LA Teacher Suicide Sparks School Reform Pushback

Parents and students are outraged over popular teacher Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr's death.

By Jamilah King Sep 29, 2010

Is the education reform debate now costing teachers their lives? That’s the underlying question swirling around Los Angeles this week after a popular 39-year-old teacher was found dead from an apparent suicide after reportedly being distraught over his low performance ranking in the Los Angeles Times.

The teacher, Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr, was a popular 14-year veteran at Miramonte Elementary School near the city’s downtown. After being reported missing by his family, police found Ruelas’s body in the Angeles National Forest on Sunday. Though the official cause of death is still under investigation, colleagues noted that he had been despondent since August’s teacher rankings were made public.

At a memorial held at the school this week, parents and students remembered Ruelas as a tireless instructor; someone from the community who cared deeply about his students’ lives both inside and outside of the classroom.

"He took the worse students and tried to change their lives," Ismeal Delgado, a 20-year-old former student told Southern California Public Radio. "I had friends who wanted to be gangsters, but he talked them out of it. He treated you like family."

But according to United Teachers Los Angeles, the controversial Times ranking didn’t take any of Ruelas intangible’s into account. In August, the the paper sparked national controversy when it announced a plan to publish a database of 6,000 elementary school teachers’ names alongside their students’ test scores. According to Jason Felch and Jason Song, the story’s investigating reporters, the whole project was done in the name of transparency

Meanwhile, teachers were outraged. UTLA called for a boycott of the paper, and the American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten said that the project was "based on flawed methodology that’s not ready for prime time."

Southern California Public Radio noted that Ruelas had been listed in the paper as a "less effective" teacher due to his students’ low standardized test scores. His supporters echoed many critics of the paper’s initial plans to publish the data: that it’s a short sighted and crude measure of teacher performance, particularly in communities like the one where Ruelas taught, where over 60 percent of students are Spanish-speaking English-language learners.

Shortly before the database was released in August, Julianne Hing put the LA Times debate in context:

The move from the LA Times reflects a national sentiment that it’s teachers who are the crucial linchpins, and therefore the prime culprits, in the grand scheme of the education system. Teacher evaluation has become a central part of the education reform debate: states who have won or advanced in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top federal grants program have passed laws that tie a teacher’s job security to their students’ test scores. In many states, as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation can be based on how well their students perform, and a teacher can be fired with no recourse in two years if their students underperform. Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee used this evaluation method to fire 241 teachers this summer.

In a brief statement on Sunday, the Times extended its condolences and noted that the case was still under investigation. A memorial service is planned for late Wednesday.