The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 2, 1999


Silber forthright on the crisis in education and need for reform

"If education reform is not revolutionary, it cannot succeed!" This quotation of Dr. John Silber sums up his commitment to public service and the education of all children. Dr.Silber, chancellor of Boston University and former chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education, was the guest speaker at the fifth annual Carlisle Education Forum on Saturday morning, March 27. For over two hours his impassioned views and statistics held the attention of the audience which included over 200 teachers, administrators, parents of school children and other interested citizens.

Chair of the Carlisle School Committee David Dockterman introduced Dr. Silber, saying " He is one who is controversial. He speaks his mind and shows a willingness to spark and refresh our thoughts on education." Silber's talk entitled, "The Present and Future of Education Reform," did not disappoint. He presented his daring views and opinions on teachers unions, the traditional schools of education, educational issues and the urgent need to focus on the children.

Silber noted that Carlisle students had scored well on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment tests. "If every school was like Carlisle, we would not be speaking about crises in education or be talking about reform. We would be talking about problems and improvement needs instead." Further qualifying his remarks because he is concerned with all students in Massachusetts, Silber explained that it is essential to make generalizations and statements to use as guides for parents and educators. It is important to respect facts and rules of logical thinking so there can be a dialogue and rational discussion. Upon examination, if the generalizations do not fit, one can "sit back and relax." Generalizations can only be useful if they are relevant, he said.

The crisis in schools

In response to the question, "What makes us think there is a crisis?," Silber cited a number of examples. He said that since 1983 the average SAT scores of students in the United States have fallen and the testing service has recalibrated scores to adjust them upwards. The number of children scoring below the average of 650 has been increasing while the number scoring higher has decreased. On international tests, the students from the United States have scored near the bottom in math, science and geography. Fewer children in high school are taking advanced algebra and only 13 percent have a solid foundation in a foreign language. Expectations and standards have become lower. Colleges and universities, in turn, have had to lower standards to accommodate.

"It is important to end the monopoly of the teaching schools in the educational system," Silber declared. In many university schools of education, 41 percent of the courses are on educational methods and teacher preparation with little time spent on subject matter. Providing statistics, Silber said that the future teaching students have come from the bottom quarter in college classes and universities and tend to score 50 points below other college students on the SAT tests. He talked about a number of state schools where 50 percent of the students or less passed the literacy skills test and similar numbers passed the test on the knowledge of subject matter. He pointed out that at the Boston University School of Education, in order to uphold quality standards for future teachers, the enrollment had to be reduced from 489 to 98 students which cost $35 million. In addition, because of grade inflation at other colleges and universities, transfer students had to be asked to pass an entrance examination.

To substantiate his claims about falling standards, Silber cited a 1903 teacher textbook manual which provided guides on reading materials and vocabulary; the teacher was expected to elaborate according to individual experience and knowledge. He compared that to present day teaching manuals which he said were like an easy reader. Reading from an early reader manual, Silber pointed out how current textbooks and teacher manuals have been oversimplified to meet the declining standards of students and teachers.

Obstacles to reform

Obstacles to reform come from a federal government "assault" on the treasury of school committees, according to Silber. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the IDA requires money to be spent increasingly on special needs student with decreasing amounts available for the pool of regular students. A lot of funds are spent on litigation and fraudulent abuse, Silber declared. "Increasing medical care and upgrading of professional involvement will bankrupt the system. Much of the expenditures in special education are too late and there has to be some common sense inserted in the implementation of the American Disability Act," he said.

Busing also can be seen as a waste of money, he feels. While it make sense to integrate the schools, Boston is a minority city so little is achieved by busing within the city and it is costing the city millions of dollars and the children thousands of hours.

Silber went on to say that the teachers' union also has great influence on the legislation which passes in the state government. Not only is the union involved in collective bargaining but also in defining the process for evaluating teachers. Since the union contract defines the standards, the loyalty of teachers is really to the teachers' union and not to the children. Unions are able to restrict the rights of a principal by a two-thirds vote and can veto any principal's decision. The example Silber used was that some principals have been known to put teachers "on notice" in the spring and then hire relatives and friends in August when money has been found. He referred to a controversial bill which would restore the management rights of the principal, but then in later sections wipes out those rights. "If we want an increase in educational standards, the public and teachers must care more about the children. While there are some good aspects to a teachers' union, it needs to restrict itself to relevant issues and not stand in the way of effective evaluation," Silber explained.

Silber feels it is important to restore management rights to the principals and allow them to have more site-based responsibility. Furthermore, in order to assure qualified teachers, Silber believes teachers should be tested on subject matter because, "They are unable to teach what they do not know." The teacher testing could set standards and provide proof of incompetence. Silber recommends that grade inflation should be eliminated, text books upgraded and university admission standards upheld.

To fill a quality teaching pool, Silber said a great source of well-educated and intelligent teachers and administrators could come from retirees, people whose children are presently in the school system, educated people in industry and graduate students. Horace Mann, for example, never taught school but as the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education revolutionized public school organization and teaching and promoted the first normal school in the state.

Silber said that schools sometimes generate what he considers absurd subjects such as " approximate math." Sometimes exactness is required and a level of precision is necessary. He claims the abandonment of phonics has caused a decline of children's ability to read and an inability to relate symbols on a page to sounds. There is also an absence of the use of memory or memorization in schools which he compared to Alzheimers disease and a loss of identity. Many components of education, particularly in foreign language, science and math require memorization skills. Silber used the example, One would not like to undergo an operation for heart surgery if the surgeon had not memorized the parts, names and functioning of the heart.

The practice of children's social promotion from grade to grade so that self-esteem will not be damaged is counterproductive, Silber claimed. To promote students not ready for the work of the next grade actually erodes standards and decreases self-esteem. Papers which are posted and commended even though they display inaccuracies provide false information and should not be substituted for papers which are correct and clearly written. "There is no substitute for a legible handwriting," he said.

Ideas for reform

Above all, Silber feels the importance of early childhood education is essential. A child's brain develops the most in the first four or five years and hearing and sight should be checked in the first six months. If a disability is present and neurons are not used, the brain cannot develop properly.

Welfare programs should include programs for child care, he contends. Early childhood school programs have been found to be extremely cost effective. To make his point, Silber suggested that the twelfth grade could be eliminated and the savings could be used for early childhood education and higher teacher salaries.

With more working parents, Silber thinks it would be helpful to extend the school day. Study halls could be held in the afternoon so students would have the opportunity to do homework. However, Silber advised that parents assume responsibility for children doing homework and turn off the television until it is done.

Silber opposes sex education in school because he believes the children should not have to absorb such a narrowly focused agenda. It is an intrusion and creates tensions in school, he said. He would also like to see less consumerism, public media and advertising in the system as it distracts students from the process of education.

Silber advised against using funds to reduce class sizes further, saying that 18 to 22 students in a class are manageable. He would rather see the money used to increase teacher salaries. Another way to increase teachers salaries, he suggested, is to give them a tax exemption for the first $30,000 of their salary. If salaries are competitive, a teaching career will be much more attractive.

The theme throughout Silber's talk was that the highest concern should be the children. "Education gives meaning to our lives and continues on generation after generation."

Answers to questions

A period of questions and answers followed Silber's talk. Answering a question about charter schools, Silber said that they have more money to use for the students in the classroom because the administration is cut in half and they do not need to comply with regulations imposed by the state and unions. However, Silber feels that the state has not yet implemented a "decent charter school program." He believes they should be located within a school to provide a threat and stimulate changes. Also, he believes the number the state will allow is too small to have an impact.

In response to a question about values, Silber said that the education system does include moral principles. It is instructive in responsible living and should provide conditions in which people can live and survive together.

In reference to special education, Silber declared that every child should be special and no one child has the right to disturb the education of another. He said the inner city children should not be ignored. They must be educated or the more wealthy communities will pay for it later, either in prisons or in the legal system, Silber concluded.

Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson concluded by thanking Silber and inviting the audience to attend the small discussion groups which followed.

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito