Union leader blasted for dismissing focus on college and careers
Mass. Teachers president draws heat for saying state ed policy is driven by ‘capitalist class and its needs for profit’
THE SUCCESSION OF state legislators and teachers who testified before the state board of education last month came with detailed arguments against a proposal to raise the minimum passing score on the 10th grade MCAS exam. Max Page came with a blistering condemnation of the entire foundation of the state’s education system.
The new president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association took the mic during the board’s public comment period to deliver a sweeping, at times sarcasm-filled, indictment of public education policy and the state officials in charge of it.
Page started his broadside by mocking the board and state education leaders, likening their attachment to high-stakes testing to his own youthful excitement 40 years ago with mood rings.
“Then I grew older and I grew up,” Page said. “The board is still fidgeting with your mood rings and spinning their REO Speedwagon albums, obsessed with a test invented some 20 years ago and repeatedly shown to do little more than prove the wealth of a student and the community where it is taken.”
“It struck me that we have a fundamental difference of views of what schools are for,” Page said. “The focus on income, on college and career readiness speaks to a system … tied to the capitalist class and its needs for profit. We, on the other hand, have as a core belief that the purpose of schools must be to nurture thinking, caring, active and committed adults, parents, community members, activists, citizens.”
In language suggesting nothing less than a zero-sum war of these competing views, Page said public education must be reconceived from scratch in order to have schools “that are organized for joy, for creativity, for citizenship.” He told the board and state education leaders that the union fight for that reimagined model would persist “as long as it takes to tear down the system that you are perpetuating.”
It was a jarring moment, but in many ways it was not so much a sharp departure for the state’s largest teachers union as it was a loud exclamation mark on nearly a decade of increasingly hostile positioning from the MTA toward the state education establishment.
The union has become harshly critical of the state accountability system that uses scores of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System to judge school and district performance, and it has called for an end to using the 10th grade MCAS test, an assessment of English, math, and science knowledge, as a high-stakes exam that students must pass to graduate from high school. The MTA, which represents 115,000 educators, most of them in the K-12 system, has led the charge in a broader movement against a focus on standardized testing, which critics say has narrowed the curriculum in many schools and squeezed out arts, music, and other subjects.
While the union has made clear its opposition to the state’s test-based system for judging schools, Page took the argument to a new level. He not only criticized the testing regime introduced with the 1993 Education Reform Act, he dismissed the broader idea underpinning it – that schools play a vital role in building student academic skills to prepare them for college and career success in the workforce.
The comments stunned – and angered – educators and education policy leaders.
“I found it infuriating, I found it to be an elitist, condescending statement,” said Edith Bazile, the former president of Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts and founder Black Advocates for Educational Excellence. Bazile, who spent 32 years as a special education teacher and later administrator in the Boston Public Schools, said Page’s comments showed total disregard for the enormous racial wealth gap holding back communities of color. “Yes, we need kindness and joy,” she said of his school vision. “But the biggest disparity in education is how schools fail to prepare Black and brown students for college, career, and vocational success. That is the only way we are going to close the wealth gap.”
Page’s comments sounded “like 1850 Karl Marx. But that’s not how the real world works,” he said. “This is a world where reading, writing, and math matter, and they’ve become even more important. High school graduates who have higher literacy and math skills have higher earnings than kids who don’t. If you don’t have skills in those areas, not much else matters,” said Harrington. “He’s a PhD at UMass, he’s making a good living, so he gets to say that,” he said of Page’s dismissal of college and career readiness. “Let’s hear the person making $38,000 a year in Springfield say that.”
The idea that Page advanced – that schools should nurture students in ways so that they can go on to become committed “community members, activists, citizens” – has long been a hallmark of American education. Horace Mann, the first Massachusetts secretary of education and a leading 19th century thinker on the role of public schools, promoted that idea in an 1846 report to the state. “Since the achievement of American Independence,” he wrote, “the universal and ever-repeated argument in favor of Free Schools has been, that the general intelligence which they are capable of diffusing, and which can be imparted by no other human instrumentality, is indispensable to a republican form of government.”
But Mann also famously described public schools as a great engine of equality and economic mobility. “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery,” he said.
In other words, schooling plays a critical role in both economic opportunity and social mobility and in preparing young people to be active and engaged citizens.
“This has been a debate forever in education: Is it for enlightenment or is it for economic well-being,” said Paul Toner, a former president of the Mass. Teachers Association. “It’s not an either-or,” he said, criticizing Page for pitting the two against each other.
The idea that schools have a vital role in both of those areas was also the view of perhaps the best known teachers union leader in US history, Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“Albert Shanker believed the fundamental purpose of public schools was to teach kids what it means to be an American, by which he meant, teaching them about the shared values that Americans hold in support of liberal democracy,” said Richard Kahlenberg, author of Tough Liberal, a 2007 biography of the union leader. “In that sense, he would likely have associated himself with the parts of Page’s remarks that prioritized education’s role in creating good citizens. Having said that, Shanker also believed schools play an important role in imparting skills to ensure that children graduate to be economically self-sufficient and flourish in a market economy.”
Page declined repeated requests to the MTA offices to speak with him about his remarks at the state education board meeting.
Jack Schneider, an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has led a pilot initiative of alternatives to MCAS to measure school performance, said he took Page’s comments to mean schools must be committed to more than just the academic subjects assessed by standardized tests. “We value public education for more than just the instrumental aims that can be advanced through a particular kind of approach that might be measured in some narrow way by MCAS,” said Schneider.
Schneider agreed with Page’s sentiment that the aim of schools should not be merely to serve as the “handmaidens of industry,” churning out worker bees trained to meet the needs of companies who then “return value to shareholders.” At the same time, Schneider said, maintaining that schools “shouldn’t be preparing kids for college and careers – that’s a losing argument, and it’s particularly a losing argument with demographic groups that have been denied shots at those kinds of opportunities.”
Page’s dismissal of college and career readiness was “totally misguided,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which works to connect Boston high school students and young adults with workplace training opportunities, provides support for students entering community colleges, and helps those who have dropped out of high school get back on track.
“That was a suburban perspective on poverty,” said Sullivan. “In terms of the community I know, someone who says that just doesn’t get listened to. It’s just some white guy from Amherst.”
Sullivan said he considers himself an “MCAS moderate,” believing that it has become overemphasized and can leave behind students who don’t demonstrate their best potential through standardized tests on academic subjects. But he said that’s all the more reason to build robust programming in high schools that helps students with career exploration.
“Income and career aspirations are not distributed fairly in our society, and if you don’t understand that addressing that is a core element of urban secondary education, then you are missing the boat,” said Sullivan, who cut his teeth with the community organizing group Mass. Fair Share in the late 1970s and early ‘80s before going on to serve as policy director for Boston Mayor Ray Flynn.
“This is posturing from a place of white privilege,” said Bazile, the former head of Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts. “I think it’s a perfect example of why those closest to the pain need to be closest to the power. We would like our children to have the same pathway you had to success with college and career,” she said of the MTA president, who earned his BA at Yale and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser said he found it hard to reconcile Page’s views on inequality with the comments he directed at Peyser and members of the state education board. “He professes to care very deeply about justice as it’s manifested in income and wealth inequality,” Peyser said of Page. “I don’t know how he can hold that position and say college and career readiness doesn’t matter.”
Page has been part of a sharp political turn to the left in the MTA. He and others in the union recoiled at compromises past leaders agreed to over teacher evaluation policies and other reforms. The big shift occurred with the election in 2014 of Barbara Madeloni as MTA president. It continued with her successor, Merrie Najimy, and now Page. Along the way, the union has adopted something of an us-versus-them posture toward state education officials, with little dialogue or effort to seek common ground on issues.
“I would say we’ve had very little relationship at all,” said Peyser, who has served since the start of the Baker administration in January 2015. He said he met early on with Madeloni, but things deteriorated quickly as the administration and union locked horns in a ballot question campaign over the state’s charter school cap, which Baker and Peyser wanted to see raised. “There’s really been no meaningful contact with me since then,” said Peyser.
Paul Reville, who served as education secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick, was a key player behind the push for the 1993 Education Reform Act. Reville was a co-founder of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which rallied business leaders behind the effort to dramatically increase funding for schools, while also establishing new curriculum frameworks and an accountability system for tracking the academic progress of students and schools.
“The business community was very concerned that they weren’t getting young people coming into the labor market with the skills to do jobs of the late 20th century,” said Reville. “Incidentally, those concerns persist two decades into the 21st century. I remember in the ‘80s various employers telling me, ‘I‘ve got to do a training program in basic literacy skills. What are they doing in these schools?’ Those who didn’t like the reforms that were adopted to raise performance began to say those who were advancing the reforms believed that workforce preparation was the only purpose of education.”
Reville said Page and others with that view are presenting a false choice about the aim of public schooling. “There’s no shame in schooling preparing youth for gainful employment, but of course, education is about much more, especially citizenship and lifelong learning,” he said.As for the debate over whether to raise the minimum MCAS passing score, Reville said, “Reasonable people can disagree over whether it’s time to raise the standard. But what he was doing is being insulting in the process,” he said of Page, “and being condescending and attaching motivations to the board that are designed to be highly disrespectful of them rather than assume good faith. It seems like educators have a particular responsibility to demonstrate what civility looks like in public discourse, and for the head of the biggest teachers’ union to treat people on the board disrespectfully – it’s poisoning the dialogue and it’s degrading public discourse.”