L.A. Times (Almost) Blamed by Union for Teacher Suicide

Photo by Abhijit Tembhekar.

A panel yesterday at UC Berkeley saw Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch discussing the paper’s decision to publish the “teacher ratings” of teachers in the Los Angeles schools. Before you ask, yes, that’s presumably that’s the reporter’s real name; as far as I know, he’s not a former member of the punk scene.

The Times published a database of the names and ratings of 6,000 both high- and low-performing elementary school teachers from a L.A. city government study, in its project “Grading the Teachers: Value-Added.” According to a story in the San Jose Mercury News (via comments in MediaBistro), the article alleged that while the City of Los Angeles is ignoring the results, the information should be public. “There is a culture, not just in Los Angeles schools but across the country, where differences in instruction are ignored,” Felch said at the UCB event.

The problem? The paper’s been taking heat since Sunday’s apparent suicide of a fifth-grade Los Angeles Unified School District teacher named Rigoberto Rueles, who received a “slightly below-average overall rating.” The teachers’ union demanded the database of teachers be unpublished. The same union had previously organized a boycott of the Times for publishing the information.

In fact, the Merc quotes former Oakland middle school teacher Anthony Cody as accusing the series of being indicative of mounting anti-teacher sentiment. He said of Rueles: “He may be the first casualty in America’s war on teachers.”

But UC Berkeley School of Journalism senior lecturer Susan Rasky asked the audience not to “shoot the messenger,” suggesting the Times is just reporting what the City already knows and (according to the Times) refuses to act on.

Unfortunately, education blogs are up in arms, rushing to judgment with statements like the following lead from Colorlines, a “racial justice” blog:

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.

Louis Freedburg at the nonprofit CaliforniaWatch has a more nuanced view of the symposium.

Rueles’ suicide is an absolute tragedy. But it seems agonizingly obvious it probably has nothing to do with the Times. Even if it did, there’s a hell of a big difference between publishing the ratings of public employees and hounding a teenager to suicide on MySpace. Teachers are understandably paranoid about being held to account by a dysfunctional system or subjected to a media “witch hunt.” But this is not a witch hunt. Rueles was not singled out; he was one of 6,000. Blaming Rueles’ suicide on the Times attempt to create public accountability is ridiculous. A “war on teachers”? There is a war on teachers — I know of half a dozen of them who were laid off this past year because of budget cuts. But the Times isn’t waging it.

To my way of thinking, the biggest danger of getting hysterical over this issue is not that it will dampen journalists’ willingness to publish, or start a flame war between teachers’ unions and journalists that will let the California state government off the hook for having screwed education in this fine Golden state.

The real danger is that such paranoia takes away from the very definition of harassment and “war,” and by extension, stalking and all the other goodies that go with life online. When we can call a public debate a vendetta just to help our grieving process and job anxiety, how the hell are any social issues ever going to get addressed?

To equate Rueles’ suicide with Megan Meier’s is insulting. It cheapens whatever surely very real depression Rueles might have felt over his “slightly-lower-than-average” rating — the sort of thing that can seem like a landslide when one’s in the depths of depression. It turns a very real mental health issue into an opportunity for reactionary hysteria and threatens to turn a debate into a screaming match.

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2 comments on “L.A. Times (Almost) Blamed by Union for Teacher Suicide
  1. Jason Felch and the Los Angeles Times have blood on their hands. Their actiions absolutely DID have a part in this teacher’s death. They are not the messengers, as you report here. They spent their own money to hire a statistician, then based on data that the Times admits has a one-in-five mistake rate, they took it upon themselves to assign labels to individual teachers. I wouldn’t buy a car that broke down one-in-five times, why would you buy the Time’s information about teachers? At my school, the teachers with the cherry-picked “high” students were labeled effective, those that got the English Learners, Autistic, and “poor” kids were labeled ineffective. And here you are, knowing nothing about how students are assigned teachers, believing the Times’ made-up phony-baloney?

  2. I didn’t say I believe it. I said it is not reasonable to blame the Times for Rueles suicide. I’m not fond of what the Times did, myself. I think teaching is an art and evaluating it is difficult. I think this kind of statistical crap is poison to an educational system.

    But Rueles to my knowledge did not leave a suicide note (though that could have changed since press time). Speculating on why he killed himself is pure politics.

    Please do NOT interpret this as ANY indication of lack of sympathy for Rueles or his family. But the scapegoat should be the entire system, not the Times. And I agree that this system is utterly unfair to teachers. I also believe that it is reprehensible that we live in a system where a public employee like Rueles who feels so disempowered and does not have resources to get help. It is HORRIBLE what happened to Rueles. If he was the best teacher in the world, a terrible teacher or an average teacher — it is IRRELEVANT to the fact that the public sector should have supported him with appropriate mental health resources.

    The public sector does NOT do that, and it is a crime. Teachers are treated like chattel, but it is not the Times (or me) waging a war on teachers. For that, blame politicians who have defunded education in order to hand money back to privileged Californians. But even THEY can’t be blamed for Rueles’ suicide. Doing so is, I believe, deeply disrespectful to the dead.

    Can I ask what exactly you’ve used to decide I know “nothing” about how students are assigned teachers? Just because you’ve decided I’m an idiot because I disagree with you? If you read ANY hostility to teachers in what I’ve written, I can’t imagine where it comes from. I come from a family of teachers, and I believe them to be the bulwark of civilization. I believe teachers to be treated unfairly much or most of the time in today’s political arena. That is reprehensible and we as a society all have to answer for it.

    The Times may be right or wrong, but if you’re going to tell me that they are RESPONSIBLE for Rueles’ death (“blood on their hands?”) then I assert that that is taking it pretty far.

    Apologies to Mr. Rueles and his family for even talking about this stuff. I believe it is disrespectful to the dead to speculate about why someone killed him or herself, in the absence of a note. But I didn’t open the political can of worms; the teachers’ union did. This is a tragic case and I hope Rueles’ family can draw strength from something other than assigning blame.

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