Firebrand opponent of testing, Common Core, and other reforms elected president of state’s largest teachers’ union
IN A MOVE that has sent shockwaves across the state’s education landscape, the largest teachers’ union in Massachusetts has elected a new president who staunchly opposes many of the cornerstones of education policy that have guided schools since passage of the landmark Education Reform Act more than 20 years ago.
In an upset victory at the annual convention of the Massachusetts Teachers Association earlier this month, Barbara Madeloni, an outspoken critic of high-stakes testing and other reforms, narrowly defeated the union’s vice president, who had been widely expected to win the post.
Madeloni’s victory is being cheered by some teachers and testing opponents who see it as a further evidence that a movement against the test-based standards and accountability agenda in education is gaining traction across the country. But her win is setting off alarms among those who say it threatens the state’s efforts to establish high standards for all students and an accountability system designed to intervene in schools when they aren’t delivering results.
The 57-year-old Northampton resident employed fiery language in her campaign and a take-no-prisoners attitude toward many education policy issues. She tore into reforms that she says have been brought to public schools by corporate elites.
Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner, says he exchanged emails with Madeloni following her election but has not yet had a chance to sit down to meet with her. He said he is “certainly concerned,” however, about statements she has made calling for a moratorium on testing and on use of the new teacher evaluation system, which is part of state law. He called her opposition to the Common Core standards “alarming.”Madeloni called for a three-year moratorium on all high-stakes testing and she opposes the new Common Core curriculum standards that Massachusetts, along with 43 other states and the District of Columbia, has adopted. She describes high-stakes testing and the “hyperaccountability” that has come with it as developments that have drained the joy out of learning, likening the climate in classrooms today to something out of Dickens novels.
“I think it would be a real step backward to back off this standards-driven accountability for results,” said Chester. “We have to make sure all our students receive a broad curriculum that’s not narrow. But as broad a curriculum as we might provide, if students are not literate, if they do not have strong math skills, we have handicapped them for life.”
Madeloni took square aim at the leadership of outgoing president Paul Toner, who had to give up the reins according to union rules after four years at the helm, and his vice president, Tim Sullivan, who had been expected to move into the top job under the next-in-line tradition that has generally governed leadership change in the organization. On Twitter, she ripped Toner for speaking recently at a conference of what she called the “union busting” organization Teach for America. And she tore into Sullivan for saying he wanted a “place at the table” in education policy discussions. “I say it’s our table!” she declared.
It’s not exactly the language of collegial working relationships with education stakeholders, say those who have been alarmed by her strident positions.
Toner has won widespread praise from state education officials and nonprofit leaders involved in education for his collaborative style and efforts to boost the standing of teaching as a profession, not just a trade. But Madeloni faulted his leadership, saying the approach was to “cut deals” with those pushing for reforms under the argument that “if we didn’t cut a deal things would be worse.”
“That grew this incredible sense of hopelessness and cynicism and alienation within the membership,” she said.
Local MTA leaders say there was strong support for the compromise, and that there was also a real need to revamp teacher evaluations, which have long been criticized as perfunctory and ineffective.
“It was really a case of looking at the reality of what the situation was and how we could do the absolutely best by our members,” says Diana Marcus, president of the MTA local in Burlington. “We needed to look at how much could be lost.”
Although the implementation of the new evaluation system has not been without its problems, on the whole it has introduced a level of feedback and resources for “continuous improvement” of teaching skills that was never present in the past, Marcus says.
For his part, Toner declined to respond to any of the attacks made during the campaign. He emphasized that the teachers’ union has become a productive partner in education discussions. “I have worked to try to elevate MTA’s position among politicians and policymakers to make MTA an organization that seeks solutions to education for all students in the state,” he said. “I hope those relationships continue and that MTA is able to continue to play a major role in settling education policy for Massachusetts.”
It remains to be seen how Madeloni, who regularly rips the involvement of corporations and foundations in education issues, will deal with Massachusetts organizations that have played a major role in education policy. Too much of the education agenda for low-performing schools serving children in poverty has been driven by “big money and elitists,” she said. “I think it’s an important conversation to have with the parents of those children, but it’s not a conversation to have with rich white men who are deciding the course of public education for black and brown children.”
Such rhetoric has given pause to Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a business-funded organization that was instrumental in passing the 1993 education reform law. “Our attitude as an organization is we want to be collaborative with anybody who wants children to be ready for their future,” said Noonan. “That means our door is open. Some of her statements make me wonder whether she’ll walk through it.”
Many of the positions Madeloni staked out would undo established policies or laws, and she recognizes that declaring a new stand as the union’s president is not the same as changing current practices. But Madeloni’s election seems destined to shift the conversation in state education policy. It also appears to be part of broader movement among teachers’ unions nationally to resist high-stakes testing and many of the reforms that have been put in place in recent years.
Madeloni’s election was “part of a national pushback against the overreach of testing in terms of how it affects students, schools, and teachers,” said Monty Neill, executive director of Fair Test, a national organization based in Boston opposed to high-stakes testing. “It was certainly heartening to us to see how outspoken she was on misuse and overuse of standardized tests.”
Madeloni took MTA leaders by surprise by organizing many teachers who had previously not been active with the union. She estimated that a third of the delegates at the May 10 state meeting in Boston had never attended an MTA convention.Some of Madeloni’s views don’t just clash with existing state policy or law, but also with official views of the union she will now lead. Asked how she would reconcile her strong opposition to Common Core with the MTA’s official stance in support of the new national standards, Madeloni, who takes office in July, said she recognizes she will not rule by fiat. But it is one of many issues that she wants the union to revisit.
“I’ve said all along, I’m deeply committed to the democratic process,” she said. “I have hopes for what that will look like. But it’s not Barbara. It’s Barbara facilitating a different kind of conversation that asks different questions and has a different sense within those questions about the potential for our 110,000 members to use our power in ways we haven’t been using them.”