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Teacher Commits Suicide Over Ranking by LA Times

By carolyncastiglia |

la teacher suicide

Photo by Mark Boster, courtesy of the LA Times. School memorial for Rigoberto Ruelas.

If you live on the West Coast, chances are you’ve heard about Rigoberto Ruelas, a 5th grade teacher in LA who was found dead this weekend in Angeles National Forest.  His death was ruled a suicide, and his family reports his fatal depression was caused by his low ranking on the LA Times teacher-rating database.

In the LA Times story about Mr. Ruelas’s death, they describe him as a man who “always reached out to the toughest kids.”  They say, “He would tutor them on weekends and after school, visit their homes, encourage them to aim high and go to college.”  The paper goes on to praise him as someone “so passionate about his mission that, school authorities say, he had near perfect attendance in 14 years on the job.”

Yet in their ranking of Mr. Ruelas, the LAT rated him “average in his ability to raise students’ English scores and “less effective” in his ability to raise math scores.  Overall, he was rated slightly “less effective” than his peers.”  These rankings, based on standardized test scores, are offered by the outlet as a “public service.”  But they’ve resulted in a public memorial for a teacher clearly well-loved by all who knew him.

The President of the LA teacher’s union, A.J. Duffy, says in response to Mr. Ruelas’s tragic ending, ”Despite The Times’ analysis, and all other measures, this was a really good teacher.”  Duffy and many parents at Miramonte Elementary School have asked the paper to remove the database from their website.

I feel it’s important to mention that I’ve been avoiding writing this post all day because it’s such a serious issue, and one that I don’t think anyone can tackle in just a few paragraphs.  There is so much I want to say about our society’s blind faith in the Internet as a truth machine, which when coupled with the speed at which we do things today – perhaps most importantly, the speed at which we share stories and information with and about each other – can clearly leave people disgruntled, half-informed and hurt.  This rapid flow of information electronically facilitates bullying, slander, libel, snark – and even when it is disseminated with good intentions, as I believe the LA teacher-rating database was –  it can be incredibly harmful.  Bullies are being desensitized by virtue of their anonymity, power-players are re-affirmed by the overwhelming access and authority posting on the Internet can provide.  Of course technology has the ability to bring us together in amazing, positive ways as well – and I am more than grateful to be employed in a medium that allows me to share my voice with others.  But we seem, as a culture, not to be taking enough time to consider the obvious ways in which our rapid-fire (and sometimes sloppy, rude or incomplete) analysis of one another is doing us all a great disservice.

In this instance, a teacher was lost.  A teacher who inspired students like 13-year-old Andromeda Palma, who says Mr. Ruelas told her, “It is not about where you are from but if you don’t go to school you are nothing in this world,” adding, “Now I am doing real good because of him.”

You cannot quantify that type of success on an Internet database.  But you can see it in the show of love at his memorial site.

Education columnist for The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, wrote yesterday that “The newspaper’s database and its score are not responsible for the suicide of 39-year-old Rigoberto Ruelas.  Suicide is complicated, and the reasons someone decides to take his own life are complex and often unknowable.”  But, she says, “Many critics of the database argued last month when it was released that it was unfair and judged teachers strictly on student standardized test scores.”

The database is still live on the LA Times site, you can see it here.  A service will be held for Mr. Ruelas today at 5 p.m. at Presentation Catholic Church in Los Angeles.

Photo: LA Times

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About carolyncastiglia

carolyncastiglia

carolyncastiglia

Carolyn Castiglia is a New York-based comedian/writer wowing audiences with her stand-up and freestyle rap. She’s appeared in TONY, The NY Post, The Idiot’s Guide to Jokes and Life & Style. You can find Carolyn’s writing elsewhere online at MarieClaire.com and The Huffington Post. Read bio and latest posts → Read Carolyn's latest posts →

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7 thoughts on “Teacher Commits Suicide Over Ranking by LA Times

  1. Selena says:

    Brilliant phrase here: our society’s blind faith in the Internet as a truth machine. Thank you, Carolyn. This is a heart breaker indeed.

  2. Larissa says:

    I agree with both points: Suicide is a complex and mysterious issue and one bad ranking on a web site isn’t, in and of itself, enough to cause someone to commit suicide. AND The LA Times database is an attempt to draw conclusions about teachers based on incomplete and inadequate data and should be taken down, not for the risk to depressed teachers but for the lack of professionalism.

  3. Wellsoup says:

    If anyone needs to be graded its the incompetent LAUSD Administrators like Guadalupe Paramo, which UTLA did nothing about. When Paramo left Belvedere there were 24 unfilled position being taught by substitute teachers and we ended up with 21 unfilled at GHS. She had also dismantled our functioning student discipline policy i.e., allowed a student to stay, never even disciplined, after he stole a teachers car twice. Arrived late almost every day, only did one week of AM supervision in three years, falsified attendance rates…cumulatively (allegedly) leading to another student burning down the historic Garfield Auditorium (over $30 million in damages). The District then promoted her.

    The is the same Distinct that protects both male and female administrator pedophiles. See Micheal Bujko You Tube and Perdaily.com

  4. Rosana says:

    I hardly doubt that the scores alone were the reason for his suicide.

  5. sumoo says:

    Rosana, no one thinks the scores alone caused the suicide. How could you treat this story in such a superficial light? Have you ever known a teacher like Rigoberto? Do you recognize how flawed these kind s of tests are for the evaluation of teachers? Tell me, do you think the high performing teachers are in schools like Rigoberto’s, where kids are poor, and learning English, or in more fortunate situations?

  6. Las Vegas Teacher says:

    I teach at an inner-city middle school in Las Vegas, Nevada. Most of my students read at 2nd-4th grade level. About 30% (or more in some classes) are ELL. I transferred from an affluent high school, where I taught literature to college-bound seniors, because I thought I could make a difference. It’s taken me less than four weeks to realize that I will be blamed for the low test scores of these students, the majority of whom have been socially promoted despite their not being able to read, write or critically think at anything approaching their current grade level. I have been told that I am not allowed to fail students who can’t speak English, even one who reads at preschool level and does not turn in assignments. It’s time to blame the parents and students. I do all I can, but I am not and will not be responsible for the failures of others.

  7. bettywu says:

    sumoo – The reported scores are not about the students’ baseline achievement, they’re about how much they improved year over year. The argument about rich kids vs. poor kids doesn’t hold water for this type of evaluation.

    I agree that teachers aren’t given enough flexibility to teach thinking skills, that many parents and administrations aren’t supportive enough. I think we should pay teachers a ton more.

    I also know that you cannot get rid of a crappy teacher. It is almost impossible and that the union out here is unbelievably recalcitrant on this issues and its downright infuriating. They don’t give a hot damn about the kids.

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