Silber Resigns as Mass. Board Head; Ends Standoff Over New State Chief

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John R. Silber resigned last week as the chairman of the Massachusetts board of education, ending both a political standoff over naming the next education commissioner and a stormy era for the state's public schools.

John R. Silber

Mr. Silber submitted his resignation March 2, calling on Gov. Paul Cellucci to name former board member James A. Peyser as his replacement. His departure paves the way for the state board to hire interim Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll permanently for that position.

On March 3, Gov. Cellucci accepted Mr. Silber's resignation and appointed Mr. Peyser as chairman. The Republican governor also said he would back Mr. Driscoll as the next state schools chief.

Mr. Silber characterized his resignation as a political self-sacrifice intended to end a deadlock over the choice of a commissioner. In a vote last month, Mr. Silber and three others on the nine-member state board backed Mr. Peyser, 42, the head of a conservative public-policy think tank in Boston, for state chief.

Mr. Driscoll, 55, a former public school math teacher and longtime school administrator from Melrose, Mass., received five of the six votes needed, and his supporters could not be swayed.

"My leaving the board may give you a better opportunity of assembling the additional vote necessary to select a commissioner," Mr. Silber said last week in a letter to the governor. "Although this will not give the department of education leadership by the best-qualified candidate, the solution is better than the alternative of impasse."

Mr. Silber, the chancellor and former president of Boston University, was appointed chairman of the state board in 1996 by then-Gov. William F. Weld. The chairman's tenure was marked by criticism and controversy.

In a 1997 interview with Education Week, Mr. Silber vowed to remain on the state board "until I find it impossible, or until we get something done."

In his resignation letter, he cited several of the board's accomplishments, including:

  • Developing tests for prospective teachers that he said have helped spur improvements in teacher-training programs;
  • Establishing curriculum guidelines as required by the state's 1993 education reform law;
  • Devising and administering a state assessment based on those guidelines; and
  • Developing literacy tests for the state's 3rd graders.

'Failure of Leadership'

Many in the state, however, would add that during his term Mr. Silber, 73, also managed to divide the board and isolate educators--the very people entrusted with carrying out reform.

S. Paul Reville, a co-director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform at Harvard University and a professor of education there, sees Mr. Silber's resignation as critical to restoring peace to the panel. "The board had reached a level of dysfunction that made it impossible to move forward," Mr. Reville said. While the board moved forward in several areas, he noted, division in the education community stemmed from Mr. Silber's "failure of leadership."

"His comments were seen as demoralizing to teachers in the field," added Stephen E. Gorrie, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate and the largest teachers' union in the state. "I'm hopeful," he added. "It's time to get past the political maneuvering and politicking and move on."

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 17

Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as Silber Resigns as Mass. Board Head; Ends Standoff Over New State Chief
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