Grading Teachers

LynNell Hancock’s article, “Tested: Covering schools in the age of micro-measurement” (CJR, March/April), gives a thoughtful and thorough overview of the current climate in education policy and in education journalism.

But I would have appreciated a more complete exploration of the ethics and efficacy of the Los Angeles Times’s project, in which the paper developed “its own job performance system” for teachers. Is it ethical to not just publish the previously unreleased value-added stats, as the Times did, but show each teacher’s rating in a graphic format on a continuum from “most effective” to “least effective”? With the value-added project, the Los Angeles Times went beyond being the messenger to being the judge and jury.

Caroline Grannan

San Francisco, Calif.

In late September 2010, Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., a thirty-nine-year-old Hispanic teacher from the eastern part of Los Angeles, committed suicide. Rigoberto was deeply depressed—not because he had been laid off or terminated as so many teachers have been in California and elsewhere because of our “under-performing” economy. He was depressed because his name had been listed in a controversial database created and published by the Los Angeles Times and based on the value-added method that Hancock writes about. The Times identified him as slightly “less effective” than other LA teachers.

Despite repeated warnings by experts in education testing and statistics that the Times database of teacher-ratings were unreliable and misleading, the paper published its grades for about six thousand third- through fifth-grade teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Education Secretary Duncan cheered and urged newspapers across the country to follow the Times’s example.

According to school-district officials, Rigoberto Ruelas was incredibly dedicated, with an almost perfect work attendance during his fourteen-year teaching career. According to parents whose children he taught, Rigoberto would work late into the evening to boost his students’ aspirations and academic performance through after-school tutoring and homework assistance. Most important, many of the students he taught report that Rigoberto challenged and inspired them to stay in school, away from gangs, and to graduate from college—even many years after they left his fifth-grade classroom.

Ruelas family members and teacher colleagues at Miramonte, say Rigoberto was depressed at being rated “average” in his ability to raise students’ English scores and “less effective” in his ability to raise math scores and slightly “less effective” than his peers. He became so despondent with his “failure” that he took his own life. And so a teacher who could have helped thousands of poor, immigrant, and Latino students climb the educational ladder “failed” to measure up to a misleading performance standard, and in despair, “dropped out” of the teaching profession he loved, away from the children for whom he lived.

James J. Lyons
Arlington, Va.
A version of this letter appeared in Hispanic Link News Service.

A Life’s Work

We at The Florida Times-Union and particularly appreciated CJR’s March/April piece, “The Cancer Report” by Joel Meares, because of our own Jessie-Lynne Kerr, who has been a reporter here since 1964. Two years ago, Jessie-Lynne was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, which is especially virulent and which since has spread. For more than two years, she has fought off the cancers with waves of chemotherapy as well as her stainless-steel will. Ultimately, the cancer will prevail. But Jessie-Lynne still comes to work every day she can, even after hours of chemo.

Jessie-Lynne has covered her cancer as thoroughly, as creatively, and as honestly as she’s covered every other story over her career. The Global Lung Cancer Coalition flew in to present her with its New Media Award for her personal blog. Recently, 225 community leaders and others surprised her with a celebration of her life. She admonished them: “This does not excuse you from the funeral.”

The city renamed a section of Riverside Avenue in front of our offices for her. And her colleagues put up a plaque at the door aimed at younger reporters when they come to work: “Always ask the tough questions. Don’t accept BS for an answer. Jessie-Lynne Kerr did that as a T-U reporter for nearly five decades. She’s watching to see that you do the same.”

Frank M. Denton
, The Florida Times-Union/
Jacksonville, Fla.

The Editors