Guest Column

A Mission Possible: Relevant Mission Statements

by Donald G. Coleman and Jessica Brockmeier


Asking a school administrator, teacher or board member to write the mission of their district on a sheet of paper usually yields nonplused looks or sheepish grins. Nearly all educators know the mission statement is located on page 2 of the district’s policy and faculty manuals, but few can state with any precision what it is. The same is true of district goals.

If we were to stop northbound traffic along Interstate 5 running along the coast of California and ask people to state in a word where they are heading, they would answer, "Sacramento," "Portland," or "Seattle" with little hesitation. If we asked about the purpose of their trip, they could state forthrightly, "to see the governor," "to visit Aunt Elsie." or "to tour Microsoft."

Not only can travelers normally state without hesitation the destination and reason for the trip, but most can offer with a high degree of precision their current location as they travel. Travelers first sense a need for a trip, then determine the destination or goal, and finally develop indicators that help them monitor their progress while traveling.

Widely Ignored

Many school system leaders underestimate the power of properly prepared mission statements, goals, and indicators. Indeed, when they discuss mission statements, educators often joke about the poor quality of those written for their schools but seek redemption in the fact "no one pays attention to them anyway."

This commentary is sad but true. At a series of recent professional development workshops, group of administrators and teachers consistently failed to identify their own district's mission statement from among the several that were presented to them.

Good mission statements do two things. First, they provide a clear purpose for the organization, and second, they identify goals.

Below are two hypothetical mission statements for California State University at Fresno. Read each one while imagining yourself a candidate for the presidency of this university who was attempting to determine the nature of the job.

* Option No. 1: The mission of California State University at Fresno is to offer high-quality educational opportunity to qualified students at the bachelor's and master's level as well as doctoral programs in selected professional areas.

* Option No. 2: The mission of California State University at Fresno is to provide educational leadership essential for improving the quality of life in Central California.

The first mission statement focuses on educational leadership essential for life within a six-block campus area while the second focuses on leadership for life in a six-county area. The role of the university president and faculty would differ markedly given the mission.

Shaping Goals

A mission statement should be clear, concise, and easy to remember. The following sample statement meets this criteria: The purpose of the ______ School District is to assist students in becoming fully-functioning adults.

This statement not only provides a purpose for schools but foreshadows a unique climate one would expect to find. Once the mission is defined, goals can be established. For instance, in planning a trip to visit the governor, we would ask, "Where is the governor?" If the governor is at his official office, then Sacramento becomes the goal.

In our sample mission statement, we first screen the statement to define the goal or goals that might be included. For example: A fully-functioning adult is identified as an individual exhibiting: 1) self-respect, 2) respect for others, 3) economic self-sufficiency, 4) civic responsibility, 5) respect for the past, 6) respect for the future, 7) self-direction.

The mission statement shapes the goals. In this example, seven declarative statements containing 17 words define fully-functioning adults and specify a school district’s goals. Simplicity and clarity are watchwords in preparing mission and goal statements so they can be easily remembered and implemented.

Stated another way, if students exhibit these behaviors at graduation, the goals will have been met and the mission accomplished.

A Living Statement

Rather than hiding on page 2 of policy and procedures manuals where they collect little notice, a mission statement must serve as guiding documents that set direction and climate within an educational organization. They must be thoughtfully prepared and brought to life within the daily activities of school districts.

Operational goals and performance indicators spring naturally from such mission statements. Educating students becomes a mission possible when simple, straight-forward steps are pursued.

Donald Coleman is a professor of education administration at California State University in Fresno, Calif. Jessica Brockmeier is a doctoral candidate in education administration at Loyola University in Chicago.