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What are we forgetting as we struggle to re-construct education without schools?

Around the globe, communities and households are struggling with the unprecedented physical closure of our public and private schools. An estimated 1.5 billion students and their families now find themselves unwilling participants in the biggest test of distance learning and educational technology ever conducted. Even with the best of resources and circumstances, nearly every teacher, principal, parent, and student is on an emotional and professional roller coaster with little end in sight.

In this new educational paradigm, the inequities of our educational system have been exposed and exacerbated by the massive, sudden challenge of educating children without schools. Overnight, students’ day-to-day experiences in school, or the lack thereof, has become nearly impossible for parents and communities to ignore.

As an educational researcher, I have been studying the purpose of school for over two decades, and have found local school mission statements often provide an accessible signpost to a school’s educational values and priorities. As parents and educators struggle to design and offer educational experiences without schools, school mission statements succinctly and clearly anchor the espoused values and commitments of a school to its neighborhood. In short, each community’s school mission statement provides an important starting point for addressing the efficacy and impact of the new educational paradigm we all find ourselves in.

In our research examining thousands of school mission statements, we have consistently observed that nearly every school espouses a wide variety of goals and themes. In a recent study of 45 randomly sampled public high schools in Massachusetts, there were an average of six different themes found in each mission statement. That means that in almost every community, school means more than just curricular content and academic learning.

Serving over 1,500 students in Queens, NYC, The Louis Armstrong Middle School exemplifies how one public school self-describes their breadth of purpose beyond academics through their mission statement:

The Mission of the Louis Armstrong Middle School is to bring together a group of culturally diverse children to help them grow academically, emotionally, physically and socially. Our five school goals are: improving literacy and numeracy, fostering caring and ethical citizenship, encouraging substantive parent involvement, practicing the arts in all curriculum areas and growing technologically.

Although many closely associate school with academic development, our research has found emotional development is actually the most dominant and consistent theme across all school mission statements. More than any other domain, 91% of public high schools in our most recent study had espoused emotional development. Across school types, emotional development can include a broad spectrum of skills and attributes including mental health awareness, basic emotional skills, self-discipline, and respect for others. In the same inquiry, 67% of high schools’ mission statements included civic development themes like becoming a responsible citizen, learning democratic ideals, and public service. Social development is also found in the majority of school mission statements we have studied (57% of high schools) and stresses the importance of school in student’s development of communication skills, collaboration, and teamwork.

These non-academic domains are easy to overlook as communities struggle to redefine education, but often play a critical role for schools and students. To be clear, academic/cognitive development has a central place in school and included in 86% of high school mission statements, but less frequently in middle and elementary settings. Although mission statements represent only one perspective of the complex and dynamic aims of a given school community, we have often found they provide a critical perspective for framing our educational expectations, experiences, and outcomes.

As we struggle to provide educational resources and experiences for our displaced students, it is increasingly critical to ensure that local efforts and investments are equitable and effective across all espoused educational domains, not just academic and cognitive development.

As communities come to terms with this new educational paradigm, we suggest every parent and school leader consider a couple questions:

  • What themes and domains are present in your school’s mission statement?
  • How will your school’s commitment to these themes and domains be made visible in both face-to-face and distant learning environments?

By identifying and considering those domains most valued in your school community, both parents and school leaders can set better expectations and ensure current efforts are not myopic or overlooking anything. Once you have identified each domain and theme for your school, parents and school leaders can be much better informed to navigate the myriad of advocacy groups, resources, and industries devoted to emotional, social, and civic development. These tools and resources, like our best academic and cognitive tools, are only effective if they are congruent and aligned with our purpose and ideals. So, as we re-define education in the age of COVID, parents and schools must address the entire spectrum of educational objectives to fully ensure the success of the whole child and our community values.

[Guest post by Dr. Damian Bebell, Assistant Research Professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development]


Annotations / Citations

Stemler, S. & Bebell, D. (2012). The School Mission Statement: Values, Goals, and Identities in American Education. New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-59667-214-7.

Bebell, D. & Stemler, S. (2019). Mission Control: A Longitudinal Analysis of School Purpose from 2001 to 2019. Research paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the New England Educational Research Organization; Portsmouth, NH (April 25, 2019).

Image credit: Pre-K students at the Berkley / Campostella Early Childhood Education Center in Norfolk, VA. Learning numbers, letters, and computational thinking with iPads on March 8, 2018. (photo credit: D. Bebell)