School & District Management

After 16-Year Crusade to Improve Southern Schools, Leader Retires

July 12, 2005 | Corrected: June 22, 2018 3 min read

Corrected: This story originally incorrectly stated Mr. Musick’s middle initial. It should be a “D.”

The importance of education to the future of the South sank in for Mark D. Musick during a holiday break from his classes at Virginia Tech in the 1960s. He was earning money for an engagement ring for his future wife, Judy, by working in a paper mill picking up discarded paper from the factory floor.

Mark D. Musick is stepping down at the end of July as president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

A man stopped him one day and mentioned that Mr. Musick’s father had worked the same job the summer before. The realization that his education could give him more opportunities than his father has helped drive Mr. Musick’s long career devoted to improving education across the South.

Sixteen years after becoming the president of the influential Southern Regional Education Board, Mr. Musick still gets emotional when he thinks back to his upbringing in southwestern Virginia and his father’s 8th grade education.

A veteran education policy leader who is also a former chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mr. Musick will retire from the SREB at the end of July. He has been with the Atlanta-based policy organization for 30 years.

The 58-year-old native of Appalachia, Va., and the father of a grown son and daughter will pass the SREB presidency to a former California State University system vice president, David S. Spence, on Aug. 1.

As the group’s president, Mr. Musick has pushed state policymakers to work toward high-quality schooling for all the South’s children.

Leaders in the 16 member states, from Texas to Delaware, have grown to rely on advice from the SREB. With Mr. Musick’s support, the SREB sprouted the well-known High Schools That Work school improvement program, began a host of technology-based efforts, and worked to recruit more minority students into graduate-level studies.

“The organization now has legs at the local school level,” said Gene Bottoms, the SREB senior vice president who founded High Schools That Work.

Mr. Musick has also advised leaders beyond the SREB’s membership, said Roy Truby, who was the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board during Mr. Musick’s 15 years as its chairman. “Governors on both sides of the political aisle, in not only the SREB states but other states, have called Mark for advice. And I imagine they will continue to do so,” he said.

Push for Standards

While finishing a master’s degree in history, Mr. Musick worked in Virginia higher education policy for four years during the 1970s. Former longtime SREB President Winfred L. Godwin then brought him to Atlanta. The SREB had only about 30 employees at the time and focused on higher education. It broadened its mission to include K-12 schooling in 1980.

Now the SREB has about 100 employees and an annual operating budget of roughly $15 million.

Lynn Cornett, the SREB’s longtime vice president for state policy, said Mr. Musick helped galvanize support among leaders in the South for higher academic standards in schools. “It was very clear that SREB played a role in helping that agenda along,” she said.

In the future, Mr. Musick said, the region must work to narrow achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups and raise graduation rates. “I’ve got to tell you that the gaps are greater than folks want to acknowledge,” he said in a recent interview.

An SREB report issued last month at the group’s annual meeting detailed the region’s falling graduation rates. (“Studies Decry Faulty Graduation Data, Rising Dropout Rate,” this issue.)

Mr. Musick also hopes new generations of leaders will help states focus on improving education in the same way leading Southern governors and legislators did in the 1980s. “It wasn’t so much a partisan thing,” he said of that era’s work.

For now, he has no plans for full-time work in retirement. He looks forward to spending more time with his family, including Judy, a retired Atlanta preschool teacher.

At the SREB’s annual meeting last month in New Orleans, Mr. Musick said his goodbyes. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat and the SREB chairwoman, joined Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, and many others who spoke at a banquet June 26 celebrating Mr. Musick’s career.

Mr. Musick began the final day of the SREB meeting by reading from meeting notes of a Methodist church his grandfather attended in rural Virginia. “We have done some good,” he read from the church records, emotionally tying the message to his own work, “but not all the good we intend to do.”

He added during an interview that he hopes others will keep their eye on the goal of better education for all in the region he loves. “In the South, we’ve got a long way to go,” Mr. Musick said.

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