How Tests Are Failing Our Schools
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.”