Q&A: Boston University President John Silber: An Outspoken

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Since he became president of Boston University 11 years ago, John R. Silber has instituted a series of educational and financial reforms that have begun to improve the university's academic reputation--and have brought a firestorm of criticism to the outspoken president.

Mr. Silber has balanced the university's budget and raised tuition sharply. To improve academic quality, he has launched a faculty recruitment campaign that involved the replacement of hundreds of faculty members and more than 25 senior administrators. He has tightened admission standards, raising by 100 points the Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of entering freshmen.

Last year, Mr. Silber proposed similarly sweeping measures for the troubled Boston public schools. First, the school committee should turn over to the university responsibility for running the schools, he said.

Recently, his proposal to replace federal college loans to parents with tuition advances--that students would be required to repay through payroll deductions after graduation--has received attention in Washington. And he has appeared in a public-television debate, "Crisis in Education: Whose Responsibility?" which is currently being televised around the U.S. as a segment of the Public Policy Forum program.

In an interview with Education Week, Mr. Silber offers strong opinions on the quality of American education.

By Eileen White

Q:You said last year that Boston University would be willing to assume responsibility for the Boston Public Schools. You claimed to be able to run the schools for $40 million less than the school committee. How would you have done that?

A:Let's be clear that that suggestion was made last May before any mention of a new superintendent had been made. I have not proposed that Boston University assume the responsibility of running the Boston schools since Robert Spillane was appointed superintendent.

I think that he's making very good progress. The details of it I'm not competent to judge, because I have not had the opportunity to come inside and look. I think that most estimates are that he is $4 million or $5 million outside his budget estimate. That's not good enough, but it's a tremendous improvement. So far as I can tell, he has made improvements in the budgetary system, he's made improvements in curriculum, he has introduced programs for the evaluation of teachers and the evaluation of students. All of these are steps in the right direction. And he's in the seat, and he's obviously being shot at from every possible direction, so I don't feel like kibitzing on the side.

Q:But what would you have done had the City of Boston taken you up on your offer?

A:I said that Boston University would be fully prepared to contract with the school committee to operate the schools of Boston for the $210.6-million budget proposed by Mayor White and the city council. That budget was more than ample to run the schools.

They had fewer than 60,000 students in the Boston schools. On the assumption that one paid $3,000 for each student, one could operate the schools on, let's say, $180 million. We need maybe another $10 million for bilingual programs, programs for the handicapped, special-education programs that were necessary. And perhaps another $5 million toward the creation of an integrated school system and the busing of schoolchildren. But that still leaves a substantial surplus, which in the initial years could be used for compensating those teachers and those members of the staff who are to be terminated early.

There were lots of irregularities in the way the contracts were given. Savings in that area of contracting services and contracting materials could be made instantly.

But the major savings in the Boston school system could have been made in the administrative budget. In a period from about 1970 to 1980, the number of children in the Boston school system declined by about 31 percent. In that same period of time, nonteaching personnel increased by 150 percent, teaching personnel by approximately 13 percent. I think it's quite clear one could reduce the teaching personnel by 20 to 25 percent. One out of every four teachers would be redundant in the system. That's a relatively small number. It would ensure that the teachers that remain would be of very high quality indeed. We could use that to simply remove incompetents from the school system. A set of examinations would quite clearly indicate the need to terminate somewhere between 15 and 25 percent.

The major cutback would not have been in the teaching personnel at all--it would have been in the nonteaching staff. Thirty-seven schools were closed, but janitors sometimest terminated. The politicians in Boston had used the public schools for patronage. The school committee used the Boston public schools for patronage. And it was time to say "no more."

When one examined the administration of headquarters, one found the Robert Wood administration, one found the Marion Fahey administration [two previous superintendents], one could go right down through the administrative structure of the Boston schools as if it were an archeological dig--seeing one layer of administration on top of another layer of administration, on top of still another administration.

One out of every two nonteaching persons in the Boston schools should be terminated. Because you have at least two people sitting around trying to do one job. And that is the very best way to destroy morale and to destroy any sense of responsibility.

Q: Mr. Silber, you've criticized the nonscience curricula of American high schools as not being rigorous enough. What are your specific complaints?

A:I did a study once on the curriculum of several high schools in the United States about 1875 to 1885 and found that they were very demanding places with requirements--a place probably on the level with about the first two years of college. But the major difference then was that high school was not something that you expected every student to go through. Every child usually went through about the 8th grade.

Then, you had high schools that were designed for people who weren't going to work on the farms, who weren't going to work in the stores, but were people who really wanted to be educated--either to be teachers or professionals, so the social position of the high school was quite different. The access to high schools and the quality of the high schools both remained high or increased, up through the Second World War. I don't believe the schools were ever very much better than they were in 1940 in the United States.

Since then, the teaching of mathematics and science in the schools of the United States has improved. Physics, chemistry, and biology are taught in the high schools; computer science and mathematics in many places are taught exceedingly well. But the quality of instruction in English and the amount of work that is required in history and in foreign languages has been cut back in favor of social sciences, in favor of science with very weak methodologies.

Q:Why has that happened?

Q:I think it was largely the influence of teachers' colleges, the different quality of people who are in public education. Around the time of the Second World War, the only options for women in employment, except for the relatively few who became actresses or musicians, were to become secretaries or school teachers. The Second World War took that all apart. Rosie the Riveter was simply the driving wedge of the economic liberation of women. That went into abatement from about 1945 to 1960, while that generation of women who worked in the war and others who produced the baby boom became very dedicated mothers.

[In the 1960's] you were competing for an increasing number of young women and young men to teach in the secondary schools and primary schools, at the same time that women had many more options. There was a tremendous need, there was a tremendous shortage, and far less ability went into it. It was notorious at virtually every university in America that the weakest students in the university went into the school of education.

It definitely involved an erosion in the quality of the people. No question.

Q:Are you saying that education schools at that time began to lower their standards, compared to the standards of other university departments?

A:Well, of course. Most [education majors] were not fit to be admitted to a good college, much less graduate from one. Look, the quality of education that took place in the teachers' colleges and in the departments of education throughout the United States was derisory for at least 50 percent of the graduates.

They had disastrously low standards, and they began to focus on methodology. John Dewey had some very good ideas, but by the time his followers got through interpreting them, it was permissive education. It wasn't education as experience, it wasn't education as an exercise in democracy in which self-control has to be provided as the teacher reduces his level of authority and control and transfers that to the student. But it became 'just let the kids do whatever the hell they wanted to.' That institutionalized chaos to a large extent.

By a fascination with some of the techniques and methodologies proposed by Dewey--instead of talking about the total objective of excellence in education in which Dewey was always interested--the accomplishment of students was ignored in favor of techniques and gimmicks. And that gave rise to that whole notion of permissive education, and then we had social promotion, and we simply ignored the expectation of high-level competence as a prerequisite for advancement.

Q:Would you prefer to see teachers major in the field in which they will teach?--a foreign-language teacher majoring in French, spending a year abroad, and so on--rather than majoring in education?

A:Of course. After all, French mothers teach their children to speak good French without ever having gone to a school of education. But an American teacher who doesn't know how to speak French can't teach anybody how to speak French no matter how hard she tries. And with all the education methodology in the world, how will it help them? And the same is true of English. If they're sub-literate, how will it help them?

My children go to the Brookline schools [in suburban Boston], and we've had terrible examples of bad teaching from some teachers--isolated examples, because that's a good school system. Some teachers didn't know that bare, meaning naked, is b-a-r-e, and bear, meaning to bear children or the beast in the forest, [are] spelled differently. And we've had them make mistakes like that in grading our children's papers or setting up quizzes where you select one or the other. We had a teacher send out an assignment [containing the sentence], "Small animals reproduce their babies in a shorter period of time than large mammals." Well, nobody reproduces their babies, they reproduce themselves. The idea of recycling the babies--that's a great one. That comes under the heading of being sub-literate.

What do you do with a school system when you have a sub-literate teacher? The effects, the influence, the ripple effects of that are tremendous. Well, obviously it would have been more important for that teacher to have more English, and preferably some logic, some philosophy, rather than to have all those hours of educational methodology. My wife intended to be a teacher, but she simply could not sit through all those courses in methodology. They were mindless. They were the laughing stock on most campuses, and still are. They have done more to deter highly qualified women from going into teaching than anything else.

Q:When the ripple effect of such teaching reaches the college level, does that mean that colleges have to have more remedial classes?

A:Yes, but they shouldn't have to give college credit for it. See, there's nothing wrong with open admissions. I don't see why anyone would object to that, provided no one gives college credit for remedial work. But what happens is you have open admissions, and then you start giving college credit to people who are not even functioning at the level of high school.

Q:At Boston University, have you seen any results of that? The lower-quality teachers, and the social promotions, producing lower-quality students?

A:No, we haven't, because we have control over our standards of admissions, and we've simply tightened and elevated those standards as we go along, as the reputation of the university has increased.

Last year, our freshman class in the school of education had an average SAT score of 1,020. That's enough to be one of the highest in the country. And I'm really proud of that. It's cost us a lot in terms of tuition. We could have more students in the school of education by lowering the standards, but we made the decision to lose the income from tuition in order not to graduate and certify for teaching one who is not genuinely well qualified.

Q:Do you require that the education majors take courses in other areas, such as in the liberal arts?

A:Oh yes, sure. About 50 percent of their work is done in the college of liberal arts.

Q:You've been called a good teacher. What makes a good teacher?

A:I don't think there is any great mystery about it. An effective teacher has to know his subject exceedingly well, but he also has to really care about it, be really excited about it. He has got to believe that it is worth the time of the students, and the students' development has to be important to him.

The reason I was a successful teacher was that I assigned a great deal of work to the students, and I read that work and graded it myself. Even when I had very large classes and had to have teaching assistants, I always read at least one of the papers of each of the students in a semester. And I read at least 50 percent of all examinations. Even when I had huge classes, I was well aware of what progress the students were making. I insisted on making comments on each of the papers. Typically, I spend about a half-hour on each four-page paper, reading it and grading it.

What the students found out was that I cared about what they were doing. Not only did I know the subject myself, I also cared about the subject, I was excited about it, and I thought they ought to be excited about it. Excitement is contagious. Then I showed them I was interested in what they were doing.

If you do that, and if you never make the mistake of patronizing the students, and if you hold them to very high standards, continually pushing them to do better and better, to hold their own, to achieve a level of accomplishment that they thought was beyond them, they're always very grateful and excited because they have found new powers in themselves.

Q:Do you think it is possible to inspire mediocre teachers to be better teachers, or is the only solution to get rid of those teachers who are not performing well?

A:I think it is possible to improve the teaching effectiveness of a highly intelligent, knowledgable person who is not an effective teacher. It is not possible to make a good teacher out of a mediocre mind.

Q:I understand that you are in favor of the testing of teachers. Would you test only new teachers entering the profession? Would you test teachers already in the school system, prior to granting tenure? Would you test tenured teachers?

A:I would test all of them. Now let's suppose if the U.S. had decided to win the war in Vietnam, instead of doing what we did, that one of the things we would have wanted to do was to keep weapons out of the hands of enemy soldiers. We decided it would be a good idea to take their weapons away from them, so we decided to send our soldiers out into the jungle to find individual North Vietnamese soldiers and take their guns away from them. You either kill them, capture them and their guns, or take their guns away from them. It would have been a lot simpler, if that's what we really wanted to do, simply to mine Haiphong harbor, or to seize the weapons as they came into the country in the first place. To do it wholesale instead of doing it retail.

It's the same thing [with teachers]. If you're trying to improve the quality of the schools, don't begin with 10 million students, begin with a much smaller number of teachers, do it wholesale, on the grounds that if the teachers cannot teach, then there's no reason to be surprised about the disappointing results of the tests of the students. Find out first if all your teachers can teach. So I would begin with the testing of teachers. I'd get around to the testing of students, but only after I had first tested the teachers. I would test all of them, with or without tenure.

To test a teacher, the easiest place to begin is with the knowledge of the subject matter. If a teacher is teaching English, I would think that one could give an examination with the expectation that the teacher could write an essay, with no access to a dictionary, on an assigned topic, where one would have the opportunity of examining the quality of the writing. If it is a teacher beyond the fifth-grade level, I would assign them to write, say, a Shakespearean sonnet or a short poem in blank verse to show if they know anything about the various metrical forms in the English language. I would ask them about the history of the English language. Give them some passages from Shakespeare, from other authors, ask them to interpret them, to tell us what they mean. Test their vocabulary. There are many things one would want to know about just the sheer knowledge of the subject matter.

Q:The politics of testing teachers might create problems on the local school-system level. Do you have any idea how that might be done without creating turmoil?

A:No. I think that if people were just worried about complacency in teaching--where everything is comfortable, everything is quiet--then forget about the fact that the education they're providing our children is no good. How does the parent live with his conscience in tolerating an inferior school in his hometown where his children have to go? Are they so indifferent to the welfare of their children that they will tolerate incompetent teachers in the classroom to teach their children?

I think also that we underestimate the quality of many of our teachers. In every school system probably two-thirds of the teachers are dedicated, conscientious, highly qualified people who have become demoralized because they have seen that the teachers who don't work very hard, and who are ignorant and sometimes just plain stupid, are treated with just as much respect, are receiving just as much in the way of salary increases, and are getting along just as well as the most dedicated teachers.

What you will find is that, when the union rhetoric is cut through and when one says, "No union has the right to tell us that we, the school committee, or the citizens of this community are obligated to perpetuate the employment of persons who cannot do their jobs, who don't know enough to do their jobs," then any union that tries to promote that idea is going to be discredited. We will use the magic word "PATCO'' [the national air-traffic controllers' union] and say it's all over. Any school system can say, "We will close the public schools tomorrow until the union agrees that we are going to evaluate teachers."

Once they do that, all of a sudden the serious teachers, which are the majority in virtually every school system in the country, will realize their day has come. They will welcome those examinations, they will show how much better they can do on those examinations than those other teachers, and they will expect to be compensated more highly on the basis of the discovery of their added ability and given greater sway. I don't believe the opposition is there among the individual teachers so much as it is there in the vocal minority of weaker teachers who try to hide behind the protection of a mask of unionism.

Vol. 01, Issue 28

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