anger over Ruelas’ death into willingness to resist the school board’s effort to impose Value Added as the most prominent component of teacher evaluations at the bargaining table. “Rigo’s family wants his death to be for something,” said Taylor. The process of learning and human development cannot be assigned a number value, and the people engaged in this process need to resist an attempt to commodify us.

SARAH KNOPP is a public school teacher in Los Angeles. She can be reached at: zebraslk@gmail.com

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