Address to the 2019 Indiana School Board Association Conference

Submitted by Phil on Sat, 10/05/2019 – 10:34

In 1949, my parents were 10 years old, Harry Truman was president, the Mann Gulch fire revolutionized the study of forest fires, the Berlin Blockade ended, Mao Tse Tung became the premiere of the People’s Republic of China, the Geneva Convention was signed, Lucky Lady II performed the first non-stop circumnavigation flight of the planet, 1984 was published, NATO was established, Newfoundland joined Canada, the world’s first commercially available computer, The Ferranti Mark 1, was released, and the first ISBA/IAPSS conference was held. It is my profound honor to be addressing the 70th ISBA/IAPSS conference. Congratulations everyone.

I am humbled and honored to be the 2020 Indiana Superintendent of the year. I would like to congratulate all the district winners and thank my Board from Southwest Allen County. I look up to so many of you and respect the work I know you do for our girls and boys every day. You inspire me to work harder than I would like to, and certainly much harder than my teachers ever thought I was capable of. Thank you so much. 

A couple years ago, the administrative team in Southwest Allen did a series of book studies and one of the books studied was Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. In the book, Grant talks about how small differences have de-railed important work time and time again. He uses the phrase the “narcissism of small differences” to describe the phenomenon. I loved the phrase and the examples Grant cites in the book have been on my mind ever since. 

To remind you, Narcissus was the most beautiful of the ancient Greeks and he held himself more beautiful than the gods. To punish him, the gods tricked him into staring at his reflection in a lake, unable to disturb the water for fear of disrupting the view of himself, until he died of thirst; whereupon he turned into the flowers that bear his name. 

Grant warns that small differences, held on to out of self-love, can de-rail the best of intentions. Survey the education policy landscape in Indiana today, 70 years after we decided it would be worthy to work and study together, and you would be confronted by a number of potential pitfalls where the narcissism of small differences cause us to work against each other in spite of our common oath to the state of Indiana and all its girls and boys.

In the last 10-20 years, public school boards have seen a diminishment of their local control. Much of how public schools are now run is controlled from Indianapolis and many of the policies that have been enacted drive us to compete in areas of small differences instead of focusing on larger issues. 

Superintendents are sent chasing after a test score that research shows will be pre-determined by their district’s socio-economic status, and doesn’t measure enough of what parents and businesses want from our graduates. We chase teachers and dollars-following-children at each other’s expense in the name of healthy competition when there is little healthy in it for all children.

The biggest loss to me though, seems to be in the area of cooperation. It is one of the most important skills the business community says it wants from our graduates yet we are incentivized to not demonstrate it. We are fooling ourselves if we think our girls and boys don’t notice the disconnect.

As ISBA and IAPSS begin their next seventy years, let’s commit to work beyond the narcissism of our small differences in favor of an equitable and well-financed public school system, where every dollar is accounted for; for an accountability system based on solid research in child development that builds on each community’s strengths and needs; for a legislative focus on the broader social and emotional needs of our children; for the end of the micromanagement of public school districts; and a for new respect for the profession of public school teacher. 

For this to happen, we have to put aside our small differences and work together. As non-partisan elected officials you are uniquely qualified to do this, through your own advocacy, and also by encouraging your Superintendents to become active and speak out from a fact-based, researched, experienced, child-centered point of view in pursuit of these larger goals. 

It is my hope that when this conference celebrates its 140th anniversary, the attendees gather to celebrate the work we have done to create an Indiana acknowledged as the best place to raise a child in the world. And that is a goal worth setting aside small differences. 

Thank you so very much for this great honor.