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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Mission Impossible?

** Please note that there will be a bibliography available at the conclusion of the series of Blog postings.**

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement. They advance in time and concept in book-form.

     It started where everything should begin - the mission of the school.

“It will not be one man going to the moon,  but an entire nation.” (Kennedy, 1961) 

Going in Circles 
     Jean Henri Fabre, a French scientist, studied processionary caterpillars, so named because they form a single line and follow each other when they travel. Fabre conceived of an experiment to examine their behavior. (Cohen, p. 32) He placed a collection of caterpillars end to end to form a complete circle around the lip of a plate and then placed the caterpillar’s primary source of food in the middle of the plate. 
     Then he watched them. The caterpillars went around and around and around. Minutes turned into hours and hours stretched to days. Finally, after several days, the caterpillars died of exhaustion and starvation. They had circled the plate endlessly while their sustenance was inches away. They clearly had no mission other than following the caterpillar in front of them. 
     Too many schools either lack a mission or have a lengthy, ambiguous, noble sounding, dust covered statement that nobody can seem to remember. Absent a mission, these schools are comprised of valuable and well intended staff members who extend themselves in an uncoordinated manner that approximates entropy. David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, authors of Reinventing Government, provide a sad commentary that describes the plight of organizations that are not oriented around a mission: “Most public organizations are driven not by their missions, but by rules and budgets. The glue that holds public bureaucracies together, in other words, is like epoxy; it comes in two separate tubes. One holds rules, the other line items. Mix them together and you get cement.” (p. 110)     
What is a Mission? 
     A mission should be a short statement that embodies the real and actual purpose of the school. Determining the critical attribute of your organization is the most difficult step in the improvement process because there are many competing interests and needs that can mislead the true aim of the organization. Schools mean many different things to many people. It’s far too easy and tempting to merely state that the primary purpose of your school is to educate children, and leave it at that. You’re going to have to be more discriminate than that. Liken it to the doctor’s diagnosis and analysis. A careful insight will prevent the doctor from being misled by symptoms, and propel a persistent search for causes. 
     The aim of the mission, like a compass, is to assert the true North of the organization; the single driving force propelling the energy of the school staff. If the mission is expressed in terms of custodial child care or sorting and selecting rather than teaching and learning, then you’re in the wrong business.  
     Look beyond the readily apparent and publicly palatable. For instance, it would be simple and quick to assume that because we work at a school our mission would take the shape of - “graduating all students.” In Making It Happen, author Alan Weiss explained how sales of Kodak film increased significantly when Kodak comprehended what they were really selling. (Weiss, p. 27) Kodak’s advertising strategy had traditionally emphasized technical aspects of film, like emulsion rate and speed, but consumers generally purchased film for weddings, anniversaries, vacation excursions, birthdays, and the like. In other words, people were buying memories, not film. Kodak eventually shifted the thrust of their advertising campaign to commercials of backyard picnics, ball games, parties and celebrations. They began selling memories instead of film. That switch spoke volumes regarding purpose and inspiration.  
     Another example is available in merchandising. The Swiss watch industry was experiencing a 25% downturn in sales. Inexpensive and easy to read digital watches were quickly replacing analog devices. Faced with bleak prospects, an insightful manufacturer altered marketing strategies by advertising watches as jewelry or versatile accessories to clothing rather than the singular purpose of a timepiece. Swatch rode the crest of this popular wave and regained lost market share. (Peters, p. 231)   
A Commercial on Mission 
     You should be able to articulate it in the length of one breath. Anything longer will decrease the retention of the statement and thereby minimize the number of people who will remember it, communicate it, and live it. I have visited many schools and unfortunately discovered too many lengthy, erudite, and impressive sounding mission statements that are beyond the grasp and memory of those expected to enact it. Such schools, while well-intentioned, are anxiously embarking upon improvement projects with reckless abandon. 
     The most vivid examples of expressing purpose or belief with enough imagery to effectively solicit followers in a short period of time can be found in the world of advertising. (Editorial note: if I could ever reconstruct the menu of classes required of aspiring school leaders I would insist that the curriculum include a class on advertising, a class on marketing, one on political science, one on general philosophy, and more on sociology and psychology,… and less on the traditional educational administration classes!).  
     Advertisers usually have thirty seconds to ignite your senses and emotions. In that short time they attempt to point out why you have to have their product to be complete, successful, sexy,… In the advertising trade it’s referred to as the USP, or “Unique Selling Proposition.” Examples of USP are strong enough that by just giving you the phrase you can probably link it with the appropriate product: “Melts in your mouth, not your hand!” “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” “It writes the first time, every time!” (Clark, p. 41) 
     Advertising executives have employed psychologists in the vital task of identifying segments of the population and accompanying values, interests, and incomes. Once they’ve classified the various sub-groups of the population they can tailor messages designed to touch those nerve endings indigenous to their group. For instance, after surveys or focus forums, advertisers determine which population subgroups are repeat customers of the goods they produce. Then they examine what television shows or print periodicals these people “graze” upon. (Clark, p. 173) That’s why we see matches like beer on shows (NASCAR and NFL football) with large audiences of members in the male, blue collar, twenty-five to fifty-five age range. These programs have distinctly different audiences than golf or tennis, for instance, which, although they appeal to far fewer viewers, connect with members of a more affluent consumer niche. As a means of conveying this point it is significant to note that Procter and Gamble “invented” the soap opera as a vehicle to hype their products. (Clark, p. 33) 
     The mission, like a clever advertisement, distinguishes you from others in your field. It emphasizes your purpose and sustains it for an indefinite period of time. It brings clarity to your parameters and scope. It reflects values, beliefs and provides guidance for behavior within the organization. It speaks to your goal or product. And finally, it is difficult to create. 
What are We all About? 
     Let’s look at what we’re all about. Effective schools researcher Larry Lezotte points to three types of missions that typically motivate schools. (Lezotte, 1988) Schools are expected to simultaneously respond to different origins of public pressure. Among these perceptions is the provision of custodial care. If you ever wonder about this listen to all of the complaints anytime your school closes for inclement weather, staff development,… parents wail about their need for sudden child care services! Another function of public education appears to be the expectation that schools render society a process of sorting and selecting among students; who goes to college and who doesn’t, who can aspire to lofty positions of leadership and influence and who should resign themselves to accepting their present station in life. Additionally, there is the altruistic function of teaching and learning, providing opportunities for all learners to realize their true potential and walk confidently into the future. 
     How is the school where you work different than any other school? There are public schools, private schools, religious schools, prep schools, home schools, charter schools, Magnet schools, not to mention the various types of schools ranging from charm schools and beauty schools to obedience schools. Check the telephone book listing for schools and you’ll find the full spectrum of offerings. But what does your school “do?” Ask around in the immediate community. Ask local realtors, they’re often the initial contact newcomers have regarding information on your school when they relocate to your area. Ask the waitress at the local coffee shop. Ask a random sampling of people on the street. What will you find? Will anyone shape their response around the basis of teaching and learning? 
     Marcus Buckingham, author of The One Thing You Need to Know, suggests that in order for a concept to evolve as the central purpose of an organization it “must apply across a wide range of situations, it must serve as a multiplier to produce exponential improvement, and it must guide action.” (p. 14) 

    * More tomorrow, including the Mission of our school *

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