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The Sameness of Mission




Mission statements serve as public and visible articulations of values that schools and local communities share, values that represent what a good education means and how education contributes to the well-being of stakeholders. Or do they?

Consider the following mission statements from three school districts in Pennsylvania:

“Building on our tradition of educational excellence, the mission of the [name] School District is to challenge students to develop their skills as lifelong learners and responsible citizens.”

“The mission of [name] school district, in partnership with the community, is to challenge all students to reach their potential, to be responsible citizens, and to value learning as a life-long process by promoting excellence in a nurturing educational environment.”

“It is the mission of our dedicated staff and involved community to create a positive climate in which all students will develop the academic, technological and social skills to achieve their potential and to function successfully as citizens in an ever-changing global society.”

These mission statements — the first from an urban district, the second from a large, suburban district and the last from a remote, rural district — may sound similar to the one from your own school district.

In 2006, Pennsylvania mandated that districts adopt mission statements as part of their strategic planning process. Considering that education leaders across the state’s 500 school districts face unique combinations of assets, challenges and responsibilities, we believed the mandated mission statements might be a way of assessing local and regional differences in how education leaders defined their leadership priorities.

Repetitive Phrases
In a recent study (“Place and Purpose in Public Education: School District Mission Statements and Educational (Dis)embeddedness”) published in the November 2013 issue of American Journal of Education, we collected and analyzed mission statements across Pennsylvania, looking specifically at differences by district characteristics such as enrollment, demographics (achievement, racial diversity, dropout rate and socioeconomic status) and urbanicity.

What we actually found surprised us. Not only were there no statistically meaningful differences in these mission statements locally or regionally, we found the language used across the statements was astonishingly similar and generic. Phrases such as “preparing good citizens,” “a changing world,” “lifelong learning” and “reaching maximum potential” presented themselves with such frequency that it was as if school districts had reached into a box of pre-written mission-statement verbiage and pulled out a handful of phrases that they then strung together.

What do we make of this?

It seems possible that as mission statements are crafted in these strategic planning sessions, districts adopt a set of institutional code words, or standard, accepted language, that is then interpreted in locally meaningful ways by their leadership. Some research suggests school leaders actually purposefully choose broad, vague language. Such a strategy may help avoid unnecessary conflict in the district planning process, as these code words can be interpreted in vastly different ways, satisfying a diversity of interests and agendas.

It also is possible that stringent state accountability standards may limit the directions that education leaders and local school boards believe they may pursue in crafting a mission. If capitalizing on local assets to address local challenges means shifting the focus away from what state education departments designate as priorities, then districts in which these priorities do not align with local challenges may find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having to decide whether to focus their energies on what the state mandates as meaningful versus what the local community defines as meaningful.

Differentiating Purpose
Public schools are inherently local institutions, and yet there is an unmistakable irony in a state-mandated call for school districts to articulate their own unique missions in which the result is 500 markedly generic and placeless mission statements. While some might dismiss this finding as not particularly meaningful — simply reflecting a local bureaucratic response to an inconsequential state mandate — it nonetheless provokes some nagging questions about the purpose of education, the mission of schools, and how those missions and purposes are determined, articulated, communicated and enacted.

In a policy environment that pushes for accountability, shouldn’t part of how we think about accountability involve some level of ongoing critical thinking and debate by schools and community members regarding the purpose of education and the responsiveness of schools to the communities they serve?

Our findings tend to align with other studies suggesting how the specificities of the places served by local schools — the resources, the needs, the unique assets and the burning issues of local communities — often are displaced by state- and national-level policy mandates that increasingly embrace standardization as a primary means of achieving accountability. If this is also true about how school district mission statements are determined, we fear it is not only to the detriment of public education, but also to the detriment of broader civic engagement in a democratic society.

Catharine Biddle is a doctoral candidate in the department of education policy studies at Penn State University in University Park, Pa. E-mail: ccb5173@psu.edu. Kai Schafft is an associate professor of education and rural sociology at Penn State.


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