The student who sets educational policy

INTRO TEXT

James Madden will be ousted from the state Board of Education in June, but it’s not because he asks too many questions. Madden’s term will end when he graduates from Randolph High School and gives up the chairmanship of the State Student Advisory Council, a job that includes a seat–and a full vote–on the 10-person policy-making body headed by chairman James Peyser.

His tenure may be short, but Madden has made his mark, voicing reservations about the MCAS testing process and challenging board member Abigail Thernstrom’s view that the curriculum of US history classes should stop at 1980.

FRANK CURRAN
Randolph High senior and Board of Education
member James Madden: holding his own with
the grown-ups on the history curriculum
and MCAS appeals.

“I think I surprised some people,” Madden says of his role in board discussions. “They might see me at a concert and think I’m a hooligan.”

Actually, few high-schoolers seem less like a hooligan than Madden. In addition to his student-government posts (his Randolph classmates elected him to the statewide student council, and the members of that body elevated him to chairman, and therefore to the state board), he serves on the statewide Student Alliance Against Racism and is a member of Amnesty International. He also plays bass in what he describes as a “politically oriented” rock band called Three Spoon and holds down a part-time job at the café in the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Braintree.

On the board, he does have his causes. “MCAS was one of the main reasons that I ran,” Madden says, arguing that statewide test requirements don’t make sense when public education is still “horribly segregated” by race and resources. “The state cannot in good conscience hold students responsible for the [funding] decisions of their school systems.” As a candidate for the advisory council chairmanship, he promised that “I’d do my best to see that the graduation requirement was delayed or abolished.”

Neither scenario seems likely to occur, but Madden takes some comfort in helping to formulate an MCAS appeals process. In January, the Board of Education established a review mechanism for students who feel their 10th-grade MCAS tests were “mis-scored” or that the test “does not accurately reflect the student’s knowledge or skill” in specific subject areas.

Madden has also been vocal about his views on how history should be taught in public schools. At his first board meeting, last June, he called for a social-studies curriculum that focuses on “teaching our students how to be citizens” and stresses modern applications of the Bill of Rights rather than “who was there for the signing.” Implicitly taking another swipe at MCAS, he also said that students’ grasp of history should be evaluated on “thought and essays” rather than “a multiple-choice test.”

More recently, Madden argued that the state’s curriculum framework in American history should extend to current events, such as the 2000 presidential election. “I think it’s very important for us to keep in mind [that] for even the oldest high-school students the Reagan administration is history,” he said, according to minutes of the board meeting. “Desert Storm is a distant memory.”

Board member Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, pointedly disagreed with Madden. “I would hate to hear a high-school discussion of Bush versus Gore,” said the Lexington resident, who co-authored the book America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible with her husband, Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom. “I just would not do such contemporary events. I don’t believe they can be done well. I couldn’t do them well, and that’s my purpose in life.”

Madden responded that “recent American history affects the daily lives of students much more than anything else in history” and that it should be included in the curriculum even if it “cannot be taught in a cold academic sense.”

Meet the Author

The exchange, which continued over two meetings, caused board chairman Peyser to declare, “It may be possible to come up with a grand compromise that satisfies everyone, but it doesn’t look that way right now.” The board will vote on the revised curriculum in May, but the current draft (posted on the Department of Education’s Web site) is closer to Madden’s point of view, including a section on “Contemporary America (1980 to 2001).”

“The board has been great in terms of listening to me even when we disagree,” says Madden. The board operates mostly by consensus, and Madden remembers only two times where he’s been on the losing end of a vote. He voted against the education department’s annual budget because it didn’t provide enough money for METCO and other programs aimed at reducing racial segregation, and he voted against the licensing of a for-profit charter school. (In both cases, he was one of two dissenting votes.)

His time on the board has led Madden to consider public policy as a college major, but he’s not sure where he’ll be going to school yet. In the meantime, he seems to be enjoying his double role as student and policy-maker. At one public meeting, when the board turned to a discussion of how to deal with students who don’t show up at school on MCAS testing day, he interjected, “Let me say how amused I am by the absence thing, since I should be in my AP English class right now.”