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.
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.”
The accountability regime began when Governor Bill Weld signed the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) in 1993. Its designers, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, argued that the achievement gap between high- and low-performing schools was due, in part, to a lack of clear, universal goals. Up until then, it was “every teacher do your own thing in terms of whatever you’re trying to achieve,” says former Massachusetts Secretary of Education and MERA architect Paul Reville. MERA set statewide curriculum standards and remodeled public schools to follow an increasingly data-driven world. In exchange for more funding, schools would be held more accountable through annual standardized tests.
The torrent of data the MCAS generates lets “teachers, parents, and administrators know where we’re making progress and where we have more work to do,” Chester says. Graduation rates and SAT scores have steadily climbed. And if Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would be the sixth best in the world in math, and second in science, behind Singapore.
But the performance gap hasn’t shrunk. Today the state ranks 19th in the nation in closing the AP performance gap for African-American students, and 41st for Hispanic students. If you ask Madeloni about testing, she’ll quip, “What the test is best at identifying is the socioeconomic status of the student who took it.”
Many teachers tell me they view the MCAS as a hoop to jump through. They argue that spending an average of 25 to 28 days a year preparing students for the test shrinks the curriculum: One English teacher says she’s had to slash entire novels from her lesson plans. And test scores arrive months after the school year ends, making them unhelpful as feedback. “Measuring the baby doesn’t make the baby grow,” Cluff says.
Yet MTA leaders have complied with each of the state’s expansions of the MCAS system, including a 2003 mandate that all students pass the 10th-grade English and math sections in order to graduate, and, in 2010, the decision to factor students’ scores into annual teacher evaluations. “Massachusetts has proved that you can make major reforms in a strong union state,” Reville says.
To rank-and-file union members, though, this complicity is evidence of the MTA’s “overwhelming sense of fear,” says UMass Boston Labor Extension Program director Anneta Argyres. There’s a growing conviction that the DESE and influential education organizations such as Pearson—the world’s largest for-profit education corporation—and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are “too strong,” Argyres says, “and that the best we can do is be at the table negotiating with them, to minimize the damage they do to public education.”
Halfway through her first year teaching at Deerfield, Madeloni joined the district’s bargaining union to advocate for an expanded curriculum.
“Are you out of your mind?” a colleague asked her. Madeloni didn’t even have a license yet; the superintendent could fire her at will.
“I don’t have kids,” Madeloni replied. “I can take risks that other people [can’t].”
She wasn’t sacked that time. But years later, in 2012, a protest she led as a teacher educator at UMass Amherst would put the kibosh on her teaching career. The university had asked its students to submit to a new teacher-licensing system created by Pearson. Before, professors would observe candidates teaching in classrooms over six months and then decide whether to grant licenses, for free. Now, for as much as $300, anonymous employees in Pearson’s New York offices would determine licensure based on a candidate’s take-home test and 20 minutes of self-shot video. Madeloni demanded that the students be allowed to choose whether to participate, but the administration never responded.
So she spoke out in the New York Times. “This is something complex and we don’t like seeing it taken out of human hands,” she told the paper. “We are putting a stick in the gears.” The article included a photograph of Madeloni standing on a campus lawn, glowering at the camera with a phalanx of her students standing behind her.
Even before the protest, Madeloni had a record of goading the administration.
Every year she pointed out to admissions that the 95 percent of teachers-in-training who were white didn’t look much like the student body they were trying to educate. At faculty meetings, whenever the deans introduced a new curriculum requirement that concerned Madeloni, she would ask them, “What is good teaching?” and then ask them to explain how the requirement fit into that definition. “Most of us were so busy with the day-to-day,” says associate professor Elizabeth McEneaney. “Her uncomfortable questions weren’t always welcome.” Less than three weeks after Madeloni talked to the Times, College of Education dean Christine McCormick declined to renew Madeloni’s contract.
The Pearson program is now a requirement for all students. After Madeloni was let go, McEneaney says, “We all fell in line.”
When I asked McEneaney what she thought of Madeloni as MTA president, she laughed for about 10 seconds before answering. “I will say it’s going to be fascinating.”
When UMass colleague Dan Clawson recommended Madeloni run for MTA president in August 2013, he told her, “You need to know you’re not going to win.” He was simply looking for a rabble-rouser to represent Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), a small progressive caucus they were both involved in. Her opponent, incumbent MTA vice president Tim Sullivan, was poised for a coronation—the vice presidency has been a steppingstone to the presidency in all but one biannual election since 1993.
But there was something neither Clawson nor Madeloni had anticipated: PARCC. In late November, Chester announced that the state would begin a two-year trial period of the computerized, Common Core–aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam. Chester also happens to chair the governing board of the 14-state PARCC consortium, and after his announcement, a member of the Peabody School Committee told the Globe that Chester’s dual roles were an “outrageous conflict of interest and a breach of trust.” Morales, for his part, says it’s the “most unethical dilemma in our state.” But the fact remained that more than 1,000 schools would have just a few months to learn and teach a test they had never seen before.
As teachers and parents reeled, Madeloni raged. She met with union members and parents at more than 70 house parties and bars across the state. Usually wearing a red EDU T-shirt beneath a cardigan and floral scarf, she began her campaign stops by decrying the MTA’s past complacence, and pledging to “reclaim democracy in our schools.” When Madeloni spoke in Holyoke, one of the state’s poorest and lowest-performing districts, Cluff says she thought, “Wow, finally there’s someone brave enough to talk about the things that I’m thinking.”
“How is it that teachers are so mistrusted?” Madeloni would ask. “How is it that we are standardizing curriculum? We should be saying, ‘You have the content knowledge, the pedagogical knowledge, and the experience to have your voice in the classroom.’”
“It was love at first sight,” says Jennifer Breen Rose-Wood, an English teacher at Brookline High School, who met Madeloni at a house party. Rose-Wood told Madeloni that when she asked her students to tell her the first words they associated with standardized testing, their top responses were “stressful,” “frustrating,” and “meaningless.” Affluent Brookline, meanwhile, didn’t yet have the funds for the state-of-the-art computers required to administer PARCC. Madeloni, she says, was the first MTA candidate who “really listen[ed] to our concerns on the state of the profession.”
Morales was struck by Madeloni’s “warm and inviting” presence. He told her that after another year of poor results on the 2013 MCAS, Holyoke’s administrators had asked teachers in one school to tape posters in their classrooms that displayed every students’ practice test scores, to keep them motivated. Morales believes that these “data walls” have left underperforming students ashamed and embarrassed, and high-ranking students anxious to stay on top, “creating a caste system.” In response, Madeloni vowed to ban data walls. “No student should experience themselves as a number,” she says. “All she wants,” Morales explains, “is the same thing all of us want—a conversation about, ‘What the hell are we doing?’”
As her opponent, Tim Sullivan, focused on helping districts navigate the PARCC dilemma and the transition to the new teacher-evaluation system, Madeloni pulled the needle from the record.
At the MTA’s annual meeting at the Hynes Convention Center in May, a record 1,366 delegates attended. On May 10, Madeloni won 681 to 584.
As impossible as her election seemed a year ago, Barbara Madeloni joins a turning tide. “There’s a sense that the executive leadership of teachers unions around the country have gotten too cozy with the federal government,” says Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute. “Now you’re seeing the willpower of teachers ascend.” In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union led a strike that left 350,000 students out of school for seven days as its members demanded higher pay and the removal of test scores from teacher evaluations. The American Federation of Teachers has called for a moratorium on tying Common Core learning progress to teacher assessments nationwide.
And closer to home, Madeloni is gaining allies. Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman was unfamiliar with her before the election. But once he had lunch with Madeloni, he says he was impressed by her “assertiveness and savvy about the needs of teachers,” adding, “We will march to the same drum.” In May, Morales denounced data walls and standardized testing when he ran for president of the MTA’s Holyoke branch, winning with 70 percent of the vote.
But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel only agreed to slightly lessen the weight given to teacher evaluations; no state agreed to the Common Core assessment moratorium; and a month after Morales’s election, he was fired.
Will Madeloni be able to effect change, or will her ideals lead to gridlock? Paul Reville says her proposals risk “validating the views of many union opponents who claim that unions are enemies of change and school reform.” Chester says a moratorium on testing for any period would be “absolutely the wrong move,” and the state would be loathe to accept one. But Madeloni says, “I reject the discourse of inevitability…. As we grow in solidarity, the fear [of backlash] slips away.”
When I first talked to Madeloni soon after her election, she agreed to have me follow her throughout her first week. But just before her presidency began, she told me, “As a psychotherapist, I know the presence of someone else in the room can affect how the room behaves,” and said she would only be available for an interview, and her communications director James Sacks would join.
As I’m about to leave her office, Madeloni turns to Sacks and asks, half-joking, “Is there anything I didn’t say that I was supposed to say?”
“What’s your vision?” he says.
“That we reclaim the vision of public education as a space for democracy, for joy, for hope, for a better future for all of our children. All of our children.”
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