Fifth-grade math teacher Monica Ratliff became the newest member of L.A. Unified School Board after a heavily publicized win against Antonio Sanchez, a labor union favorite who outspent her by nearly $2 million. Since Ratliff started her term, the country’s second-largest school district has seen its share of controversy, from a botched iPad initiative to the near-resignation of Schools Superintendent John Deasy last month. Ratliff did not want to discuss her views on Deasy, but shared her opinions with The Hechinger Report on a range of issues facing the nation’s second-largest school district.
Question: Your decision as a teacher to run for the board created a lot of interest. Why did you want to be on the board?
Answer: I just got tired of having the district issue mandates that seemed disconnected from the classroom and the students. Many times the district would hand down directives that did not seem to serve the needs of our students. So here’s an example related to iPads. Teachers who have iPads are not able at this time to just download apps they might believe have instructional value. The district is trying to come up with a plan on how they’re going to monitor app downloads in the sense of giving permission and so on. For me, this is slowing down teachers. Some of the teachers already have the iPads, yet the district rule is that you’re not supposed to download any app without district permission. They’re still coming up with a policy and I think this is an example of where a large district starts to hinder its teaching force. Some teachers have knowledge of where to go to get more information but I don’t believe that that’s our whole teacher population.
Q: What are your views on charter schools in Los Angeles?
A: I can say pretty unequivocally that I support successful charter schools. If some teacher wants to create a charter school and has a vision for the school and is able to create a plan that is comprehensive, I support their right to have a charter school. I think a problem with [the] charter law unfortunately is that it does not take into account need in the area. So what we’re starting to see here in Los Angeles is saturation in certain areas. I think it would make more sense to spread charter schools around to areas that have a need versus just allow the charter schools to choose where they want to be and they can all be in the same area if they like. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Q: Do you support the Common Core State Standards?
A: I support the depth that is allowed by Common Core standards. Historically – and with my experience, particularly in math – teachers were expected to cover a great deal of content but because of the number of standards they were supposed to cover in Los Angeles they wouldn’t go in depth in certain really important areas. For example, number sense is extremely vital but teachers under pressure to cover all the standards may move on past number sense even when some students have not really grasped a grade level understanding of number sense. So, I’m excited about the possibility that the Common Core allows teachers to spend a great deal more time on vital standards.
Q: What are you hearing from teachers about the Common Core?
A: I think this is another instance where because of the district size, information is not getting to the ground level. What I hear a great deal when I’m at the central office is how much work is being done in this area and how many people are being trained in this area of the Common Core — but this information does not seem to be getting disseminated to all of our teachers. I believe some teachers are being very well trained. Some teachers have knowledge of where to go to get more information but I don’t believe that that’s our whole teacher population or even the majority of our teacher population. I just mentioned to a district official how I’m concerned about this and he said he’s going to look into it. So hopefully, something is going to be done about this.
Q: What are your views on parent triggers laws in California and all over the country?
A: My position on the parent trigger law is that I’m always going to support parents’ rights to mobilize and to take action. I think the trigger law itself is flawed in many ways. For example, parents who do not sign the petition don’t have a voice in the change at the school. This almost creates a situation where if a parent wants to maintain their ability to have a voice they have to sign the petition whether they agree with the petition or not and that’s problematic. Another problem is that if you were misinformed you can’t pull your name off a petition. And there have been a lot of allegations anyway that some of the petitions are circulated and the parents are told one thing about how the petition is going to be used and then the petition is used in another way. These are allegations; I don’t have any evidence of that.
Q: What is one goal that you want to have achieved before your term ends?
A: I have a lot. If I could have one thing achieved prior to leaving office I would like to see greater bilingual and dual language offerings across the district. We have some dual language programs already. I would hope that over the next few years we could encourage the establishment of more dual language programs. There was some research by two researchers named Collier and Thomas and they found two-way bilingual immersion was one of two ways to assist students to fully reach the 50th percentile in both first and second languages and it helps them maintain their high level of achievement. Apparently those same researchers have found two-way programs have the fewest high school dropouts. So I think it would not only benefit the students who are English Language Learners, but there is actually a fair amount of people I found who would like their students, who are growing up Native English speakers, to speak another language fluently and they would like to have the same opportunities for their students.
Q: How do you plan to convince your district that more dual language immersion programs are needed?
A: There are actually a number of people in the district who support this. My goal is to work with those who already support the program in the district and hopefully, get the word out as to the benefits of dual language immersion programs and then start looking at the costs and so forth. Because, one of the needs is that your teaching staff has to be bilingual. Usually the kids might start off in 90 percent of one language and 10 percent of another and move over the years to a 50/50 system. It’s possible that in the upper grades you might not necessarily need the bilingual staff but you’ll definitely need bilingual staff early on. There are obviously considerations that need to be taken into account in terms of staffing, materials and so on. So this is a long term process in terms of working within the district and also working with our labor partners and so forth to gather support for this concept.
Q: Was there anything that you had a certain position on that you’ve since re-thought or changed your mind on after becoming a board member?
A: I would say that one of the things that was most surprising to me after becoming a board member was how much the people at the central office care about education and want our students to do well – and want our teachers to have what they need in order to teach. So what’s been so disturbing to me is that while the central office staff all want this and while our schools all want this, there seems to be a disconnect in terms of getting these things done. I think there’s a disconnect in information and there is a disconnect in terms of supplies getting where they need to be when they need to be there and repairs that need to be done when they need to be done. There seems to be a delay and if we could figure out how to eliminate that delay – that disconnect – we would be running along quite smoothly. Certainly the desire and will is there but somehow the implementation is not where it needs to be.