Barbara Madeloni’s career as an academic activist hit a high last spring. A lecturer in education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she was crusading against a new program that outsourced assessments of teacher performance to the educational firm Pearson.
Her students so strongly supported her stance that most balked at fully participating in UMass field tests of the program. In May, her efforts were the subject of an article in The New York Times.
A few days later, Madeloni got an e-mail: UMass administrators wanted a meeting.
“I was told I needed to be scrupulous about the power I had over students,” she said, “and that I was never to speak for the university, which I hadn’t.”
Shortly thereafter, she was told her contract would not be renewed after 2013.
UMass officials confirmed that the meeting took place as described, but said the timing of Madeloni’s nonrenewal was an unfortunate coincidence. Documents show the school had been planning not to bring Madeloni back to her job overseeing high-school teacher training — and to hire a tenure-track faculty member instead — before the Times article appeared.
But Madeloni points out that her replacement might be more pliable or amenable toward Pearson. “It’s clear to me this is an academic freedom issue,” she said. “It’s about me speaking back.”
So on Thursday, Madeloni spoke back some more, joining a group of some 30 students, colleagues, alumni, and sympathizers to deliver letters of protest to the office of the UMass dean of education, Christine McCormick.
Madeloni has also started a petition on the website www.change.org for her reinstatement that so far has been signed by more than 1,500 people, and the UMass union for professors and librarians is “investigating whether the administration’s actions have violated any terms of our contract,” said its president, Jenny Spencer.
UMass officials counter that Madeloni has put them in a can’t-win situation.
The school, McCormick said, has been trying for years to raise its ratio of tenure-track faculty to adjuncts, a move that would increase, not decrease, academic freedom on campus, since tenured faculty by definition cannot be fired for their opinions. It has declined to reappoint six lecturers since 2009.
McCormick also noted that UMass was running a test of the Pearson-scored program, not trying to implement it by fiat.
“We are a research university, and being involved with such a project is consistent with our research mission,” she said. “This is why you do a field test, so you can figure out where the problems are.”
The teacher-assessment program that provoked Madeloni’s ire has already been adopted as the standard for teacher licensing in several states.
Developed with researchers at Stanford University, it requires would-be teachers to complete a lengthy take-home test, to submit their student-teaching lesson plans and logs, and to upload short videos of themselves teaching for assessment, which in many cases is carried out by Pearson scorers.
The last requirement is largely what has Madeloni’s students worried. They say a short video scored by a stranger can not rival the insight of their own professors and the teachers with whom they apprentice.
UMass students who refused to submit results to Pearson were instead scored in-house so they could still be licensed as teachers, McCormick said, and those concerned about informed-consent issues related to the field tests were allowed to have their videos kept on file privately, so no one ended up being taped and shown to Pearson without explicit permission.
Madeloni, however, maintains that the school made those accommodations because she and her students asked for them. And her students are still unhappy that she may be leaving.
“I am ashamed to admit to my relationship with a school whose practices are so patently at odds with its stated principles,” Ben Stein, a Springfield teacher who received his master’s degree in education from UMass last year, wrote in a letter delivered to McCormick on Thursday.
The students are especially angry at what they say is the UMass administration’s caricature of them as blindly following Madeloni’s opinions instead of their own.
Matthew Briggs, who earned his master’s this year, wrote to McCormick that he was “wounded” by that idea, adding that he felt it sent “a clear message that this type of dissent from corporatization is unwelcome at the University of Massachusetts.”
The students’ objection about the Pearson scoring process is apparently shared by others nationwide, judging by the response to Madeloni’s petition.
“There’s no unified way to gauge if someone’s ready to teach,” said Celia Oyler, a professor of education at Columbia University, adding that she too was concerned by Pearson’s attempts to standardize the process by “outsourcing it to somebody who’s sitting at a computer in Montana getting paid for piecework.”
Yet the Pearson program has many supporters, who say that the videos are direct assessments of real-world experiences.
Even Oyler has positive things to say: She noted that some states do not currently have rigorous standards for teacher licensing. The Pearson program is an attempt to address that issue.
The UMass field tests are over now. Madeloni has made a few plans as to what she might do in a post-UMass life: teaching, writing, more anticorporate activism.
But she is not gone yet. Her contract does not run out until Aug. 31 , and she is busy arranging future protests, including a teach-in scheduled for Oct. 19.
“I still have a year to fight this,” she said. “And I’m going to.”
Mary Carmichael can be
reached at mary.carmichael@