A teacher pushed to the edge

October 1, 2010

Sarah Knopp tells the tragic story of a fellow Los Angeles public school teacher.

RIGOBERTO RUELAS attended Miramonte Elementary as a student and returned to work there for 14 years, first as a teaching assistant, and then as a 5th grade teacher. In 14 years, he almost never missed a day of work. But Sunday, September 19, he called in sick for the next day.

His body was found a week later underneath a 100-foot-high bridge in the Angeles National Forest. Suicide is the likely cause of death, although no note was found.

Suicide rarely has a single cause, and usually follows a long chain of complicated, though socially preventable, adversities. But in Ruelas' case, we know one adversity he was deeply distraught about: the August 14 publication in the Los Angeles Times of an article called "Who's Teaching LA's Kids?"

No one knows what part the article played in Ruelas' distress, but at the very least, it was a 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 article to improve his students' scores. Ruelas' family is boycotting the Los Angeles Times.

Rigoberto Ruelas
Rigoberto Ruelas

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) officials claim that they sent a memo to principals stating that the use of test score data for disciplining teachers is against the union contract, but there are reports that some principals are ignoring this.

"This guy was 100 percent teacher," said Mat Taylor, chairperson for the south area of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), after spending time with the staff at Miramonte Elementary. "That's what his whole life was about. When this hit, it crushed him,"

To write the article, Times reporters Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith filed a public information request with the LAUSD to get test scores for the students of 6,000 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers. LAUSD complied with the request, even though it had they had never before used or published student test data divided out by teacher.

Readers can click a link called "Find a Teacher" on the Times Web site and find out whether these 6,000 teachers are, according to the paper's analysis of 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.

"For me, he was a good teacher," said Christian, a former student of Ruelas who is now attending high school in LAUSD. "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 immediately began trying to organize parents and fellow alums from Miramonte for a vigil or protest to defend Ruelas' reputation as a teacher.

According to Mat Taylor, "He taught the toughest fifth graders. Those are the kids he wanted, even though they may be the ones who are the hardest to test."

Kristal O'Neil (not her real name), 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 training in drama from the USC fine arts program 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, O'Neil said 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 in the end, she 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," she said. "I feel like someone came along and put me in prison."

The sleepless nights and crises that standardized tests impose on teachers--especially when the tests are used, in the sensationalized manner of the LA Times, as the only thing that matters--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 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 catchphrase to take root among the "accountability" movement that encompasses Education Secretary Arne Duncan, billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad and their corporate think tanks, and the self-promoting charter school operators.

The "reformers" concede that it would be wrong to measure teachers by raw test scores alone because some students start so far behind. But, they say, "value-added" methods control for differences in student populations by measuring how many percentage points a student gains in a year--that is, by 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 VAMs (value-added measures) are an effective way to rate teachers. In a briefing report issued on August 29, the Economic Policy Institute surveyed current research on VAMs, concluding:

One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20 percent 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 percent. Another found that teachers' effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4 percent to 16 percent 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.

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."

According to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, "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."

Furthermore, researchers have found that the best predictor of fourth-grade test results was...fifth-grade teachers. 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 a child's fifth-grade teacher has nothing to do with their fourth-grade education, we can only assume that VAM is measuring something other than teacher quality.

A recently released study by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University researched merit pay based on students' test scores in Nashville. The study's conclusion was that merit pay 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 hadn't received the offer.

This was significant because the National Center on Performance Incentives was generally understood to have a pro-accountability bent. But even supporters of merit pay couldn't prove that VAM methods were sound.

Teachers have an enormous public relations campaign ahead of us to make the truth clear: No credible research exists to back up the idea that students' test scores are a valid way to measure teachers' effectiveness.

Since the onset of No Child Left Behind, we have lost enormous ground on the argument that high-stakes 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.

TWO WEEKS after the Times article "Who's Teaching LA's Kids?" appeared, the Los Angeles School Board met August 31 and voted--with just one dissent from board member Marguerite LaMotte--to accept a proposal from the newly installed Deputy Superintendent John Deasy for value-added measures on tests to account for 30 percent 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 percent of evaluations.

Following the LAUSD board meeting, the California state Board of Education voted on September 16 to create an online database to track teachers by student test scores. The resolution was put forward by Ben Austin, whose career in the 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 insult to injury, 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 in late 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 warhorse of "data" and having no data to back up their policy prescriptions would be funny if it didn't ruin so many lives.

UTLA held a protest at the offices of the Los Angeles Times September 14 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 Web link that rates individual teachers by name.

On September 29, a public mass overflowed a South Central church and the front lawn of Miramonte Elementary. Hundreds of students, teachers and parents came to pay their respects.

We need to channel anger over Ruelas' death into a 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.

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