NORTHAMPTON — Don’t make the mistake of talking about “teacher training” to Barbara Madeloni.
“Oh, please don’t use the word training,” she chided a reporter. “We educate teachers. We don’t train them. We train dogs. And I love dogs.”
Beacon Hill better get used to that sharply pointed, confrontational style.
A self-described social justice activist from the liberal college town of Northampton, Madeloni was until recently a complete unknown in political circles. But her upset election last month as president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association has already jolted lawmakers and officials worried about the dawn of a more adversarial relationship with the state’s largest union.
The 57-year-old former psychologist turned teacher won her race by openly criticizing the current union president, Paul Toner, for his record of negotiating with — rather than fighting — officials on the development of teacher assessments and the Common Core, a set of national education standards adopted in Massachusetts and 43 other states.
Her agenda forcefully rejects those policies, which have gained increasing support from Republicans and Democrats over the last 20 years. She supports a three-year moratorium on standardized testing and teacher assessments and denounces charter schools. Though these initiatives have never been popular with teachers unions, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, under Toner, took a softer line, seeking compromise rather than confrontation.
That seems highly unlikely when Madeloni takes office July 15 for a two-year term. She says teacher assessments and testing are part of the “general assault on public education by people who are looking to privatize it, to profit off the public dollar, and to bust our unions.”
She has a flare for firebrand rhetoric. She recently told Commonwealth Magazine that she wants to wrest the education debate away from “rich white men who are deciding the course of public education for black and brown children.” At a conference at Barnard College in March, she said standardized tests require schools “to get rid of difference.”
“In our culture, which is infused with white supremacy, that’s what white supremacy is,” she said.
Supporters are eager for her to turn the union against state officials and groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that back teacher assessments and standardized testing.
“This is a big movement within our union to act,” said Pat Barry, a physical therapist in the Quincy public schools. “She’s tapped into this national movement of teachers and parents to fight these mandates that are being handed out by businessmen and politicians who don’t know the first thing about education, about true learning.”
State officials are worried about a labor backlash. Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said Madeloni’s staunch opposition to testing and standards “is concerning to me.”
“It’s important for Barbara that she be careful about backtracking on initiatives that many, if not most, Massachusetts teachers have been involved in,” he said. “We won’t always see eye to eye with the union, but we’ve been able to work together.”
Madeloni could also be a significant force in elections. The union spent more than $2.75 million to reelect Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, and recently launched a super PAC to influence races this fall.
Even supporters have been surprised by Madeloni’s sudden rise to power.
The seventh of 13 children in a family from Long Island, she left clinical psychology in her 40s to become a teacher. In 2004, after six years of teaching high school English in South Deerfield and Northampton, she was hired to educate teachers at the University of Massachusetts.
Two years ago, she came to national attention when she organized a protest of a new teacher licensing system that UMass was piloting. Rather than have professors observe teachers in the classroom, the program would have required student teachers to send two 10-minute videos, as well as their scores on a 40-page test, to a private company.
Madeloni blasted the system as dehumanizing, and 67 of her 68 students refused to participate. After the New York Times wrote about the protest, UMass said it would not renew Madeloni’s contract as coordinator of the program. The episode lifted her profile with the union.
At the association’s annual meeting May 10, Madeloni won the presidency in a low-turnout election, beating the current vice president by 97 votes. She argued that teachers had lost ground under Toner because of his view that “power lies in personal access to the political elite.”
Toner took a different view, saying he tried to “build relationships and make sure the union point of view is heard and seen” in the halls of power.
Madeloni, however, said teachers have been too willing to settle with officials, rather than seize the offensive.