President’s Corner

A Conference Purpose for Everyone

by JOHN R. LAWRENCE

Remember the story of the five blind men who were asked to describe an elephant? One described the smooth tusks; a second protested, saying the elephant was wrinkled and leathery. The third man said they were both in error, that the elephant was made of stiff, bristly hairs. The fourth and fifth expressed equally divergent views.

All were right, yet none had the complete picture.

In thinking about how best to talk about AASA’s national conference and its place in the life of the association, individual members and the profession, I feel a little like one or all of the blind men.

The conference is a gathering of thousands of people—superintendents, board members, professors, graduate students, aspiring superintendents, partners and guests, exhibitors, sponsors, invited speakers—coming together for four days in February to learn from experts and each other, renew old friendships and once again be reminded of why we are part of what Paul Houston terms a “calling.”

The 2004 National Conference on Education, Feb. 19-22, in San Francisco, offers an impressive array of thinkers and doers important to public education in this country. Consistent with the theme, “A Legacy of Pride, A Future of Responsibility,” the conference honors many who have helped shape our schools in the past and looks to future challenges as well.

On Thursday evening, at the conference’s opening session, we will honor one of the giants in our field, John Goodlad, whose writings on education in a democracy have been so influential in shaping schooling in America. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, a book that has captured the minds of many of us, will be the general session speaker on Friday. On Saturday, civil rights historian Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, will share his insights on literacy and a literate society.

In addition, we’ve gathered outstanding speakers in today’s critical areas—Michael Fullan on leadership and change, Elliot Eisner on the arts in education, Pat Wolfe on brain research, Gerald Bracey on No Child Left Behind, Dennis Sparks on professional learning in schools and a host of others. Reg Weaver, president of National Education Association, will talk about the importance of standing together to stand up for public education. AASA and NEA have joined in a strategic alliance to work together in support of our schools, and Reg’s appearance may be only the second time an NEA president has been at our conference.

As we all grapple with the challenges and opportunities of No Child Left Behind in our school districts, we’ll have the chance to talk about it at the conference as well. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has been invited to the conference. Doug Christensen, state commissioner in Nebraska, will talk about how we can determine whether the law is friend or foe. Attorneys specializing in education law will discuss implementation issues and regulations.

We’ll honor our legacy by recognizing long-term AASA members and we’ll applaud our colleagues through the Superintendent of the Year program, Civic Star award, Technology award, as well as state affiliate and special-interest functions. We’ll look to our future with sessions especially for aspiring and new superintendents.

And equally important, we’ll take some time to step back from the constant demands of our roles and return home more ready to take on the big and small issues of the day.

So it’s not surprising that talking to 10 people about AASA’s national conference could give the impression of 10 different meetings. Holding it all together is our commitment to our system of public education and our association’s promise to “Stand Up for Public Education.” No matter how you describe the proverbial elephant, I look forward to seeing you in San Francisco!

John Lawrence is president of AASA.