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 The teachers’ union demanded the database of teachers be unpublished.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.