L.A. Teacher Suicide Isn't the Fault of the Los Angeles Times


On Sunday, the body of Los Angeles fifth-grade teacher Rigoberto Ruelas Jr. was found at the foot of a forest bridge. His death appears to have been a suicide. The district's teachers union swung into action, making political hay out of personal tragedy. The union is blaming his death on the Los Angeles Times, which recently published teacher effectiveness rankings on 6,000 district teachers. In the days before his death, Ruelas is said to have been troubled by the fact that he received a "less effective" ranking.

(I hesitate to write about this subject at all, precisely because I think the main story here is personal and not political. But the union has chosen Ruelas as a martyr, and is using his death to further misconceptions about how the rankings work, the ways in which they might be used, and how teachers should respond to them.)

Having never met Mr. Ruelas, I have no idea whether the Los Angeles Times feature was the precipitating factor in his suicide, nor what he was like as a teacher. In various press accounts, students describe Ruelas as a good mentor and caring man. He probably was all of those things, and much more. But there's one thing I do know about Ruelas: he wasn't doing a very good job helping his kids acquire math skills. I don't know all the reasons for that failure. As far as I can tell, he wasn't in imminent danger of being fired because of those scores. And no one is arguing that being good at helping kids learn math is the sole appropriate metric for teacherly success. But it was an important part of his job description.

Erica Jones, a fourth-grade teacher at Arminta Elementary in North Hollywood had this take on the impact of "ineffective" ratings:

"People are questioning if they are in the right field, they are questioning what they have done to help a child or hurt a child … when you are having that internal conversation all the time and then you turn on the news or go to a movie and it's also thrown in your face your morale gets really down."

What she is describing is the proper reaction of a reasonable person to negative professional feedback. If you are doing poorly at your job—even if by only one metric out of many—it should force you think critically about whether you are in the right field and whether you are helping or hurting your customers. Any reasonable person would be saddened to discover that she was not performing well in a job that was important to her. But most people can and will resolve to do better—or get a new job. Sadly, Ruelas wouldn't be the first person to commit suicide over a professional setback. Such deaths are tragic, but not a good argument for abolishing performance reviews or Yelp.

A note: Haunting the discussion of Ruelas's death is a misunderstanding how the scores work. It's a misunderstanding purposely perpetuated by the teachers unions and other foes of data disclosure:

"Test scores are directly related to the socio-economic status of the student population," said [union official Mathew] Taylor. "The best teachers are given the toughest kids. This man had won many awards."

This point has been made in many venues, many times, but bears repeating: The scores are value-added. That means the students who passed through Ruelas's classroom had one set of scores at the beginning of the year, and other at the end. Over the last seven years, according to the data obtained by the Times, his kids' scores didn't improve much. His "less effective" rating reflected only what he brought to the kids in his classroom, not what the typical kid in the system was doing. The ranking came exclusively from what he accomplished in his year with those kids. Kids that come in tough are going to be tough to teach, but it's not wrong to still demand that they be taught.