Change is the operative word

"Silber is an ignorant, evil, dictatorial, undemocratic, hateful man," one constituent told me.

Just one of the calls I've received since the Commonwealth started testing students, testing college grads, and thinking about testing veteran teachers. A call from a former teacher who doesn't think much of John Silber, who's in charge of our higher education system.

You should hear what some of the Westfield State College professors think about some of the other changes the state is contemplating. Elimination of tenure, increased teaching loads for professors, eliminating duplicative programs, incentive dollars for campuses that produce quantifiably measurable results, increasing the authority of college presidents and trustees.

We all resist change, and it does indeed seem like everyone is upset about some aspect of educational change in Massachusetts, from teacher retirement plans to charter schools, tuition to tenure.

No, I don't agree with all of the proposed changes. But, I do think that we've made some good changes in Massachusetts, from pre-school programs through college.

We've increased funding for schools and school buildings, for example. Note the new middle school going up on Southampton Road. But buildings aren't going to matter, if we don't have quality teachers and quality educational programs.

Our schools have new curriculum, and the state has put an additional $265 million a year, some $2-billion over seven years, into our schools through educational reform.

To find out if the money's been well spent we began testing our students in fourth, eighth and tenth grades this year. Geared to the new curriculum in science, math and English, the tests, in a combination of multiple choice, essay and open-ended questions, require students to show that they can use what they've learned, not just feed back memorized facts.

When students and schools fail, the state standards won't be lowered. Rather, school systems will have to raise their standards. And, they'll have a few years to do it. Until 2003 to be specific. That's when students will have to pass the tests in order to graduate from high school.

Don't get me wrong. Massachusetts has some of the finest schools and teachers in the country. But, there's room for improvement. Only one in three fourth graders is proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and only one in four of our eighth graders is proficient in math. Four of ten in science. Not acceptable.

We're seeing changes, improvements--mandatory summer schools, all day kindergartens, higher standards for new teachers, smaller classes. And people are starting to talk about money for teaching incentives, mentoring, master teachers.

But people are also talking about the fact that the huge majority of graduates from our public colleges who intended to go into teaching have failed the state's new teachers tests. Also not acceptable. What should we do? The discussions will continue for a long time.

But, not all the news is glum. Good things are happening on our state's college campuses.

We've toughened admission standards for our four year colleges--higher SATs and higher high school grade averages. We're eliminating remedial programs.

We have dual enrollment--guaranteed admission to state college after two successful years at a community college. And the legislature this year appropriated an additional $8.1-million for cash grants to community college students so that most, with family incomes below $36,000 can attend basically free of charge. Students with family incomes up to $80,000 will pay no more than $500 a year.

We've reduced tuition three years in a row. Applications are up. And, 150 high school seniors who were either first or second in their class are heading to U-Mass this fall. (And, U-Mass/Amherst has moved up 59 places in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.)

Administrative costs have been reduced, a $28-million technology upgrade program is planned, and we are implementing a $640-million capital program.

Some of our research programs--polymers for example--are the best in the world.

We're not finished. We don't even have all the solutions yet. Or, even all the questions. But we're working on it, because we in Massachusetts want one of the best--if not the best--educational systems in the country.

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