EASTON — Appearing before public school superintendents for the first time since he was appointed head of the state Board of Education, John Silber left no doubt that he will shock the system.
Silber said yesterday that the state has to get rid of bilingual education programs or risk the country becoming the “biggest Yugoslavia of all.”
He called busing to desegregate Boston schools a $ 40 million waste of time and a burden on the city.
And he scoffed at the notion, embraced by the state’s proposed curriculum guidelines, that teaching children to read by a basic method that starts with “See Dick run” is not interesting enough.
“We can make it interesting,” Silber said. “We can say, ‘Dick set fire to his family home.’ Or ‘Dick took a shotgun to his father’s head.’ “
Silber made it clear that most schools will need to change the way they teach reading. He said that within two years, all schools in the commonwealth will teach children to read by a method known as phonics, rather than whole language — the method many schools are embracing — and that was advocated in the state’s proposed language arts guidelines.
Phonics begins by teaching children to recognize
simple sounds and patterns of sounds, then introduces them to basic sentences and books. Whole language begins by showing students interesting reading material; they learn to read by learning to recognize words instead of sounds.
“If we can do nothing else,” schools should all adopt the phonics method, he said. “It can make reform in education meaningful with no great expenditure in funds.”
Silber also argued that schools are burdened by unnecessary regulations — court-ordered busing to desegregate schools among them.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand what benefit it is for Hispanic and black children,” Silber said. “We’re wasting an hour or hour and a half of a child’s life every day busing them across town to a school that isn’t any better than the one around the corner . . . and it’s costing us $ 40 million a year.”
Silber, who once expressed interest in the Boston Public Schools superintendency, said “no white person” would be able to argue for doing away with busing. “The Hispanic and black community is going to have stand up and say ‘Let’s have neighborhood schools,’ ” he said.
Silber criticized bilingual education, advocating instead immersion programs where children who don’t speak English are taught in English from day one, forcing them to pick up the language quickly.
If schools continue bilingual education, he said, “We will lose the linguistic unity that pulled our country together.” Non-English speaking Americans, he said, would advocate their own nations within the nation, and the United States would be torn by the disunity that tore apart Yugoslavia and threatened to tear apart Canada. “We will create the biggest Yugoslavia of all,” he said.
“This is not coming from any right-wing, nut fringe point of view,” Silber said. “I know how awfully uncorrect this is, but who defines correctness but some narrow fringe group.”
With the exception of a few isolated gasps, the superintendents gathered at Stonehill College seemed to welcome the blunt comments from the man who will oversee state education policy under Gov. William Weld’s proposal for reorganizing state government. Silber will assume the post in January,
The educators listened intently to the Boston University president, his booming voice significantly quieted by a bout of laryngitis. The superintendents remained perfectly still as Silber walked slowly from a podium to a table to refresh his voice with a sip of water — and complained that gin would do the trick better — and again as he waited for a cough drop to dissolve in his mouth.
Struggles with his voice did not stop Silber from blasting parts of the state’s education reform act as educational faddishness, and from proposing things he acknowledged would seem politically incorrect.
Silber criticized the state’s proposed social studies curriculum guidelines for discussing “the nature of history” rather than history itself. He mocked a suggested lesson in the guidelines that would have teachers ask students in grades 9 and 10 to compare the goals, methods and leadership styles of Roosevelt, Stalin and Gandhi, then evaluate the leaders’ decisions.
“Do you really believe that your kids in grade 9 and 10 have the knowledge and background of Roosevelt, Stalin and Gandhi?” he asked.
For the most part, superintendents didn’t find what Silber was saying outrageous.
“He’s expressing some of the things we’ve been thinking,” said Weymouth Superintendent Robert West, head of the superintendents institute at the college. “I think the straightforward approach is going to be good.”
Only once, when Silber said that textbooks had been dumbed down to meet the level of most teachers, did a superintendent groan loudly.
Silber acknowledged that he still has to “come up to speed” on many things in education in Massachusetts.
“I hope you will not think I am saying this in any kind of authoritarian spirit,” he said. “I can change my mind. If the facts are there.”