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Suicide of Teacher and Published Rankings

When the Los Angeles Times decided to publish the rankings of 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers based on how much progress their students made in English and math on standardized tests, it rationalized the move by arguing that taxpayers have the right to know the results. On August 30, I wrote that the Times had made a serious mistake ("Why Not Name and Shame Teachers?). But I never imagined for a minute that it would have such a tragic outcome.

On Sept. 28, the Times ran a story about the suicide of 39-year-old Rigoberto Ruelas, who taught fifth grade at Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District ("Teacher's suicide shocks students, teachers and parents"). According to the Times, the 14-year veteran teacher was "upset" over publication of his lackluster ranking, which found him "average" in his ability to raise his students' English scores and "less effective" to raise math scores. Overall. he was rated "less effective" than his colleagues ("Suicide of L.A. teacher sparks renewed push against test-score ranking system for educators").

The exact motive for Ruelas's suicide is not clear. There may have been factors involved other than the publication of his effectiveness. But what is undeniable is that the Times's decision was a contributing factor. It is this assessment that has led United Teachers of Los Angeles to demand the removal of the rankings.

On Sept. 28, I was invited to discuss this issue on WBAL radio in Baltimore. I explained that even before Ruelas took his own life, the Times had exercised atrocious judgment that would do little to improve instruction. I still believe that this naming and shaming is reminiscent of the use of pillories in colonial America. If the real intent is to help teachers improve their effectiveness, then the best way to do so is by private conferences with teachers, their principals and their department chairpersons and/or colleagues.

Contrary to what union busters want taxpayers to believe, teachers are not trying to duck responsibility. They welcome constructive criticism. In fact, they are hungry for feedback that helps them do a better job. That's why teachers attend summer workshops and weekend seminars. But the key to successful intervention is the way it is carried out. Humiliation is not the way to do so.

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