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City teacher elected head of state union

NORTHAMPTON — A Northampton educational activist who opposes “high-stakes testing” and received national coverage for fighting outsourcing of teacher assessments won election Saturday as president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Barbara Madeloni, a former Frontier Regional School teacher and a member of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, beat a Brockton teacher to secure a two-year term as head of the 110,000-member union.

Until last August, Madeloni directed the Secondary Teacher Education Program at the University of Massachusetts.

While UMass said her employment ended as part of a move to reduce the use of adjunct professors, Madeloni stated in interviews that the school was punishing her for opposing a project in which UMass tested a teacher assessment program for the for-profit company Pearson.

Madeloni, 57, said in an interview Sunday she plans as MTA president to “amplify the voice of educators and be a leader at the national level.”

She noted that her victory comes amid efforts in Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago to shift the debate back to supporting high-quality public education and the people who provide it over the interests of for-profit companies in the field.

“It should be national news,” Madeloni said of her win in Massachusetts. “It’s a message to everybody that teachers will not be silent and compliant as this assault on public education continues — and undermines public education. This is foundational to democracy and we need to defend it.”

Madeloni takes office July 15. In the group’s 169th annual meeting of delegates, held Friday and Saturday, she secured the presidency over rival Timothy Sullivan, the group’s current vice president, by a vote of 681 to 584.

In Madeloni’s view, for-profit firms in education, and their allies in business and government, seek to privatize classrooms, break education unions and “profit from the public dollar. … Those three things are clear as day.”

In the nine months she spent campaigning, Madeloni said it was sometimes painful to hear educators speak wistfully about the goals that led them to be teachers.

“They came to this work because they believe in public education and the possibility that it offers for all children,” she said. Teachers told her repeatedly it is getting harder to do that work in a meaningful way, in part because they’ve lost local autonomy in the midst of national drives to standardize education.

As president, Madeloni leads the union and serves as its chief public voice. She said she will work to have their views considered on educational policy. She pledged to make sure teachers’ issues in the region are considered statewide. “Western Mass. teachers sometimes have felt forgotten. … We’re not going to forget western Mass.”

She acknowledged teachers’ unions regularly come in for criticism, but vowed to speak out about the vital role educators play in communities.

“If they can bust teachers’ and nurses’ unions, there’s not going to be any story left for unions,” she said. “That’s all the more reason we have to stand, not at all just for ourselves, but for the possibility of solidarity. We’re not fighting for ourselves alone.

“Everybody should have the same protections that union members have. I think my election is an early sign of a shift, but it’s going to take time,” she said.

With the demise of the labor movement in the past 40 years, Madeloni noted, “we end up with the most unequal economic structure that we’ve had for a century.”

Mid-career move

Madeloni earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Denver and worked as a therapist until deciding she wanted to teach, in part to help “grow our democracy” by helping young people understand the world. “The joy of teaching matches so much who I am,” she said.

After several years as a classroom English teacher — with jobs at Northampton High School and Frontier Regional School in Deerfield — she began work at UMass training teachers.

In that position, she became a member of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, a union affiliated with the MTA. Madeloni took an unpaid leave this past school year as part of a settlement agreement with UMass. She remains an adjunct professor in labor studies at the university and serves as secretary of the MSP.

At UMass, Madeloni worked with young teachers. “People come into this field because they have a sense that they want to contribute to the future. They want to contribute to young people. … They come with such open excitement, deep investment and commitment. You don’t become a teacher because you’re cynical. You become a teacher because you’re hopeful.”

In a letter to the Gazette last year, Madeloni argued that public education “is the soil in which we till the possibility for democracy.”

Public schools matter, she wrote, because democracy cannot function without high-quality and adequately funded education. Schools, she said, must be “sites of diversity, contestation and possibility. They are where our children learn to be in and create community.

“At a moment when the democratic ideal is under assault by market-based ideologues who champion choice, competition and privatization,” she wrote, “we need to re-commit to public education that does not siphon off students based on interest, motivation, or learning styles, nor through unacknowledged borders of class and race.”

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