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John R. Silber, the combative chairman of the Massachusetts board of education, sees his role as a burden he must carry.


Looking toward the Charles River from the antiqued elegance of his Bay Street office at Boston University, John R. Silber takes off his jacket and sighs before explaining why he feels compelled to serve at the helm of the state's school board.

"I tell you, I don't enjoy this," the Boston University chancellor and chairman of the Massachusetts board of education says of his responsibility to lead the nine-member board in implementing the state's 1993 education reform law. "This is a damned frustrating position to be in. I do this because I think it is my duty, not because it is my pleasure."

It's been nearly two years since then-Gov. William F. Weld surprised the state by appointing his one-time political rival, a Democrat whom he beat by a only few percentage points in a bitter 1990 gubernatorial campaign, to invigorate the state's $2 billion education reform measure.

The law, which is expected to be fully phased in by school year 1999-2000, addresses school funding inequities, boosts teacher training, and requires the creation of statewide learning standards and assessments in core subjects.

As the Republican governor explained it, Silber was "someone who doesn't speak plastic, someone impatient for results, someone willing to rattle the cushy coach the education monopoly has been riding in far too long."

The unlikely appointment may have necessitated an explanation, but the appointee himself did not.

Silber had gained national distinction for his 25 years at the helm of Boston University, where he was credited with greatly improving the school's financial standing, luring renowned faculty members, and generally elevating the status of the once debt-ridden and ailing private institution.

It was during his tenure as president that BU took over the management of the state's troubled Chelsea school system, a first-of-its-kind relationship that began in 1989 and is going well enough that local leaders recently extended it another five years.

Bay State voters may have hesitated about Silber's potential as governor, but his no-nonsense, back-to-the-basics philosophy for schools resonated. And by most accounts, the public and the education establishment applauded his appointment to lead the state board.

"He's always been extremely interested in quality education and one of the major pro-ponents in the country of early-childhood education," says Democratic state Rep. Harold M. Lane Jr., a co-chairman of the legislature's education committee and a former public high school teacher and principal.

"People responded to that. Much of what he stands for is good, solid stuff," Lane adds.

Silber has been a lightening rod for controversy throughout his career, drawing fire year after year for his tell-it-like-it is style.

All of which Silber, in no uncertain terms, will tell you himself.

"I've been talking about education reform for 35 to 40 years," he explains, dryly adding that "Weld did me the disservice of appointing me as chairman."

When Weld made the offer, "there was no decent way that I would refuse to take it without saying, 'Education reform is only a subject about which I speak, it is not a subject on which I act.'

"I can't do that," he says earnestly. "I've got to work at this job."

Silber, 71, says he and Weld developed a good working relationship, despite all that name-calling on the campaign trail--Silber had dubbed Weld an "orange-haired WASP," and Weld had referred to Silber as "Dr. Know-it-All."

When Weld resigned this past summer and Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci became the state's acting chief executive, Silber offered his resignation. Cellucci immediately rejected it, assuring Silber that he was behind both his leadership and the education reform act.

Today, Silber says he is committed to staying on the state board "until I find it impossible, or until we get something done." The length of his term is open-ended.

Silber has been a lightning rod for controversy throughout his career, drawing fire year after year for his sometimes pugnacious, always tell-it-like-it-is style. He is an extraordinarily complex man, and colleagues and critics--most of whom can't be sure which side of the fence they are on--alternately describe him as sagacious and tyrannical, endearing and nasty.

What no one disputes, however, is that Silber is a man of broad intellect who has both the capability and opportunity to bring historic changes to Massachusetts public schools.

"John is very different from other board chairs," says Daniel S. Cheever, the president of Simmons College in Boston and a longtime supporter of both Silber and public schools. "He's one of the smartest and most colorful people I know. He has very firm opinions, and the force of his arguments can sometimes be overwhelming, but he never hesitates to take a stand."

But detractors, even while acknowledging his aptitude, question whether he has used it wisely.

"I don't question his ability or hard work," Peter Finn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, says. "But his shortcoming is he's not done much to garner support for schools."

Critics of Silber's term at the helm of the board of education say they are increasingly distressed by the chairman's diversions from the education reform law, which, they argue, have put off the measure's most crucial mandates--the implementation of statewide core-curriculum frameworks and accompanying assessments.

Silber's detractors charge that under his leadership, the board has abandoned its role as champion of the state's public school system.

The 1993 reform measure required the creation of curriculum frameworks in math, science, arts and world languages, English language arts, and history and social science. Frameworks in math, science, and arts and world languages were adopted in 1995 by a previous board. After months of vigorous debate, guidelines for English language arts were approved earlier this year, and guidelines for history and social science frameworks last June. ("With Vote Set, Mass. Board Still at Odds Over History Standards," June 11, 1997.)

Last November, in the midst of the board's difficult struggle with the frameworks, Silber blindsided members of the board, lawmakers, educators, and, perhaps most of all, students, with a proposal to make passing the General Educational Development test a mandatory requirement for all of the state's high school graduates. The GEDis usually given to high school dropouts. After months of rancor, Silber abandoned his proposal.

Despite the controversy, Silber stands by his recommendation, arguing that rather than a diversion from reform, a mandatory graduation exam such as the GED is one of its specifications.

Without such an exam, he says, "we cannot achieve the mandate of the Education Reform Act, which says that the board of education is to ensure that the academic standards of our high school graduates equal the high standards of other states and foreign countries."

Silber says the state has "made excellent progress" on reform. Responding to criticism that reform measures are overdue, he demands: "By whose standards? They did not appoint me when the Education Reform Act was passed. If they had appointed me then, we would have been way ahead of the game."

More than $1.3 billion in new state aid has flowed into schools since 1993, he says. In addition, thousands of new teachers have been hired, curriculum frameworks have been approved and assessments are being developed. Students also are now required to spend 900 hours a year at the elementary level and 990 hours annually at the high school level learning core subjects such as math, science, and English.

But Silber's detractors also charge that under his leadership, the board has abandoned its role as champion of the 950,000-student public school system, and, consequently, stirred disenchantment in the education community.

"Little attention is being paid by the board to critical issues of education reform," says Martin S. Kaplan, a Boston lawyer who preceded Silber as the chairman of the state board. "We've lost the process of everyone pulling together--lawmakers, teachers, the community. Instead, there is constant blame-throwing, a shortcoming of the present board leadership. ... Rather than working with teachers, they are blamed, and if it's not the fault of teachers, it's parents and students."

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