Monica Ratliff, the new teacher on board
It was a spur-of-the-moment thing that became momentous. Monica Ratliff, outspent by nearly $2 million, improbably won election to the L.A. Unified School District board. She’s a second-generation teacher — her mother teaches Spanish at a charter school in Phoenix — and her new view, from the 24th floor of “Beaudry,” the district’s headquarters, is far different than it was from her schoolroom at San Pedro Elementary, on the edge of downtown. Voters in her San Fernando Valley district figured that if she could handle a classroom full of fifth-graders, she could manage the affairs of the second-largest school district in the country.
What’s a nice teacher like you doing in a place like this?
Making a difference! I found out the Wednesday before the filing deadline that Nury Martinez was not running [again] for school board. So I looked up on my phone: How do you run? I’d been concerned over how the district seemed disconnected from the classroom, and here was my chance.
People talk about you as a swing vote and a board outsider. How do you see yourself?
One of the beautiful things about my election is my ability to remain independent. My commitment is to the students and the voters. I do think there’s a tendency to forget the nitty-gritty of the classroom. Every [issue] that comes my way, I look at in terms of how does this impact the classroom. It’s important to me that over time we provide more autonomy to our schools, to teach in a way they believe is best.
What kind of autonomy?
I think a huge amount of freedom should exist in terms of curriculum. I loved [San Pedro Elementary’s] commitment to real literature; that wasn’t necessarily something the district mandated or even supported. Every school is different, and to say one size fits all is a mistake. Some schools may choose to put more money into counselors. Some may put more money into structural security.
As a teacher, did you get memos from LAUSD headquarters and wonder, what universe are they living in?
A lot of times you would get mandates to teach more of this or that, and teachers would say, “When?” Teachers are told to teach so much, they can’t fit it into the school day.
A lot of people hate Congress but like their representatives. People may love their kids’ teachers but hate the teachers union.
Yes, absolutely. Teachers need to start addressing that. People talk positively about teachers [but] have real issues with the union. We [teachers] are here because of the students. We need to remind the public of that.
Did you have one or two superb teachers?
Absolutely. There was Mrs. Thrasher. She did a great job of bringing literature alive. And then Mrs. Cresto. This student was harassing me. She and I went classroom by classroom until we found him. She told him if he bothered me again, he would go to the principal’s office, and he stopped bothering me. That made me feel very safe, that the school cared about my well-being. I would hope the LAUSD would feel the same.
How did your K-12 experience measure up?
In Phoenix, I thought I had received a fantastic education. But when I went to college [Columbia University], most of my fellow students were from private schools, and I realized they had done a great deal more writing, had received a lot more commentary on their writing, had been exposed to a wider breadth of literature. I was very disappointed by that. It’s important to give our students an education that matches the education students might receive at an excellent private school.
Do you have any difficulty with disciplining teachers or with merit pay?
I don’t think it is difficult for me. Recognition is really important, to say, “You are a rock star at teaching literature.” It’s also important to say “You’re still in development in teaching algebra.” That shouldn’t be a bad thing as long as we’re providing support. When you see weaker teachers, the question is how can we lift those teachers up?
What’s your reaction to the teacher evaluation standards that the Los Angeles Times published?
I thought it was a little bizarre that anyone could look up a teacher and see the scores. Your neighbor could look up your scores. We should allow parents and interested community members to have access, but I think it would be best to have it at the school site rather than [a public site].
Did you look up your own?
I did. I thought, “They’re OK, but all they’ve done is rank me compared to other teachers.” It doesn’t provide much detail about what makes you a strong this or a weak that. Not even as detailed as Yelp.
What about the new Common Core standards?
It’s a good idea to focus on greater depth. It’s a problem when we try to cover a tremendous amount of standards in one year. You’d have students who managed to merit passing but would have huge gaps in certain areas. It’s not about following a curriculum to the letter; it’s about teaching a student.
From your office window I can see from the Hollywood sign to East L.A. I am not seeing kids spending summers working on family farms. What about a longer school year or school day?
I don’t know anyone who would be opposed to it. I think the question is do we have the money for it?
You come on the board after so much budget bloodletting and after the Proposition 30 school tax passed.
[After] I sat with the district’s budget department, I was thinking, I don’t know that this is as great as I thought it was. We started talking about a structural deficit. We need to make decisions about where we’re going to put the [Proposition 30] money. What should be [the priority] at every school? For example, a school nurse, an assistant principal, a counselor, smaller class size?
“Reform” is the hot word in education. What does it mean to you?
I’m against these labels; it’s almost like you’re reform or you’re status quo. When did that happen? When did education become about these two labels? Take charter schools. It’s as if all reform is good, all charter schools are good, and I don’t really think that’s the case. There are going to be some fantastic things coming out of the quote reform movement, and some fantastic things have been part of our traditions over the years. Why are we going to get rid of these things?
Everyone says reform is for the kids.
The problem is adult agendas come into play, and we need to be very wary of those. If you’re really doing it solely for the students, then you’re also going to be able to be self-reflective and say this part of our agenda may or may not really be for the students. You’ve got so many fantastic ideas. What is stopping ideas from moving forward? This idea of bureaucracy, I haven’t yet found where this bureaucracy is, I can’t find the bureaucracy department to try to eliminate it.
My biggest goal is for people to feel confident in their local schools’ ability to listen to them and serve their children.
What’s your take on the “parent trigger”?
It didn’t come out of nowhere. If parents had felt they were being listened to, there would have been no movement in this direction and the trigger would never be pulled. We should ask some questions: Why can’t you pull the trigger in a school in Brentwood? Why is it only in low-performing schools?
Here’s another thing to discuss: How are students being served when charter schools and traditional public schools have different discipline standards? Some charter schools can have parent volunteer requirements, whereas a traditional public school cannot. I think all schools need to be held to the same standards, and we need to discuss what they are.
Your widowed mom is Latina. Three-quarters of LAUSD students are Latino. What personally do you bring to that?
I have two younger brothers. When I was growing up, my mom would send me to their parent conferences. I think she felt very much like an outsider in the education system. They felt one of my brothers had a speech impediment; no, he just has an accent. Experiences like that led her to say, “Monica can go to the conferences.” If we don’t make our schools welcoming to parents, they will not come. I had back-to-school mornings for parents who were unable to come at night. There were times I would go to the house to meet with them.
LAUSD promises an iPad for every student by next year. Does that risk creating the perception that a computer notebook solves classroom problems?
I’ve been very impressed that both Dr. Deasy and Dr. Aquino [LAUSD superintendent and deputy superintendent, respectively] have been trying hard to get out the message that iPads are not a silver bullet, that our silver bullet is effective teaching. This is a tool, like a ruler or a protractor. It is not going to solve the education problems in this city.
You support vocational education, which some people think of as tracking.
I know, and the last thing I want to do is track my students. As one woman said to me, “My husband is a carpenter; he purchased this home as a carpenter; why are we telling students they can’t be carpenters?” It’s not about tracking, it’s about allowing students to do what they want. Not everyone wants to work in an office.
You didn’t sound very positive about Deasy when you were running. How about now?
I believe he’s open to feedback, he’s open to constructive criticism, I’ve really enjoyed working with him, and his commitment to students is without question. I thought it was great when he went to work as a cafeteria worker the other day. I’d love for him to sub for a day. Obviously I don’t want him to be a bus driver! But it’d be great for him to go around and show that he understands what it’s like.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.
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