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Patt Morrison Asks

Monica Ratliff, the new teacher on board

The fifth-grade teacher's improbable election victory brought her, and a new perspective, to the L.A. Unified School District board.

August 28, 2013|By Patt Morrison

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.

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