Stephen L. Pruitt, a chemistry education doctoral graduate of the Auburn University College of Education, took office as the sixth president of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) in July 2018.
SREB is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Atlanta. It works with its 16 member states to improve public education from early childhood through doctoral education by providing policymakers with independent, accurate data and recommendations.
Third generation educator
Growing up in tiny Talmo, Georgia, just thirty minutes from Athens and the University of Georgia, Pruitt is often asked how he got to Auburn.
“The best way I can say it is that Auburn is a large university with a small town feel,” he said. “Everyone is important. That mattered to me.”
“I have always been an SEC fan and getting to Auburn was just one of the great, great things that ever came my way. I love Auburn.”
Education runs in the Pruitt family blood. Stephen’s grandmother, uncle, and mother were all public school teachers.
“Education is an integral part of our family culture,” he said. “Talmo was a small place. It was twenty minutes to the nearest grocery store, so the school was a huge part of who we were. I was in Jackson County Elementary through the eighth grade, where I experienced a lot of inspiring teachers. One of them was my mother, because she was the only science teacher in the school. I was in her class for three years in a row. I was a good student, but she knocked me off the honor roll a few times for conduct. I think she just felt like ‘we don’t need anyone to think you are special because you are a teacher’s kid.’ But she was a gifted teacher, and all the students and faculty admired and respected her. It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of the school in such a small place. A big event in our town was hosting the state track meet every year. It was just a wonderful time and place in which to grow up.”
Pruitt earned a degree in chemistry from North Georgia College and State University. He began his career as a high school chemistry teacher in Fayette County, Georgia, at which time he also earned a master’s in science education from the University of West Georgia. It was this latter pursuit that ultimately led him to Auburn.
“Getting to Auburn involved a lot of luck,” he said. “I loved being in the classroom every day, but knew that I wanted a Ph.D., and I especially wanted to engage in the research aspect of the doctoral process. We were on our way to Orange Beach for a summer vacation and drove through Auburn, which really got me thinking. I called Dr. Bill Baird, who at the time was Auburn’s secondary science professor, and we set up a formal visit. Auburn said they wanted me here. They took my transfer credits and customized a chemistry education doctoral program with a research component that suited me perfectly. I really couldn’t have asked for more.”
To offset the out-of-state tuition, Pruitt was given the opportunity to teach a class of interning preservice teachers. It was the first time he had worked with adults in the classroom.
“I couldn’t believe how exciting that was, working with motivated preservice teachers who were about to graduate and go into their own classrooms,” he said. “My experiences there gave me my first insight into the world of educational policy. From this combination of factors, I began to grow as an educator, a scholar, and a policymaker. The faculty at Auburn went out their way to make this work. And once again I saw very clearly that Auburn is a large university that still manages to seem small and make people feel special.”
About this time, Georgia elected a new state superintendent of education, who in turn hired Pruitt to serve as the science and mathematics program manager. He went on to serve as director of academic standards, associate state superintendent for assessment and accountability, and finally chief of staff for the Georgia Department of Education. From Georgia, he went to Achieve, Inc., a nonpartisan nonprofit to work with states and lead the development of new science standards. These experiences in policy, assessment, and instruction led to his being hired as Kentucky’s state commissioner of education.
“By this time I felt that I had come full-circle,” Pruitt said. “I never aspired to anything other than serving in the classroom, but my Auburn experiences just opened me up to so many opportunities. I feel that all of these things have combined to give me a great opportunity to help move our region forward at SREB.”
SREB: where policy meets practice
“I like to say that SREB is the place where policy meets practice, and that’s what drew me here,” Pruitt said. “I’ll always be a teacher so I’m really into practice, but in terms of policy we have a unique opportunity to bring states together to work on important issues we all face. We help the states develop unique solutions to common challenges. Of course each state is different, but we help them learn from us and from each other. That’s good for SREB, and good for me personally. Everything I have learned along the way informs my work here.”
Pruitt does not hesitate when stating the biggest single problem facing the region.
“Equity, opportunity, and access. We must ensure that everyone, and especially our underserved populations, has access to pre-K, meaningful courses, and good teachers along their educational journey. We must also find a better way to make college affordable in this age of dwindling state support. For us to move forward as a region and a nation, each child must be able to pursue his or her passion.”
Pruitt has developed a metaphor to illustrate what he sees as our reactive nature.
“A big problem with educational policy can be illustrated through the wide swings of a pendulum,” he explained. “Depending on the prevailing winds, the pendulum makes wide swings. How can we stabilize it? When a crisis or fad emerges, we swing wildly to address that fad. Then something new comes along and we swing back. We need more stability.”
“It used to be that state policy leaders totally emphasized college preparation. Then we switched to preparing our students to enter the workforce. Germany provides a great example of this. By the year 2000 Germany was having poor science performance and it threw all its energy into a reemphasis on science education. Well, that created a workforce vacuum, so they are having to re-address that issue. It’s the same thing here. We need balance.”
“For me, equity is an environment where students have access to all options. We often hear this question: ‘Where are you going to college?’ But students should be prepared to choose to pursue their passion whatever direction that takes. Some students will choose college, others a technical or community college, and others straight into the work place. All of these are viable and should allow each student to make a livable wage doing what he or she loves. So, a better question is this: ‘What’s next?’ If our young people have good options, it will lead to balance. So in many ways, equity remains our biggest challenge. We need everyone to get a good education, regardless of circumstances. We’re here to help states think about how best to do this.”
From classroom to policy
While Pruitt began giving serious thought to education policy issues during his time at Auburn, his eyes had been opened a little earlier. It happened in the course of a conversation with his wife, who was a pharmacist.
“My chemistry class had just completed a large and complex forensics project, and this was long before the popular CSI television series,” Pruitt recalled. “As we were getting ready for dinner, my wife suggested that I let my classroom limit my creativity. Well, I didn’t like the sound of that and it created a long space of silence between us. So just before bed I asked her what she meant. And this is what she said:
“You let the four walls of your classroom limit you. You could do so much more at the state and district level that would allow you to not only impact individual students, but also be a positive influence on those who teach students and develop the policies that move our schools forward.”
Pruitt now considers that a watershed moment.
“She was right,” he said. “If she had not said that there is no way I’d be where I am now. Her insight, along with my time at Auburn and in the College of Education, gave me a much broader understanding of what we can do to help education and educators in our state and region. I know I would still be happy in the classroom, but I very much appreciate the opportunity to be here at SREB, a place that will continue to be a positive force as we work to bring equity and opportunity to all of our students.”
Founded in 1915, the Auburn University College of Education enrolls 2800 undergraduate and graduate students. Four academic units offer 60 degree options in teaching, special education, educational leadership, kinesiology, counseling, adult education, educational technology, and educational psychology. The college is committed to diversity and inclusion and maintains a focus on outstanding teaching, consequential research, and solution-oriented outreach in order to fulfill its mission of making a better world for all, including those most in need.