Teachers union president decries Trump and testing

MTA head urges teachers to stand up to hate -- and state assessments

BARBARA MADELONI, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, had a message last week for her union’s members in the wake of the presidential election: “let all of our students and their families — but especially those who were targeted by the president-elect in his campaign — know that we will provide safe spaces, defend them from attack, and be more focused and vigilant in our struggle for justice,” Madeloni wrote in her weekly email.

It’s a theme being sounded in lots of schools and other community settings as the country tries to reckon with the election of a president who made divisive attacks based on race and religion a regular feature of his campaign.

But Madeloni’s concept of the struggle for justice was not limited in her email to resisting possible fallout from Donald Trump’s election. It also included fighting against the use of standardized tests and encouraging teachers to lead the “opt-out” effort by declaring that their own children will boycott the state exams, moves that challenge a central pillar of the state’s 23-year-old education reform law.

Teachers must “act on our duty as educators in public schools and colleges to educate for democracy,” she wrote. “Now more than ever, we cannot let mandates, hyperaccountability and narrow conceptions of teaching and learning limit our ability to engage in pedagogies of freedom and hope.”

Madeloni has been an outspoken opponent of standardized testing, but lumping Trump and testing together in one big basket of deplorables struck many education leaders as a reach.

“While I applaud MTA’s post-election message on teaching empathy, hope, and democracy, the pivot from this constructive approach to a campaign for rolling back accountability is absurd,” said former state education secretary Paul Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Barbara Madeloni greets a supporter at the MTA annual convention in May.

Madeloni greets a supporter at the MTA annual convention in May where she was reelected to a second term.

Expressing concern for students who may have fears in the wake of the election is appropriate, said state Rep. Alice Peisch, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education, “but jumping from that to advocating for opting out of state assessments is a connection I don’t see.”

The Senate co-chair of the education committee, Sonia Chang-Diaz, had a similar reaction. “I commend the MTA for using their platform, at a time when so many students are worried, to encourage teaching toward empathy, hope, and democracy,” she said. “But it does strike me as a stretch to imply that opting out of statewide testing is part of pushing back against the Trump victory.”  

The teachers union is coming off a major victory with the defeat of Question 2, the statewide ballot question that would have expanded charter schools in Massachusetts.

Madeloni said following the election that the MTA’s next big effort would be to increase funding for schools. A state commission concluded last year that the formula for calculating state aid to schools was underestimating the cost of providing an adequate education by as much as $1 billion a year because of spiraling costs for health care and special education services.

Chang-Diaz, who co-chaired the Foundation Budget Review Commission with Peisch, said a renewed focus on education funding, including ensuring access to high-quality preschool, is the right priority for the state. 

But Madeloni appears intent on pushing for more funding while also pulling back the state accountability system.

Her email said the MTA board voted last month to support “an educator opt-out statement” that teachers can sign declaring that they will opt their own children out of state standardized testing or have done so the past. She urged teachers to join the “work against the testing machine” and said the MTA would announce the effort publicly once 100 teachers have signed on.

“Parents from New Bedford to the Berkshires are ready to opt out,” she wrote. “Let’s lead the way.”

Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner, reacted with dismay to Madeloni’s call for teachers to promote opting out of state tests. “It’s very disappointing for me to see this stance on President Madeloni’s part,” he said. Assessments are crucial to providing “a feedback loop on where we’re succeeding and where we’re not succeeding,” said Chester. “I can’t imagine a high-performing system that doesn’t have that.”

The state’s 1993 education reform law is often referred to as a “grand bargain,” because it dramatically increased funding for schools, especially in poorer communities, while insisting that districts be held accountable for results.

Chester said the MTA seems intent on dismantling that foundation of the state’s education reform structure. “For the union to be advocating greater funding, to ask taxpayers to reach further into their wallet, and at the same time to be advocating for less accountability for results just seems to me indefensible and incredibly misplaced,” he said.

Reville, who worked on the 1993 education reform effort, called any effort by the union to promote opting out of state tests “a return to the dark ages when the message from our field was: Give us more money and leave us alone, don’t ask for any changes or any accountability.”

Madeloni insists that the state’s testing system, under which chronically low performing schools can ultimately face state takeover, is a flawed and limited way to judge schools.

“I think it’s irresponsible and shameful that our commissioner insists on high-stakes testing as the measure of school quality,” she said. “There are many broad measures and experiences that people need to have to have a positive experience in school.”

Teachers unions have opposed state takeovers of low-performing schools and districts. They have also fought efforts to use test scores as part of the basis for evaluating teacher performance.

The shift in Massachusetts and other states to new assessments based on the Common Core education standards has coincided with growing resistance among some parents to standardized testing.

In New York state, nearly 1 in 5 students “opted out” of state tests last year. The effort has yet to gain that sort of traction in Massachusetts, though two Boston schools were recently dropped one notch in state accountability rankings because they fell below the required 95 percent participation rate on state tests.

Critics maintain that testing has led to a narrowing of school curriculum, and that exams largely serve as a measure of poverty, with test scores closely tracking the income level of student households.

Supporters say statewide testing, which is required under federal law, is crucial to identifying struggling students and schools and designing interventions to address low student performance. Last year, a coalition of 12 national civil and human rights groups, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the League of United Latin American Citizens, issued a strong condemnation of anti-testing efforts and the opt-out movement.

“The educational outcomes for the children we represent are unacceptable by almost every measurement,” the groups said. “And we rely on the consistent, accurate, and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children. These data are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity.”

The groups acknowledged there has been misuse of high-stakes testing that should be addressed. But, they said, “we cannot fix what we cannot measure.  And abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.”

There has been speculation in education circles that defeat of the charter-school ballot question would be the first step in a broader effort by the MTA to dismantle the standards and accountability system put in place through the 1993 education reform law, which also authorized the first charter schools in Massachusetts.

“It seems to me to be the intent of the leadership of the union at this time to roll back reforms that have served Massachusetts well,” said Chester.

“What we learned on the No on 2 campaign is that a year ago people thought the yes campaign would win,” Madeloni said of the anti-charter ballot drive. “We went out and talked to people and found they really value their public schools. We’re going to continue those conversations. I can tell from our informal conversations parents are not committed to testing as the way to assess the quality of their child’s experience.”

Does that mean the union is prepared to lead an all-out effort to pull back on testing?

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“We’ll see,” she said.