Monday, May 22, 2017

AV#161 - Schools with a Mission

What if all public schools (not just charters) were asked to define what they are about?

Next month my class of 1967 gathers to celebrate our 50th reunion.  Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in western Massachusetts, won’t be the same place we attended half a century ago (we certainly hope not!), and yet the loyalty we feel (and that the alumni office depends on) is based in part on the belief that the old school is, in some hard-to-define ways, much the same.  A new library, new dorms – but in its central purpose – still our school.

A crazy notion for public education?  A public school, almost by definition—some will argue—cannot have a mission that survives even a decade, let alone 50 years.  Always adjusting to the public’s demands–to current trends, changing demographics, new legislation out of Washington or the state capital, a new direction set by the school board, superintendent, the principal. Nothing lasts.

What if this is a key reason why many public schools struggle?  A guiding principle for our strongest private schools, adopted by the charter school world these past 25 years, is that schools need a clear set of beliefs and goals to commit to, and by which to set their course.  Hardly “innovative,” but sound.  What if every public school had a clear mission, one that—in its most essential ways—will endure?  

We just say yes

One of the most profound remarks I heard about public education in the past quarter century was this “joke”:
Q: What is the mission of our public schools?
A: You name it, we start it.
A: We just say yes.

A clear purpose

Why do we exist? What is our purpose?

No, this is not Philosophy 101. But educators and schools have our own existential questions.

And in 2017, in America, where we believe parents, especially in urban areas, should have a choice as to where to enroll their child, schools need to answer such questions.  Parents in the Denver metro area choose based on much more than a color (blue, green,yellow .…), its School Performance Framework rating (Performance, Improvement, Priority Improvement, Turnaround), or test scores. 
They want to know a school’s values, its most essential convictions.

Which requires that a school be clear about its mission.

Low-performing schools - “like a rolling stone”

In studying the state’s low-performing schools over many years, I see many slide downhill, bouncing from one “reform strategy” to the next, “with no direction home.”  They struggle to figure out their identity.  (if you doubt me, read a few of their Unified Improvement Plans.)  In my analysis of innovation status for turnaround schools, AV#159, I questioned if this “fresh start” gets at the root cause of their dysfunction.  They take on new names (Pueblo’s Risley Middle School becomes Risley International Academy of Innovation) or adopt some amorphous motif (Aurora’s Action Zone: “Five schools … united around a common theme of International Leadership”).  But do the fundamentals change?  You know the cliché: in the end, isn’t this just “rearranging a few chairs on the deck of the Titanic”?  Has the school community stopped to reflect on the basic values and beliefs behind its educational design? Has it articulated a broad vision that reflects its academic goals—and much more?  Has it hired a school leader and faculty fully committed to and well suited for its “new” plan?

Critical questions, if a school is to say to prospective families and students: We are about this.  Yes, we would like to serve anyone who shows up at our door, but please know we are not designed to be anything you want us to be. This is who we are.

The unfortunate either/or debate of neighborhood versus charter schools in Denver is less important than whether a school has a clear sense of purpose.  I believe public education as whole would do well if all schools, not just charters, were required to think long and hard about the school they choose to be.  Which cannot be–anymore than is true for any good organization—all things to all people.

Built to Last (Collins) and Start with Why (Sinek)

Built to Last:
Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
   “For (Jim) Collins and (Jerry) Porras, every organization has a purpose, even if it hasn’t been articulated yet. Purpose could be described as the heartbeat or soul of your organization—your organization’s ‘most fundamental reason for being’. Not to be confused with product lines, services or customers, purpose motivates and inspires. A true purpose grabs ‘the ‘soul’ of each organizational member” and reflects their ‘idealistic motivations for doing the work.’
   “For me, Collins and Porras’ best description of core purpose is: …like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached.”
Deerfield Academy was founded in 1797, in a charter signed by then Massachusetts governor Samuel Adams, pledging the Academy to “the instruction of youth, and the promotion of piety, religion and morality.”  Yes, its mission has changed since then; the non-denominational school I knew no longer put religion at the center.  I asked Deerfield for its mission or vision statements over its past 50 years—see excerpts in Addendum A.  I believe you will be struck by the school’s constancy of purpose—its why we exist—over this time. 

My white-haired or balding classmates from 1967 are thrilled to know Deerfield students today experience a less restrictive environment, a curriculum less narrow, a student body less homogeneous, a faculty less detached from the nation’s ills.  I know some classmates doubt it can ever change enough. But for many, we hope the best of the intangibles survive: a strong school community where a bright and dedicated faculty care about the students’ growth and well-being; an environment of high expectations in and beyond the classroom; a short-term goal of college preparation, and a long-term goal that we might each fulfill our potential and find a way to serve the common good.

The Shopping Mall High School – no coherence, no convictions

Schools cannot be static; they must respond to a changing world.  To a degree, perfectly reasonable.  And respond they do. In spite of the portentous and silly TV ads for the next generation of schools (XQ: The Super School Project), today’s schools do not look like those of 1917. 

But among the most telling critiques of the American high school—one of the three studies funded in part by Denver’s Gates Family Foundation in the 1980’s, and that helped inform the work of the Coalition of Essential Schools—is the book titled The Shopping Mall High School (Powell, Farrar, Cohen).  The authors found schools with no coherence and no convictions, eager to please “so that students will stay on, graduate, and be happy.”  Schools making “accommodations” that “produce a neutral environment where a do-your-own thing attitude prevails.”  High schools that “take few stands on what is educationally or morally important,” unable "to forge any workable consensus about what educational experiences are of most worth....”

Still true, yes?  Schools react, but they do not define what they are for. Or who they can best serve.

What charter schools borrow from the independent school world

   Emma Willard School, where I taught in the mid-1980’s, was founded in 1814. It is the oldest school in the nation still in existence set up to offer girls the same educational opportunity available to boys. Still true. 
   Note the first four words in its mission statement (Addendum B):
      “Honoring its founder's vision….” 
And once higher education was more available to young women, the school has maintained a college-prep focus.
My 35 or so years as a student and teacher were equally divided between public and private schools. One reason I cheered and worked for the fledgling charter school movement in the 1990’s was that I thought these new schools—like Deerfield, like the three private schools where I have taught—had one huge advantage: they would not be set up to be all things to all people. They would open with a distinct mission.  They would have the autonomy needed to hire the faculty and staff committed to the school’s most basic beliefs. They would attract families and students enthusiastic about the school’s educational philosophy, and commit resources in a way consistent with the school’s mission. 

They would be public schools, committed to follow state laws, but they would not be all over the map, responding willy-nilly to the latest trend or reluctantly complying with legislative mandates.  And—please note—this felt true for me while teaching in a charter school during the early years of No Child Left Behind.  Do you recall schools blaming Washington for all their woes back then?  Never our worry.  We had a mission.

Naturally, then, in reviewing charter school applications over many years for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, I paid close attention to this feature.  I would ask you to consider this advice in the League’s 41-page “Quality Standards for Developing Charter Schools”:

Vision & Mission Statements
   This section of the application reflects the school’s vision and mission statements as developed and agreed upon by the members of the founding committee and are likely to produce high-quality education outcomes.
   “I’ve found a key piece in all of this is how or whether a school weaves the mission and vision into the very fabric of their culture to ensure implementation in a tangible way.”
   Kathy Zlomke, New School Development Manager, Colorado League of Charter Schools
 These statements should answer the questions, “What is the purpose for the school and what is the applicant team’s vision for the school?” The rest of the application should answer, “How exactly will we get there?”  An explanation should be given as to the process and impetus for developing both the vision and mission statements. 
The vision of the school articulates how the applicants envision the school and its impact in the future (five to ten years).
·      The vision statement expresses the ideal, long-term impact, scope and scale of the school. It articulates what the school hopes to be, but not how the school will reach that vision. The vision should focus on essentials, be research based, and provide guidance to the board and administration as the school grows. (For example, all conversations about budget, planning, and staff development would be guided by the long-term vision.)
·      The vision statement is focused on the future. It concisely and succinctly defines what the school looks like in five to ten years when it is “all grown up.”

Interested in reading more on the value of, and advice on developing, a mission statement?
See Addendum C - Independent School Mission Statements and Missions
Addendum D - School Mission Statements: Where Is Your School Going?
Addendum E Keeping the Mission of the School

What if all public schools were called on to follow this practice? 

To be sure, not every mission statement hits the mark! 😊
   “As an art form, the mission statement had its dangers. As short-form poetry gave birth to the dirty limerick, mission statements became highly susceptible to both parody and banality. My favorite… comes from Maria Semple's brilliant dissection of independent school parent culture, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, in which the mission of the ‘Galer Street School’ is this: … 
a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.
   “As one character notes, this is a school that doesn't just think outside the box--its leaders ‘think outside the dictionary.’”
(Peter Gow, Education Week, 2014.  See more in Addendum C.)
What if this simple but powerful feature is a key reason for the success of many charters, that have borrowed this practice from a much older tradition–that of private schools?  Would it not help public schools escape the burden of trying to be all things to all people?  Would it not provide some much-needed stability to a field all-too subject to “the latest whatever,” to have a clear sense of what this school stands for—not just for a couple of years—but for the long haul?

1967, 2017, 2067 – What’s new?

We return to meet the old gang—most of them last seen 50 years ago. In return, the alumni office, of course, hopes for a few generous gifts.  What may seem strange is that, at this stage in our lives, we give to the school’s future–to what we hope students will experience 10, 20, … 50 years from now.  A school we will never see, but one that we want to believe will be true to the best of what we experienced 50 years ago.

Impossible, some will say. All is flux.  Nothing endures.
Really?  But what if the mission does?

Another View is a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper Jr.  Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 -

Addendum A

Deerfield Academy’s “evolving mission”: new words, even new ideas, and yet - much the same

I found it amusing to learn that there was no written school “mission” for Deerfield when I was there, that it was often “whatever the headmaster said it was” during his 66-year tenure (1902-1968).[1]  But Frank L. Boyden had a clear idea of the kind of school he wanted to build.  Faculty, students, and parents were confident Mr. and Mrs. Boyden would stay true to their beliefs about teenage age boys and how to help them learn and grow.  After Mr. Boyden retired, and in order to meet the expectations of the Association of Independent Schools in New England (AISNE) for accreditation, Deerfield began to articulate its “goals and objectives” (1971), its “goals and purposes” (1976 - approved again in 1982); its “purposes and objectives” (1991); and most recently, its mission (2002), revised (2008).  

No, not always the same wording, but easy to see the continuity throughout the past five decades:

1971 - “The function of education is to help the student to discover and want to develop the qualities of his human potential – intellectual, spiritual, aesthetic, physical, social – which can lead to his greatest fulfillment as a human being and as a contributor to the welfare of society.”

1976 – “The ideal purpose of the Deerfield experience is to help and to encourage students in those qualities – intellectual, physical, aesthetic, spiritual, social, and moral – which can bring them optimum fulfillment as human beings and can encourage them to become significant contributors to the quality of their community.”   (See below, from 1981 – Change, continuity – and the Constitution!)

1991 – “The purpose of Deerfield Academy is to educate students – intellectually, aesthetically, socially, physically, and morally – so that they may become fulfilled human beings and responsible, contributing citizens.”

2002 – “Deerfield is a vibrant learning community nurturing high standards of scholarship, citizenship and personal responsibility. Through a demanding liberal arts curriculum, extensive co-curricular program and supportive residential environment, Deerfield encourages each student to develop an inquisitive and creative mind, sound body, strong moral character and a commitment to service.   The setting of the campus is rich in tradition and beauty, inspires reflection, study and play, the cultivation of enduring friendships, and the growth of a defining community spirit.”

2008 - “Deerfield Academy is an independent secondary school committed to high standards of scholarship, citizenship, and personal responsibility.
   “Through a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, extensive co-curricular program, and supportive residential environment, Deerfield encourages each student to develop an inquisitive and creative mind, sound body, and strong moral character.
   “Set in a historic village bounded by river, hills, and farms, Deerfield inspires reflection, study and play, abiding friendships, and a defining school spirit.”
   “A vibrant, ethical community that embraces diversity, the Academy prepares students for leadership in a rapidly changing world that requires global understandingenvironmental stewardship, and dedication to service.”

Change, continuity, and … the Constitution! (1981)
From the 1981 review of Purposes and Objectives. “The purposes and objectives of the school are the subject of continuous review…. It should be noted that some do not concur with the premise on page 14 of the Evaluation Handbook: ‘No set of purposes and objectives can remain unchanged for long if the school is to continue alive to the world in which it exists.’ It seems to many people at the Academy that if the goals and purposes are well written and sensible that they can indeed stand the test of time and that simple subject of change does not make them better.  In that sense, they are much like the United States Constitution which does not need to be rewritten but simply reinterpreted in order to play a positive role in contemporary society.”

Addendum B

Emma Willard School – founded 1814

Mission Statement. Honoring its founder's vision, Emma Willard School proudly fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.

After the mission statement, the school then captures 5 CORE VALUES in a sentence or two.

Two examples, of the five:

The Journey - Through daily moments of discovery, struggle, failure, success, and connection we develop a belief in ourselves, resiliency of character, and an awareness of the transformative power of impassioned engagement with our world.

Wellbeing – Dynamic balance in mind, body, and spirit is a life-long pursuit that provides a healthy foundation for self-esteem and happiness. We will care for one another—in good times and in bad times.

[1] “Through the end of the headmastership of Mr. Boyden, it is fair to say the school was run in a very non-conventional administrative fashion …. Certainly, the purposes and objectives of the school were not written down, were not reviewed by the trustees, by the students, or by the faculty and certainly were not openly questioned by any constituency.  The purposes and objectives of the school were articulated in the day-to-day decisions of the people on the faculty who, for the most part over the years, did what Mr. Boyden wanted.” (From the 1981 statement of “Purposes and Objectives,” p. 2.) 

Addendum C

Independent School Mission Statements and Missions - By Peter Gow*, July 18, 2014
In a few past posts here I've touched on the role of mission statements in guiding each independent school along its paths toward doing whatever it purports to do. Remembering that an independent school is by definition a self-governing institution operating outside the formal "control" of a higher body (say, a diocese or a religious province or even another non-profit entity), the need for some kind of pole star or driving impetus is critical if the school is to have any coherence in its purposes, its programs, and its culture.
Although the formal acknowledgment of mission in a concise statement is a product of the last half century, accrediting bodies were quick to focus on the mission statement as the central element of the school accrediting process. For many years this process was largely a close study, first by the school and then by a visiting team, of how and how fully a school was enacting or implementing or carrying out its mission, supplemented by some questions around basic operational issues like financial sustainability, compliance, and safety.
This process led to a kind of enshrinement of the mission statement creation process, in which schools struggled to capture in a paragraph or so the essence of their being and purpose. Schools could agonize over the process, with committees, consultants, and resident wordsmiths racking up hours (billable, from the consultants' perspective) as they struggled to get a mission statement that was "just so." Cheerleading from the business world, whose boom mission years were those following the publication of mission-lover Jim Collins's Good to Great (and its step-child, Good to Great and the Social Sectors), turned mission-writing into an art form, somewhere between haiku and sonnet….
In a part of my life I get to talk to schools and school people about things to do with telling their own story, and my work usually begins by looking at a school's mission statement. Some are quite compelling: specific, realistic, and concise without being reductive. Others, however, stray into territory marked out in this generic statement aggregated by Lauren Hasten for a 2009 article for Independent School magazine
Our school provides a supportive community while encouraging individuality, nurtures the spirit while challenging the intellect, and inspires a lifelong love of learning while teaching respect, responsibility, compassion, and an appreciation of diversity.

Like many real statements, this one leaves no cliché unturned and is almost unassailably true for so many schools--independent, public, religious, charter, and possibly even "home"—as to be virtually useless as a way to understand what a school using it might actually be like.
The essence of a mission statement is of course to communicate a school's mission, but in reality looking at mission in the broadest sense is a much more useful way for schools and outsiders to evaluate the degree to which a school is doing what is claims to be doing. "Mission" finds expression in such areas as
* values and vision statements
* strategic thinking, priorities, and directions
* rules and policies for students, employees, and families
* the structure of the academic and extracurricular programs
* expressions of "moral culture," including programs in "character" and "life-skills" education
* systems of rewards and recognition
They understand that a school's mission is more than just a bunch of lovely words.
*Peter Gow has been an administrator and teacher in independent schools for nearly 40 years. Currently Executive Director of the Independent Curriculum Group, he writes about the relationship between private and public education and how the two sectors might draw upon each other's strengths.

Addendum D

What is your school's mission? If you have to search through your handbook or you can't recall the entire lengthy statement, you probably aren't making the most of your school's mantra. How can you make your mission statement more meaningful? … Tips for keeping the mission statement alive once it's written.

"I think it is important for a faculty to have a common set of beliefs," teacher Jean Etheridge tells Education World. "Sometimes teachers get so wrapped up in the little stuff that we need to be reminded of where we are going."

Mountain Gap Middle School Mission Statement

The mission of Mountain Gap Middle School is to provide each student a diverse education in a safe, supportive environment that promotes self-discipline, motivation, and excellence in learning. The Mountain Gap team joins the parents and community to assist the students in developing skills to become independent and self-sufficient adults who will succeed and contribute responsibly in a global community.
At schools like Mountain Gap Middle School in Huntsville, Alabama, where Etheridge teaches seventh grade, philosophies and mission statements are expected. They are one of the regional accreditation requirements. Mountain Gap's mission statement (see sidebar) was revised. The school faculty voted to accept the changes, ensuring that the educators are aware of the statement and agree with the beliefs it enumerates.

"I do believe what our mission statement says," says Etheridge. "Perhaps it is just a reminder of what I am about when I feel daily frustrations and disappointments have caused me to stray from my course. Maybe having a hand in writing the mission statement increases my sense of ownership."


Mountain Gap Middle School isn't alone in placing importance on the development and implementation of a mission statement. Administrators and faculty across the country are making an effort to design a creed that identifies the goals, policies, and aspirations their school communities seek to achieve.

The mission statement of Freeport (Maine) Middle School (see sidebar) was established by a subcommittee of the faculty many years before Chris Toy became the school's principal. The faculty felt that a clear mission statement would facilitate making decisions that supported middle level students. The statement is reviewed and revised periodically.

"We do refer to the mission and belief statements when we are discussing or debating programs and decisions," says Toy. "Our school organization tends to reflect our mission and belief statements. I have it posted in my office to remind me of the context for the many issues and decisions I work through each day."

Toy adds, "I think the mission is a useful template from which to work. It's probably an ideal, but not a reality, for many of us."


"There was I time when I would inwardly groan when faced with the prospect of constructing yet another mission statement. I saw such a task as too much time spent on something that would soon be tucked away and forgotten," explains Jean Byl, a media specialist at Waverly-Shell Rock (Iowa) Junior High School. "However, because we actually use the statement and remind students and discuss with students our mission statement, I now see it as a useful means of communication with the kids."

Freeport Middle School Mission Statement

The Freeport Middle School exists to serve the unique academic, physical, social, and emotional needs of students who are in a special and critical period of their lives as they change from childhood to adolescence. The staff of Freeport Middle School is committed to creating and maintaining an orderly, trusting, and caring environment where teaching and learning are exciting and students are assisted as they develop responsibility. All aspects of the school's organization, curricular, and cocurricular activities are child centered and designed to accommodate individual learning styles so that all may experience success.
Dick Jensen, principal at Waverly-Shell Rock, has reported that 80 percent of the discipline problems he deals with somehow relate to a lack of respect or responsibility. The mission statement of the school targets that concern. It states, "We will respect ourselves and one another, appreciate individual differences, and encourage one another to reach our potential."

"We realized that we needed a framework to express to students (and parents) who and what we would like our students and school to be -- that is, an environment that fosters respectful and responsible students," states Byl.

Each morning, the eighth grade-speech students give the morning announcements and also read the mission statement at the junior high. The mission is also printed on the school stationery and the students' agenda (planner) books.

Though it is difficult for Byl to assess the impact the mission statement has had on the school community, she has found "teachable moments" in which the mission statement has provided a springboard for discussion. Faculty members at the school emphasize the mission statement at the beginning of the year as a means of clarifying expectations. The statement is also used in disciplinary conferences. The school is now considering having students write personal mission statements.

"I like our mission statement because I think it's so pertinent for the junior high student," Byl says. "It addresses what we hope they will strive to be as people. We all know the trials and tribulations of adolescence. [Students] are seeking to define themselves and to find their niche. The mission statement gives focus to some characteristics that are keys to happy young people who are in healthy relationships with other people."


Hayes Mizell, the director of the Program for Student Achievement of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, agrees with the idea of incorporating the mission statement in the daily activities of a school.
Many mission statements have little practical meaning, Mizell tells Education World. They are posted on walls and in the student handbook or scheduler, but they rarely guide or challenge the school. They are too safe and too easily forgotten. Even in the best of circumstances, Mizell suggests, mission statements are often one more good intention pushed to the background.

"I think a major problem with most mission statements is that they are static," Mizell tells Education World. "They seem to say, at best, 'This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we value.' But if one believes, as I do, that most schools need to improve, such a statement merely affirms what the school is rather than what it should be."

Mizell encourages schools to develop a vision statement rather than a mission statement.
"Of course, if either a mission or a vision statement is just so many words, then it is largely useless," says Mizell. "That does not have to be the case. As in other areas of education, a school will get out of its vision statement, or even a mission statement, exactly what it puts into it. However, in my view the statement should also be a tool the school can use to push itself forward."


A school's mission, or vision, statement is a living document, says Hayes Mizell. Below, Mizell shares his thoughts about how school leaders can keep the vision alive.

Establish Your Own Vision Statement

"See the Lakeview High School Mission Statement for an example. A school should develop its own vision statement. What is the school striving to become? What does it want to achieve? To what extent will it hold itself accountable for progressing toward fulfilling its vision?"

Revisit the Vision Statement During the School Year

"Several times during the school year, the principal may use the vision statement as the opening for faculty meetings. Make sure each faculty member has a copy in his or her hand, then read the statement, and then allow 15 or 20 minutes for open discussion about how the school is or is not progressing toward fulfilling its vision. With this kind of prompt, there could be some very interesting and lively discussions, and the vision statement will be a living document. The vision statement could also be used this way for each meeting of the school site council or school leadership team."

Reflect on the Statement at Year End

"Probably once a year, perhaps at the end of school, a school could use its vision statement for an hour-long reflective discussion about progress or setbacks that occurred during the school year in relation to the vision statement. What progress did we make? Where did we drop the ball? What is the evidence that we are moving closer to fulfilling our vision or not? What do we need to do next year to accelerate our progress toward fulfilling our vision?"

Addendum E

Keeping the Mission of the School

In creating and reviewing the mission, the board must understand and concentrate on the unique focus and expertise of the school. It must realize what the school is not as well as what it is. Too many mission statements are generic — they could apply to many schools. Boards that truly understand the role of their schools in the communities they serve draft mission statements that, by themselves and without amplification, clearly articulate the vital, inviolate characteristics of these schools. Good mission statements do not explain “how” or “why.” They communicate “what” in clear, inspiring, and guiding words. Mission statements last over time, but regular reviews of the mission are important so that trustees understand and support it. In reviewing a mission statement, it is just as valuable an exercise to intentionally affirm the current wording as to change it.  (Excerpted from the Trustee Handbook, 9th Edition, for the National Association of Independent Schools, 2007) -- (8/13/2013),