Silber cites challenges in reforming education

Globe librarian Marc Shechtman contributed to this report.

A day after being picked to oversee the state’s public primary and secondary education systems, Boston University president John R. Silber suggested yesterday that young students should spend no more than a year in a bilingual education program and that male teachers should be mentors to fatherless students.

In an hour-long interview in his office overlooking the Charles River, Silber, 69, said he welcomes the challenge of reforming public education in Massachusetts as chairman of the board of education, but wants to study the system he will oversee before talking about needed reforms.

“I’ve been pushing rocks up hills all my life,” said Silber. “I like pushing rocks up hills.”

In the 24 years he has headed Boston University, the budgets have been balanced each year, the school’s endowment has grown from just under $ 19 million to more than $ 410 million, and the school’s academic reputation has grown.

Silber, however, was not about to predict accomplishments of equal magnitude with the state’s public elementary and high schools.

“Overall, we know we are not meeting grade level reading, arithmetic and science in several schools,” Silber said. “What is the cause of the problem and how to cope with the problem? That calls for much more complex determination, and I am not in any position to pontificate on that.”

“It is too early to elaborate on much of anything,” said Silber, who was appointed to the post by Gov. Weld, the man who beat Silber for the governor’s job in 1990.

Silber said he wanted to have reform schools for students who disrupt the school environment and threaten teachers.

“You cannot provide education to 90 percent of the students if 5 to 10 percent are disruptive,” he said.

“It is not a matter of running boot camps, it is a matter of running a school a certain way,” he said. “Students in trouble for failing to meet minimum decorum have a lot of excess energy that needs to be worked off. It can be worked off, I suppose, in competitive athletics.”

Silber said that bilingual education programs – where foreign students are taught in their native language until they can speak English well enough to enter mainstream classes – have been failures.

“One thing we know from a lot of experience is the bilingual system has not been effective in teaching kids English, and that is one thing schools have to do is teach English,” he said.

Silber said some students languish in the bilingual program, and while they may maintain their ethnicity more easily, their opportunities become limited.

Silber cited what he said was a quote from a Texas ranch foreman: ” ‘My kids go to school to learn Spanish so they can grow up to be busboys and waiters. They learn English at home so they can be doctors or lawyers.’ ”

Every child is different, Silber said, but a normal first grader in the bilingual program should be speaking grade level English by the end of the year.

He said male teachers should be available to mentor children who are without father figures.

Young children who lack adequate intellectual stimulation at home should enter pre-kindergarten at age 3, he said.

“If they’ve got a mother or a grandmother at home who engages the child in speech and activities, it doesn’t matter if they are at school or at home,” he said. “But if no one is at home to take care of them, they ought to be in school by 3 years of age.

“If a child is neglected for the first three or fours years of life, that child will never have equality of opportunity. The linguistic skills needed to be developed by 3.”

The Chelsea public schools, which are being managed by BU, have an early childhood education program that is the centerpiece of BU’s efforts to reform the system.

Silber said that most students should be able to read by the first grade, and if a normal student is not reading at grade level by the third grade, he or she “ought to stay in the third grade until they read at grade level.”

He said poor reading skills may be one reason for the explosion in special education in Massachusetts. In 1975, 7 percent of the state’s public education students were in special education. By 1994, that number had jumped to 17 percent.

“Why should there be such an explosion, absent a collapse in the gene pool? If a child can’t read at the fourth grade level or above, they are so bored they are bound to be fidgety and they become labeled hyperactive and a candidate for Ritalin,” Silber said.

Silber and Weld were fierce rivals in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign. Weld referred to Silber as “Dr.-know-it-all” and Silber called Weld an “orange-haired WASP.”

Over time, those barbs have given way to a friendship.

“Bill Weld is a likeable man, he’s just plain likeable,” Silber said. “I wish to hell he hadn’t been so likeable . . . I would have won.”

The two frequently share a vision about public education. Silber agrees with Weld’s desire to do away with schools of education “having a monopoly on teacher certification.”

“There are great teachers who don’t go to schools of education but who get excellent degrees in sciences and humanities,” Silber said. “They do some of the teaching and training programs for major corporations.”

State law, he said, excludes qualified candidates simply because they did not get a degree from a school of education.

“I would not be qualified to teach school, Elie Wiesel and Saul Bellow two Nobel laureate BU faculty members could not teach public school,” he said.

Silber joined BU in 1971 and has said that he will retire at some point in the future. Chairing the board of education is not reason enough to retire now, he says.

“I’m not through here and I wouldn’t get more power, or more effectiveness, by being full time in a job never designed to be full time,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned this state job is a labor of love.”

Silber said he has set no date to leave BU.

Weld originally offered Silber the job of overseeing higher public education. But Silber wanted to remain at BU and thought having both jobs could lead to a perception of conflict of interest.

“Even if I had dual responsibility of primary, secondary and higher education, I would still focus on reform of primary and secondary education . . . I don’t think there is a future in higher education unless something is done to improve primary and secondary education,” Silber said.

He said he should be able to perform both of his jobs.

“When you learn something about administration, you learn something about leveraging time,” he said.

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