12/03/2018 by Skip Kotkins |

Are Mission Statements Passé?

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Are independent school mission statements passé? Now how ironic would that be?

One thing all independent schools have in common is that they are “mission driven.” And yet, I think that most schools are much better at understanding their mission than they are at articulating it. Several years ago, I did a not-quite-scientific-but-good-enough-to-prove-the-point study of mission statements. What I discovered is that many of them were not very good. Not only did they not really state the mission of the school (i.e., why it exists) but often:

  • They were so generic as to describe any school. Common phases include: “whole child, lifelong learning, community, excellence, etc.”
  • They primarily described what the adults do at the school. Some even fail to mention children.
  • They read as if written by lawyers, not educators — laden with rational statements that failed to make any kind of emotional connection with the reader. They rely on soft verbs like “foster,” and tend to exclude emotional verbs like “empower,” “inspire,” or “engage.”

What is the purpose of a mission statement? I would suggest there are three purposes — one internal, one external, and one that is both.

Internally, in the best situations, the mission statement provides a touchstone that guides not only the big-picture, strategic direction of the school but also determines some of the daily decisions. In all policy and program deliberations, good mission statements allow a school to consider the alternatives by highlighting key language from the mission statements and asking, “Which action is going to best help us achieve this goal.”

Externally, the mission statement should be a marketing tool: the single sentence or two that tells outsiders, especially prospective parents and donors, what distinguishes this school from all others. It clearly and succinctly states what makes the school great and what makes it the place you want to entrust with your child, your charitable dollars, or both.

Finally, in these days of heightened expectations of accountability, many schools are asking, “How do we know how we’re doing?” Certainly, the mission statement should be part of the yardstick against which a school measures its achievements.

Mission statements are supposed to be foundational documents, the spring from which everything at the school flows. Schools need touchstones, those codifications of “who we are.” Absent a mission statement that inspires and guides, many, if not most schools, have developed additional foundational documents. For example:

  • Some have a formal vision statement. Some are effective; but some are the result of what happens when a bunch of people get together to develop a mission statement and have one of those only-in-independent-schools conversations to debate at length what’s a “mission” and what’s a “vision.” Then they take what they can’t agree belongs in the mission statement, but what some on the committee don’t want to omit, and come up with a vision statement as a kind of catchall document.
  • Some schools have developed statements of values, guiding pillars, or core beliefs. These are usually short and simple lists that, in many instances, actually do a good job of cementing the culture of the school and stating the commitments to one another that people accept when they join the school community. For example: “OUR CORE VALUES: Scholarship, Respect, Effort, Responsibility, Integrity, Compassion.” These are helpful, but they don’t describe why the school exist — its mission.

How does it happen that many mission statements fail to guide and inspire to such a degree that schools find it necessary to create other foundational documents that are often much more central to the life of the school? The problem starts with the adults who get together to write a mission statement — and yet who don’t have clarity about the process and goal. Too often, the educators involved in the process end up describing what they do every day, what gets them excited about their work. It’s only natural that they want to tell the world of the commitment with which they do their work. Then, these passionate adults — the kind of wonderful adults who make up the faculties and administrations of our schools — provide the language to boards, who, charged with being “custodians of the mission,” incorporate it into the joint board/faculty/administration committees that draft mission statements.

But — and I apologize if I upset anyone here — the truth is: The mission of a school is not about adults. Schools exist for students.

We know this, of course. When I ask boards or administrations or teachers whether schools should be “faculty-centered and teaching-driven” or “student-centered and learning-driven,” everyone always picks the latter.

So, doesn’t it make sense that the mission statement of a school should be about the students that it was created to educate?

Of course, schools are communities of adults, too. Indeed, the best schools create great working environments, encourage professional and personal growth among the adults, and collectively contribute to the ever-evolving craft of great education. But, with the exception of a few experimental or lab schools, adult fulfillment is not why schools exist nor why they were created.

So, if a mission statement isn’t particularly effective, what’s the solution? Most would say: “Write a better mission statement.” That is a workable solution. I would argue that many mission statements would be much more effective if they describe not “what the adults do here,” but rather “what the children become here.” Really, isn’t that what the mission of every school should be: to help students leave having grown to become something different from when they arrived?

But alternatively, I would like to suggest that maybe the solution to problem of a mission statement not really describing the reason a school exists might be not to write a better mission statement. It might be to abandon the idea of a mission statement and consider something else — something that many schools have already created, something that, in fact, does do a superb job of describing why the school exists. This is a document that can absolutely be the lens through which the school makes both long-term and daily decisions. This is a document that sings to prospective parents the song that matters most to them. It is a document that can have donors springing for their checkbooks because they are so captivated by why the school exists.

What is this magic document?

A Portrait of a Graduate.

Think about it. What do prospective parents care about most? They want to know, “What is my child going to become at this school?” Yes, they may be interested in small classes; in social-emotional-learning activities; in athletics, or arts, or computer science, or service learning, or all of the wonderful things that we do in our schools. But that’s not what they are shopping for. The lens through which they look at the school is that of parents with hopes and dreams, who want to know what their child is going to look like as a graduate.

A Portrait of a Graduate is the output that the school hopes to achieve. It paints a picture of why the school exists: to graduate students who look like this Portrait of a Graduate. In fact, isn’t that really the mission of the school? All those other things are inputs, means by which the school achieves the output that the parents want.

Having been in a number of groups creating A Portrait of a Graduate, I am pleased that often the biggest discussion is not “What’s our mission and vision?” but rather “Should we use adjectives or nouns?” Interestingly, the answer is that either way works just fine. Take a look at this excerpt from a Portrait of a Graduate, stated two ways:

  • Curious, self-motivated, self-confident, and compassionate discoverers of the joys of the world around them and their place in it. (four adjectives modifying one noun)

– or –

  • Seeking their place in the world with curiosity, self-motivation, self-confidence, compassion for others, and the joy of discovery. (six nouns, one gerund).

Many Portraits of a Graduate contain multiple bullet points. The two examples above are not intended to be complete, but rather to demonstrate that the form can be adjectival or nominal. But, I can’t resist comparing either of those statements to the following, which is a real mission statement from a respected school:

The mission of ­_________  is to create a community of learners committed to a challenging and supportive educational experience that will foster intellectual, moral, emotional, and physical development of each student.

This mission statement is accurate.* But which is more inspiring: the bulleted descriptions of a graduate above or this actual mission statement? Which makes an emotional connection with the reader? Where is the uniqueness in that statement; a statement that could apply to virtually any independent school?

I hope it’s clear that I’m being provocative here. I certainly hope that many of you reading this have mission statements that fall outside my characterizations above, that your statements do inspire and guide your daily work. I also don’t imagine that schools will abandon mission statements any time soon. But I encourage you to take a close look at your mission statement again. If it is generic, or fails to inspire, or focuses more about what adults on campus do than on what students become, you need to think about re-doing it. I’d also encourage you to think about whether or not a Portrait of a Graduate might not better serve your internal and external purposes better.

Either way, make sure that your new document meets the following criteria:

  • It describes the successful outputs of the school, not the inputs that are tools to create the output. It is completely student-centered. It describes what the school accomplishes, not how it does it.
  • It sells as well as describes. Its language makes an emotional connection between the reader and the school, as well as conveying information.
  • It is a short list, either adjectives or nouns, that most people in the school can recite by heart.
  • It differentiates your school. It should highlight those vital few things that make your school truly different from other options in the area. Remember, this is a practical tool marketing your school in a competitive marketplace.

* I often show this mission statement to audiences of school leaders and ask if there is anyone in the room for whom this mission statement doesn’t describe their school? So far, with well over 1,000 people, nobody has raised their hand. So it is accurate, but generic, and certainly will not differentiate the school.


Skip Kotkins is a Senior Consultant with Carney, Sandoe & Associates. His business career included running an international consumer products company and serving on both public and private company boards. He has chaired eight different nonprofit boards, including Lakeside School, and has been a board member and an officer of both NWAIS and NAIS. He is a frequent presenter at school association conferences, and does a considerable amount of consulting with schools on matters of governance, strategy, and marketing. He can be reached at skip.kotkins@carneysandoe.com

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