The charter school movement has received plenty of advice on policy and practice issues in recent years. Policy analysts have debated the best way to promote chartering at the state and federal levels, while education consultants and support organizations have focused on advising schools on operating more effectively.
But considerably less work has been done on bringing the disparate pieces of charter school management together into a coherent strategic framework.
Issues such as curriculum design, financial management, policy advocacy, community relations, parent involvement, staff development, and long-term planning have been treated as largely isolated, technical tasks, to be dealt with on an urgent, as-needed basis. The result has been an approach to charter school management that consists largely of putting out one fire after another, leaving little time to think in a genuinely strategic manner.
Strategic management within the charter context is ultimately about the achievement of alignment, fit, and coherence among three core elements: a charter’s statement of mission or what it will offer the community, the operational capacity needed to deliver high-quality education, and the support and authorization of a school’s many stakeholders. These elements create three core managerial challenges: mission management, operations management, and stakeholder management, which must be carried out in parallel.
But while getting better at operational matters and having the political skills to navigate the stakeholder environment are crucial to managing a charter school, they are in no way the equivalent of strategic management. This is because understanding what strategic fit and alignment look like in the charter context holds the potential to increase the effectiveness of everything around it. In this case, it means helping schools produce greater value for the families and communities they serve.
Having a mission and managing a mission are, however, two different things. The general mission of charter schools is to improve student achievement and ultimately American public education by increasing school choice and catalyzing competition within the public school system.
Charter school entrepreneurs frequently want to realize a particular educational vision, help a special student population, or give a community particular educational opportunities. Because competing visions of public education exist and because needs vary from community to community, each charter school’s mission is crafted to meet a unique situation.
Still, effective missions have certain common features. A mission begins with a statement of general values. These values explain the orientation of the school and provide an underlying coherence to various aspects of school operation, including curriculum, administration, and people’s dealings with one another. Some charter schools, particularly in inner cities, value order and discipline. Students wear uniforms, sit in assigned seats, and address adults and each other with an unusual degree of formality. Other schools are intentionally more free and open. Some schools emphasize principles of social justice or environmentalism and incorporate community service into faculty, staff, and student life.
Many charter schools are founded to realize a particular educational vision, but all charter schools need a mission that defines an educational approach—a plan for how students will learn. At a discipline-focused school, learning might emphasize student drills, hard work, and frequent student assemblies. A more open school might adopt a progressive or constructivist approach. Other charter schools could take a technology-based tone, emphasizing computer literacy.
Missions also describe a curricular focus—what students learn, as opposed to how. A back-to-basics focus emphasizes reading and math skills. Other curricula may include more arts and language instruction than is typically found in public schools, while still others may emphasize math or science skills or a multicultural or culture-specific bent.
Many charter schools are founded to realize a particular educational vision, but all charter schools need a mission that defines an educational approach."
A mission also identifies the target student population. This means limiting the school to certain grade levels and identifying a pool of potential students: Does this charter school plan to concentrate on at-risk youths, students for whom English is a second language, or students returning to school after having dropped out?
Lastly, charter schools must use their missions as opportunities to define ambitious but reasonable goals and expected outcomes. Goals that are clearly articulated and agreed-upon are much easier to aim for, and hence achieve, than imprecise or poorly articulated ones. Such goals can also serve as a basis of evaluation during the charter-review process.
Goals most often revolve around student achievement, and can include improving average standardized-test scores by a certain number of points, teaching students to demonstrate particular core skills or competencies, or achieving a targeted earned-student-promotion rate.
A mission is the first opportunity for charter school entrepreneurs to present a coherent vision of a new school. In constructing a mission, key stakeholders must converge on a single, well-considered understanding of what they want their school to be.
While there is temptation for a founder to present a vision to the community, the process of formulating a mission must involve a range of stakeholders and thorough discussion—sometimes through long deliberations. Ultimately, a better plan emerges than any one group could have formulated on its own.
Appealing from the start to a broad-based consensus can help avoid one of the most common startup problems for charter schools: the heavy hand of a founder who created a mission from the top down rather than from the bottom or grassroots up. When the mission is only the vision of one person, tension with parents, board members, teachers, community members, regulators, and staff are hard to avoid.
While it is difficult to overstate the importance of a clear mission, defining and then managing it requires a willingness to never view that guiding purpose as immutable or fully completed.
A mission statement, after all, becomes a constitution of sorts and a basis for decisionmaking when a school faces unforeseen circumstances and crises. It gives charter evaluators, teachers and staff, parents, and the community a sense of what to expect. It helps ensure a good match between students and school, and it cannot be permitted to become inflexible or ossified over time. Mission management by its very nature must assume that refinement and improvement are both possible and desirable.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as For Charter Schools, Managing Mission Is Crucial