HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Building Community Using Mission Statements

by Menachem Hecht and Pinchos Hecht Issue: Mission & Vision

Beneath the surface, mission statements often give voice to competing values that exist within the school community. The authors describe two main strategies for school leaders to preserve productive relations among the school’s diverse elements.

Problems and Dilemmas

In its ideal form, on paper and in the minds of educational leaders, Jewish day school education works as a whole greater than the sum of its parts, an emergent network that results from the integration of its multiple core elements into a stable and coherent organization. Schools lay out their core aims—including for example commitment to college preparatory academics, a focus on STEM, cultivation of the individual through humanities, arts, and extracurricular programming, Jewish identity development, and commitment to Jewish community—in mission statements. Rather than serve as lightposts or roadmaps, mission statements easily devolve into lists of things schools aim to do all at the same time. More perniciously, particular mission elements easily slip into competition and conflict with other elements and with any sense of broader school mission.

Larry Cuban, a school reform scholar, suggests the term “enduring dilemma” to capture the way in which some schools organize themselves around values and goals that may prove to be at cross purposes. A dilemma is not a problem to be solved. Problems, in Cuban’s words, are “fairly routine, structured situations that produce some level of conflict because a desired goal is blocked.” Dilemmas, though, are “conflict-filled situations that require choices because competing, highly prized values cannot be fully satisfied.” Dilemmas reveal fundamental fissures that result from the multiple, conflicting and even contradictory organizational characteristics, conditions and purposes that make up schools.

Enduring dilemmas in organizations point to a deep commitment to multiple core values which at times may compete or conflict with each other. They are recurrent and pervasive and ultimately unsolvable and irresolvable. School leaders may resolve particular problems and achieve degrees of relative equanimity at particular points in time. But shifts in resources, demographics, competition, faculty makeup, and lay and professional leadership inevitably resurface tension and conflict resulting from the underlying fissures of the enduring dilemmas—the multiple sets of values and goals—in a school’s makeup.

Integrative Strategies Can Help School Leaders Manage Dilemmas

A recent direction in academic research on organizational culture focuses attention on organizations that manage to maintain multiple sets of goals, values and processes for the long term. In this research, “integration” (a term often used in various ways in Jewish day schools) serves as a central mechanism for maintaining organizational coherence. Scholars distinguish between two models of integrative strategies that work in different ways towards the same goal: ensuring that organizational elements do not compete with each other or come into conflict. They term these two models expansive integration and pragmatic collaboration.

Expansive integration establishes a set of values, goals, and ways of operating for the organization and all its members intending to form a new common identity among constituents and goals that otherwise might conflict or compete. It leads school members to think of each other: we may have thought we were on different pages, but this new broad set of values that we both adhere to subsumes both of us. Pragmatic collaboration works by granting individual actors or subgroups the space to maintain separate identities while developing and sharing a common purpose for collaborating. It provides the structure for school members with disparate aims, values and ways of working to coexist alongside each other. Stakeholders and constituents can think of each other: I may not share the same values as you, but I value the organization that houses us both.

In Jewish day schools, as in other complex organizations, integrative strategies can help manage dilemmas but cannot solve them. Often, even as they quiet conflict and limit tension, integrative strategies introduce new challenges to the organization. Efforts at expansive integration work well in small groups but struggle to scale up. Some school members may not absorb the nuance of the new common identity; others may genuinely commit to some individual school purposes more than others. Efforts at pragmatic collaboration leave space for intermittent and occasionally intense conflict among subgroups, and open schools to the unhappy possibility of developing into what sociologist W. Richard Scott calls “opportunistic collections of divergent interests.”

To mitigate the limitations of each strategic model, school leaders may profitably employ simultaneous strategies of expansive integration and pragmatic collaboration. The key is to balance fostering strong group identity with allowing subgroups breathing room to work relatively unencumbered by the specific aims and processes of other school members. Expansive integration strategies involve developing a set of shared values, goals and processes to hold together school constituents. School leaders should look to develop a framework specific enough to be meaningful while remaining broad enough to be inclusive of multiple individual school subgroups. A school leader might build such an orienting framework around “putting students first,” for example, or “achieving excellence,” “fostering mentschlichkeit” or “building a learning community.”

Simultaneously, school leaders can employ strategies of pragmatic collaboration to defuse potential tension and conflict among subgroups with differing specific aims and values, such as between Judaic studies, and humanities or sciences faculty; between faculty focused on extra- and co-curricular programming and those focused on academic disciplines; between college guidance staff and other faculty members; between groups of parents, or between specific groups of parents and faculty members. Pragmatic collaboration works passively by allowing subgroups the space to work in relative isolation—for instance, in curricular, budgetary or programmatic decision making. Subgroups need not engage in or even fully approve of the work of other subgroups. By having these subgroups work apart from each other, pragmatic collaboration ensures that different stakeholders remain comfortable in the school and committed to its broader purpose. School leaders enable such an environment by fostering a sense of professional respect across groups—for example, through limited collaboration on specific projects—as well as by fostering friendships and informal relationships across groups.

While these strategies will not resolve underlying dilemmas, they can help school constituents orient themselves within the organization. Together, the two integrative strategies can serve both to limit tension among multiple school constituents and to fold multiple purposes into a cohesive logic of Jewish day school education.

Mission Statement as Integrative Strategy

School leaders may benefit from looking at mission statement development not as an opportunity to “solve the problem” of their schools’ multiplicity, an impossible task. Rather, as a central element of a set of integrative strategies, a mission statement can present a framework through which multiple potentially competing school elements and constituents can situate themselves within the organization. Mission statement development is an opportunity to establish the gentle glue of expansive integration—to establish buy-in from all school members around a limited though broad set of values, aims and ways of operating to which all school members connect and commit.

Simultaneously, the mission statement itself—or other forms of communication or work parallel to the development and dissemination of the mission statement—can establish a framework of pragmatic collaboration, making space for school subgroups with differing aims and perspectives to work alongside each other in the organization. As part of a broader set of integrative strategies, mission statements can offer a framework through which schools can maintain a sense of integrity that is resilient even if tentative and a sense of organizational coherence that endures through the dynamic challenges that environmental shifts and pressures continually surface in schools.♦

Menachem Hecht is executive director of Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles. menachem@bneiakiva.org

Rabbi Pinchos Hecht is head of school at Atlanta Jewish Academy. hechtp@ghacademy.org

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Mission & Vision

The key to a school's success is the articulation of a strong mission and vision statement and an administration and board that stick to these ideals. Mission and vision differentiate a school from its peers and proclaims the unique value proposition that the school offers. Reconsider the purpose and mission of Jewish day school education from a variety of perspectives. Then, gain advice for composing a mission statement and discover the range of uses that such a statement can serve.

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