Rebel with a Cause

Barbara Madeloni, newly elected president of the 110,000 member Massachusetts Teachers Association, says that fighting is winning.

cavanaugh_21umass7_metroEduShyster: I’ve heard you described as *bellicose,*  *unapologetically adversarial,* a *firebrand,* and *alarming.* Which of these would you say best describes you?

Barbara Madeloni: Aren’t you forgetting *shrill*? One of the narratives about my victory is that I accessed anger at the rank-and-file level. That’s true, but I also tried to hold up a more positive vision for re-engaging the world. We’re not helpless. We’re not hopeless. We can work together to change things. We can do something. That said, I think we are at a critical moment in history for public education in this country. If we don’t fight, we’re going to lose everything. We’re done. 

EduShyster: That’s what a lot of people have been saying about teachers unions in the wake of the recent Vergara decision in California—that they’re done. You don’t appear to have gotten that memo.

appledollarMadeloni: This is a critical moment in our history and we have to protect public education or we’re going to lose it. There’s an incredible sea change that’s coming from the rank and file in teachers unions, not just in Massachusetts but across the country. Teachers understand what’s happening. They have a much better analysis than they had even a year ago. They’re moving past *I just have a bad principal,* or *I just have a bad superintendent* and seeing the larger picture. So now what are we going to do about it?

EduShyster: I’ll bite. What are we going to do about it?

Madeloni: I think fighting is winning. In a union where members are truly engaged and active, we’re talking to one another about what’s happening, informing each other and making decisions about how we can fight back. The degree to which we’ve been told that our members are unwilling to be active is astonishing to me. If you alienate the membership by continually telling them that things are bad but they could be worse, so we’re going to get behind the bad thing, of course people aren’t going to be active. If we say to members—*We can be powerful. We can use our power. It’s going to be scary. It’s going to be hard. But history shows that we can do this,*—the reaction is completely different because you’re talking about things that really matter to them. And by the way, our members understand that the attacks on them and on public education are coming from both political parties.

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EduShyster: You were quoted in the Boston Globe as saying that it’s time to wrest the education debate away from *rich white men who are deciding the course of public education for black and brown children.* A self-proclaimed rich white man wrote a letter in response complaining that you are a bigot. The obvious question here is: what do you have against rich white men?  

Madeloni: I keep coming back to a different question, and one that has to be asked really directly. Why are children of the elites having a qualitatively different education than children who are black, brown and poor? The only answer I can come up with is that we don’t value these children as much as we do the children of elites. I haven’t heard a better answer. 

EduShyster: The answer I hear floating around a lot these days is that our high-poverty schools have to have a relentless focus on the basics—math and English. The whole child is out, academic rigor is in. Presumably students in these schools can access that rich curriculum at some unspecified point down the road, like when they get to college.

BarbaraMadeloniMadeloni: That’s not how it works. What works is you start with a rich curriculum. You have lots of resources. You have libraries and arts and music. You have a playground. And then kids learn how to learn how to read within that context and from teachers who have the time and the resources to build meaningful relationships. That’s how you learn to read. You learn how to read in a relationship with other people. Our overwhelming focus on raising test scores denies the importance of those human relationships. It denies the human reality of kids’ lives, of teachers’ lives and of their communities. After spending seven hours recently at a hearing on turnaround schools, I came up with a name for this particular approach. I call it *bureaucratic cruelty.*

EduShyster: Pretend for a minute that I’m the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, Mitchell D. Chester. You have my ear but there’s only enough time for you to say one word. What would it be?

Madeloni: *Democracy.* I want to know how it’s possible to believe that on the one hand our public schools are a foundation of our democracy and on the other hand have a system in which so much authority is centralized in one office, in one person.That centralization of authority, particulary with regards to our urban schools, is profound. It works down from the top, all the way down to moments of decision making by teachers in their classrooms and impacting the relationships that teachers have with their students. There was a time 10 years ago when you could sort of push that away and carve out some space to do the work that mattered. That space is so narrow now. And if you’re a teacher who speaks out, that space is going to disappear.

EduShyster: The debate over the best way to prepare teachers looks to be the next terrain in the education reform wars. This is a fight that you know well. In fact, that’s how I first heard of you, in a story in the New York Times about your battle with Pearson.

Madeloni: Two years ago students at UMass Amherst were told they had to participate in a new assessment of teacher readiness being developed by Stanford University and Pearson. The students with whom I was working didn’t want to submit videos of themselves teaching to Pearson. They didn’t want their work as student teachers to be reduced to a number on a rubric by people who didn’t know them, and 67 of 68 students ultimately refused to send their work. I knew that this was part of a national push to standardized teacher education and the high stakes measurement of that, and so I called the New York Times because I knew this was a story that had to be told. Ten days after the story appeared I received my walking papers from UMass. I’d been asking myself for a long time what it meant to do work that I really valued in a system that was making it harder and harder to do that work. I came to understand that this was a place where I had to take a stand. That’s a question, by the way, that teachers are asking themselves all the time.

EduShyster: Since you’re a former high school English teacher, I would be remiss if I didn’t wrap up with an SAT vocabulary question. No doubt you’re aware that the old, obscure vocabulary is no more, replaced by so-called *high utility* words with multiple meanings and, ideally, a STEM application. What’s your favorite *high utility* word?

Madeloni: Well, *revolution* has a STEM application. It’s not currently being used enough in the other senses of the word. We may have to reverse engineer its high utility.

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  1. Thank you sir. And please note that I am constantly on the verge of outsourcing my content production to you!

  2. Brilliant. I think I’m in love with both of you. (I am, however, *technically* married).

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