A School Czar Who Doesn't Mince Words

John Silber has lived a lifetime of telling it like it is.

He is widely thought to have lost a bid for Massachusetts governor because of an inability to rein in his sharp tongue. As president of Boston University, he saved the school from financial ruin, but his faculty voted to have him removed, he was so caustic.

So it is no surprise that Dr. Silber - a philosopher, administrator, and educator, a man so politically unbeholden that pollsters have named a genre of moderate voters after him (Silber Democrats) - is again making waves.

His arena this time is elementary and secondary schools. As chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education and self-proclaimed "education czar," Silber is fast moving to the forefront of America's back-to-basics movement in public education. With the US embroiled in a fierce debate over whether children should learn facts or skills, his is a strong voice for setting strict content standards and using objective tests to measure performance.

He is at odds with many in the education world - and many on his own board. But those who know him say he just may have what it takes to make Massachusetts a national model for statewide education reform.

"Everyone has strong ideas about John," says Chester Finn of the Hudson Institute in Washington. "I don't know anyone, though, that doesn't respect his energy, intellect, and fierce determination to make things better."

In his new role, and at an age when most people would be retiring, Silber is using his oratory flair and knack for making headlines to lay the groundwork for his version of education reform.

In the year that he has led the state's education policymaking body, he has been called an autocrat serving in a position that begs for a consensus-builder. He has been accused of promoting his own agenda rather than following Massachusetts's three-year-old education-reform law. And he has stirred a brouhaha over whether and how to test high school seniors, first supporting and then backing out of a plan to use the GED (General Educational Development) exam as a graduation requirement for high school seniors.

What critics?

But Silber dismisses the criticism. During a 90-minute interview in the same opulent office he occupied as president of Boston University, he emphasizes the gravity of the task at hand and the importance of returning education to the three R's.

"[America's] standards of education have fallen to miserable levels by international standards," he says. "Our children aren't on the top in science, they aren't on the top in math, they're not even on the top in the command of the English language. [The nation needs to] begin to focus seriously on learning basic subjects."

Silber's vision for educational reform is this: Support early childhood education to give students a foundation for learning; create a specific curriculum in core subjects; employ testing to assess what is being learned; and demand higher standards for teachers.

It seems simple and straightforward but runs counter to decades of educational philosophy. Scholar E.D. Hirsch can vouch for how difficult an education crusade can be. When he launched his core-curriculum program for kindergarten through eighth grade in 1990, "I was getting it both from the left and the right," he says.

His organization in Charlottesville, Va., the Core Knowledge Foundation, promotes standards and testing for each grade level, similar to what Silber is proposing for Massachusetts. "Parents are already on board," Dr. Hirsch says of back-to-basics standards. "It's something they can understand." The resistance has come from "education schools, which have been dominated by progressivism," he says.

To Silber, preparing children for elementary education is the most powerful thing a school system can do to improve its record. "This is of critical importance," he says. "It is one of the main reasons why education in Massachusetts in most urban centers is remedial. The child does not come to school in the first grade ready to learn, with the solid background that the child would have had 40 years ago, coming from a two-parent family, where a mother or a grandmother or an aunt was at home to nurture that child intellectually from the time that child was born until the time that child was five or six years of age."

Silber proposed increasing money for early childhood learning by $100 million in next year's budget, but the board voted to boost it only by $67 million. His long-term plan is to funnel even more money into early-learning programs and to mandate kindergarten for three-, four-, and five-year-olds statewide.

The most pressing issue now before the Massachusetts Board of Education is curriculum revisions in English and history/social studies. Though Silber is critical of the consultative process that's been used to develop the teaching guidelines, he says the board is making progress.

The most current draft "has a concreteness, a specificity. The teachers know what's expected of them. You can design assessments based on this framework, where it would have been impossible to know what you were testing under the earlier framework," he says.

To Silber, student testing is a means of making school officials accountable for their performance. "Testing is the only way to be sure that they [teach according to set standards]," he says. "If there are no consequences, there's not going to be the effort."

Finally, Silber says the quality of education will never improve unless school systems find a way to tap a more varied pool of teachers. "I think that it was a great mistake to give a monopoly on access into the teaching profession to schools of education," he says. "It is a safe generalization that the schools of education have the lowest standards in faculty and student body in the institution in which they function."

The making of the man

Today's chairman of the Massachusetts education board was yesterday's college president, political candidate, dean of arts and sciences, and divinity student. John Silber grew up in a middle-class family in San Antonio, his mother a schoolteacher and his father an architect. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and fine arts and wrote his graduate dissertation on the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant.

As chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Texas in Austin, Silber enlivened the department in much the same way he would shake up Boston University as its president years later. He fired scores of faculty but also attracted top names in the field. One of his more controversial moves during his 20 years as president of Boston University was to engineer the university's takeover of the failing public schools in Chelsea, Mass., one of Boston's working-class suburbs.

Silber's toughness and dedication caught the attention of his current boss, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R). Governor Weld defeated Silber in the 1990 gubernatorial race, and many were baffled by his decision to appoint such a firecracker figure to such a high-profile political position.

"What I wanted was someone who was going to get in there and stir the pot," Weld says. "I'm delighted at what he's doing."

But many educators say Silber has neither the experience nor the skills needed to be an effective chairman of a state education board. Robert Schwartz, a professor at Harvard University's School of Education, says: "It's very clear that Silber has had his own show for several years. He's not someone who is accustomed to clearing things or letting elected officials know before he goes off and launches some bombshell."

To Silber, such talk only impedes his work as education reformer. He makes no apologies for making people mad. Above all, Silber continues to prove that he won't shrink from a lifetime of seeking out and sounding what he sees as true.

JOHN Silber on ...


'Reading is the most important skill that a child learns in school. If a child learns to read and to write well, the child can learn everything else on its own. Thomas Hobbes learned geom-etry on his own ... because he already learned to read. Since he already knew how to read, he could read Euclid. And he taught himself geometry by reading Euclid.'

English standards

'They say proponents of a whole-language approach believe that reading develops naturally, much as speech does.... It's very nice that proponents of whole language believe this - and they may believe in witches, they may believe in spirits.... But it's also important to know that they're wrong. It doesn't matter what these proponents believe. What's important is what's true.'

Academic testing

'You're not punishing a child when you tell a child, "You've failed a test." It is an assessment, it is not a punishment. If you tell a student, "You have failed to meet ... the reasonable expectations of a high school graduate," that is not to punish him, that is to maintain the integrity of a high school education. When you come into this subjective lingo that to fail a test is to punish a child, that is to misunderstand the issue entirely.'

Charter schools

'If the charter experiment is to be significant, it has to be large enough to give you a basis for measurement that is not just anecdotal. But if we're going to increase it while making it a zero-sum game, that creates a political opposition among the teachers' unions and among the superintendents and among the school committees. And that is a formidable alliance of people to oppose the charter schools. Now, if one favors the charter-school experiment, it seems to me, one would favor adding the additional funding so that one could ... answer that opposition and change it into a group of supporters.'

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