Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
An appreciation of Dave Spence

Blog post Stephen L. Pruitt

What’s in a name? asks Romeo in one of those Shakespeare moments every high schooler can quote and identify with. The answer is, a great deal, and not just where romance comes in. A name brings with it a responsibility to people who came before, whether that means family or countrymen or colleagues.

Being named the 6th president of SREB is a huge honor, because it means standing on the shoulders of giants. The people who built the Southern Regional Education Board, ushering in a new day for education in the South, and the people who’ve devoted their working lives to that ideal for 70 years, are giants to me. The name of SREB comes not only with history, but also with reputation and trust. Our work has always been where policy meets practice, servicing our states, and fiercely nonpartisan. The type of accurate and reliable service we provide doesn’t come by happenstance or accident, but by deliberate leadership.

I want to shine a light on the most recent of these leaders, Dave Spence. Dave is retiring and has been given the honor of President Emeritus of SREB. Now Dave is not the kind of person who likes spotlights so he may not appreciate my writing this, but it’s important for us in education and policy, and for me personally, to take a moment to appreciate the momentous contributions he has made to improving education in the South. 

Dave spent nearly half of a remarkable 50-year career at SREB, and he brought to the job a wealth of experience as an administrator, policy innovator and teacher. It can be easy to forget your roots, but not Dave — he’s always wanted to be in the thick of things, to keep that perspective.

He has directed all his skill, energy and influence, whether he was in a room with board members or lawmakers, superintendents or administrators, to giving every student a better chance for a better life. The 10 commissions during his leadership at SREB, his ceaseless efforts to prepare high schoolers for college and college kids for graduation and graduates for careers — it was always about the students. Everything else came second.

“Dave makes the conversation about problem solving. He’s always been issue-driven.”

One SREB report on college readiness is titled “Beyond the Rhetoric,” and to my mind that phrase fits perfectly. Dave can talk to anyone, but the giant steps that education has made under his watch owe more to his habit of doing than to what he was saying. As he’s told me more than once over the past few months, he always considers himself a program person and his focus has always been there. As one policy maker put it, “Dave makes the conversation about problem solving. He’s always been issue-driven.”

Dave is an actor, a doer, and I look forward to shouldering the responsibility that comes with following him in that role. So, what’s in a name? Just about everything that matters. The name of Dave Spence and our thankfulness to the man himself will live on and continue to make education in the south a priority.