How Tests Are Failing Our Schools

The newly elected president of the state’s teachers union wants to abolish our reliance on standardized test scores. And she’s not backing down.

barbara madeloni

Photograph by Jason Grow

In her eighth-floor executive suite on Beacon Hill, newly elected Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) president Barbara Madeloni sits at a coffee table in a corner, as if waiting for her predecessor, Paul Toner, to pop up from beneath his old desk. Toner’s life-size painting of JFK hangs by the door, and on this sunny Friday morning in July the blinds are still drawn from when his tenure ended a week earlier. “I wonder what my view is like,” Madeloni says with a trace of a Long Island accent, in no rush to walk over and find out. “I’m not someone who focuses on the material world. Come back here in three years and it probably won’t look much different.”

A year ago, Madeloni was an unknown former psychotherapist and high school English teacher with a radical message: At a time when standardized test scores have more and more become the lifeblood of public education—determining students’ futures, teachers’ salaries, and schools’ funding—Madeloni is calling for a three-year moratorium on all testing and teacher evaluations. “We’ve been trying to do scale, instead of human beings. We need to do human beings,” she says. She lambasts the Common Core, a national set of curriculum standards that the state adopted in 2010, as “corporate deform,” and described its architects to CommonWealth magazine as “rich white men who are deciding the course of public education for black and brown children.”

The past and present heads of the state’s top education offices I talked to dismiss Madeloni’s rhetoric as naive, absurd, and, in the case of the moratorium, illegal. Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), says he’s concerned that her “hyperbolic” vision may force the DESE to tune out the entire union.

But rank-and-file teachers across the state hail Madeloni as a savior. She’s the first MTA leader willing to listen to their agony, and to tell the truth about how teaching in the age of accountability can be, as Holyoke teacher Cheri Cluff puts it, “like waiting tables at a busy restaurant; you’re running and running and running, and you’ve lost your head.” Whereas past presidents and her opponent, MTA vice president Tim Sullivan, were willing to compromise with state administrators, Madeloni is combative, unapologetic, and, as Agustin Morales, another Holyoke teacher, says, “unafraid to make her life uncomfortable.”

Does Madeloni have a chance to topple the “accountability regime”? Or will she have to—and can she—muzzle herself in order to maintain the MTA’s negotiating privileges? As she plots her next move as leader of the largest union in the state, the memo on her desk reminding her to pick new wall colors for her office collects dust.

 

“If you see injustice, you name injustice. That’s just in my blood,” Madeloni says. Born in 1957 in Syosset, New York, she grew up discussing civil rights at dinner with her father, a public relations director at Research to Prevent Blindness; her mother, a lawyer; and 12 siblings, she being the middle child. When she was 10, her family packed into their station wagon to join 100,000 others at an antiwar march on the Pentagon, where Madeloni gave peace signs to the soldiers. As a teenager, when she ended up in a limo with William Buckley Jr.—she was babysitting for a family who had invited him to speak that night—she attacked his conservatism.

Madeloni’s anti-testing stance began in childhood. “Early on I decided grades were meaningless,” she says. After getting her bachelor’s in English at Hamilton College—which she picked in part because “there were no grades”—she earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Denver, and spent 15 years as a psychotherapist.

In the mid-1990s, Madeloni grew “tired of being silent so much.” She had also noticed that in many cases her patients’ conditions were exacerbated by socioeconomic inequities, and wondered if there was a way she could help “expand the possibilities of democratic engagement.”

Meanwhile, Madeloni and her husband, David, realized they couldn’t have children. “We sat down and we said, ‘[Rather than adopt], let’s double down on our commitment to children. Some people contribute to the future with their own children; we’re going to do it by helping make the world better for other people’s children,’” she says.

Since she was a teenager, Madeloni had been captivated by public education and social justice, and had read works such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire. She earned her Master of Education at UMass Amherst and became a 10th-grade English teacher at Frontier Regional School, in South Deerfield, in 1998.

That same year, the state introduced the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). What had drawn Madeloni to teaching—the chance “to help grow democracy” and to have “rich and deep conversations about who you are and how you want to engage in the world”—had already begun to disappear. Instead, preparing her students to pass a test every year would come “to dominate our conversations.”

 

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  • David McGeney

    Barbara Madeloni is a Bold New Voice for Massachusetts Teachers and a Warrior against the corporatization of public education. You have a silent army of teachers, parents and concerned citizens out there Barbara just waiting to be awakened.

  • Jessica Wender-Shubow

    Mr. Chester’s words are telling. It is easy to be arrogant and dismiss a thoughtful contribution to the debate over what kind of public education best serves democracy if one hobnobs too much with those whose inordinate economic power leaves them believing they deserve to call all of the shots. The commissioner would do better to spend more time with teachers, as Barbara Madeloni does, and less with the profit-seeking corporate partners behind the testing consortium that he leads. Then, perhaps, he wouldn’t be so patronizing and condescending toward educators who question his positions. If anyone is naive here, it might be those of us who mistakingly believed that a public servant such as Mr. Chester would show more respect for community he serves.

  • NinaSeifertBishop

    Go Barbara, GO!

  • Ken_Meyer

    Gosh, the head of a teachers union wanting to abolish a method which might expose the shortcomings of the members she represents. What a radical concept! [smile]

  • Scott Methe

    Is it just me, or do others also notice that this article offered zero insight on how “tests are failing our schools?“ Also, isn’t accountability to the public one of the highest forms of social justice? As a teacher myself, I do not consider myself part of some elite, untouchable group that is exempt from demonstrating to the public that I am doing the job that society has asked me to do. Oh, I guess we don’t need to be accountable because our leader just doesn’t like tests. I’m suspecting that the reporter missed a lot of the substance behind what Madeloni can offer. We need a better case for tossing out testing…this one gets an F.

  • Bill Cole

    I want to believe we can find a workable system that ties teacher licensure to test scores. But having looked at the research that has been done so far, I am convinced it is simply not possible. The main problems are (a)that teachers have new students in their cohort every year and those students can have dramatically different abilities and potential for growth in their year-to-year MCAS scores; (b)which students a teacher has from year to year is not a matter of random selection but is a subjective decision made by administrators – who are also the ones that decide upon that teacher’s employment, so the potential is there to set someone up to have poor growth results; (c)the tests themselves are only in few subject areas so for many teachers and staff members a portfolio method would have to be developed – making it a very different (and potentially unequal) employment evaluation than that of math, ELA, and Science teachers. There are more flaws (including the role of Rhee and Pearson Inc. in developing these testing and evaluation vehicles in public schools while simultaneously standing to profit handsomely by their acceptance) but these are the win ones. MCAS is a goof formative assessment tool for sotting individual areas of weakness in individual students and broad areas of weakness in schools. however, even as a graduation requirement it has little value since DESE and school districts bend over backwards to find a myriad of ways to get students over the graduation hurdle. Lets change the dialogue to focusing on getting better candidates into teaching and training them better than the system does now, rather than trying so hard to remove current teachers. I support Madeloni’s efforts – after all she can’t possibly do worse than her predecessors.