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Editorial: The Big Picture; Must We Define Our Mission?

George Bush the elder said few memorable things during his presidency, but let us now give him proper credit for a uttering a phrase for which he took much grief at the time — “Oh, the vision thing.” Bush reportedly said that in response to a suggestion that he set aside some time to think in grander, perhaps more abstract terms, about the ultimate aim of his time in the White House. For Bush’s critics, the phrase captured both the president’s lack of verbal skill and his limited conception of the presidency. As time has passed, though, we have come to value its brilliance on several levels. We approve of the contempt it implies for the “thing.” We applaud the fact that the contempt is tempered, perhaps out of recognition that proponents of visioning are well-intentioned. And we appreciate the way in which it suggests that the real problem with the visioning thing is that there are better uses of our time. All that in four commonplace words.

These thoughts were prompted by reports that the Windsor School District is now in the throes of fashioning a new mission statement; its current one has been around for a number of years and apparently needs freshening up. The district hosted a community forum last Monday and drew about 60 residents — a remarkably good turnout and favorable evidence of public engagement in Windsor schools. Our fear is that the exercise, arranged for the laudable purpose of encouraging community involvement, might ultimately have the opposite effect: It might invite residents to question the value of investing their time in district activities. We mention Windsor not to single it out, but only because it is the most recent example; formulating mission statements is a near universal practice these days, from nonprofits to hotdog stands.

Windsor School Board members say the adoption of a new mission statement will have concrete consequences. Once the district articulates and embraces its new statement, they say, it will formulate a strategic plan with benchmarks for measuring how well the district is meeting those goals.

OK, but how does one measure progress toward goals that by their very nature are aspirational, general and, because they reflect consensus opinion, uncontroversial? Consider the school district’s current mission statement. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. In fact, it reads much like the mission statements of other school districts, which is to say it touches all the standard bases of what schools should be doing with their students. But how, exactly, would the school assess its ability to cultivate “an appreciation of diverse ideas,” or graduate students who are “lifelong learners”? The mission statement includes a number of goals for which more straightforward evaluations are possible. Providing a “safe environment” could be gauged by the number of bullying incidents or accidents, we suppose, just as the ability to “read, write and speak effectively” could be judged by test scores.

But is it really necessary to go through this rigmarole to articulate what is ultimately a statement of the obvious? Don’t we all agree that students should be able to attend school without fearing personal injury, that they should be offered a rich curriculum that allows them to pursue their post-graduation dreams, and that school administrators should be on the lookout to make whatever changes enhance educational opportunity? Are the expectations of any one community for its schools significantly different from those of others? And even if they were, would a well-crafted mission statement really affect the work of teachers and administrators — the people who are professionally trained to identify and fix defects in curriculum, technology, facilities and pedagogy?

Faulting a community forum of this sort may come across as carping of a high and misguided order, particularly because the exercise is well-intentioned and there is often some benefit to inviting people to step back and take a wider-angle perspective. But it’s more than nitpicking. People — and we include school board members, school officials and members of the public — are busy, and having them devote time to a protracted exercise of questionable merit necessarily exacts a cost. It consumes time and energy that might otherwise be spent on more useful matters.

Windsor officials were inspired to arrange this exercise in part because of the success of a community forum held last January to discuss potential budget cuts and program restructuring. The contrast between that sort of forum — where real programs were at stake and public opinion could have tangible results — and a visioning session is worth thinking about. Our fear is that community members who invest time in an exercise that ultimately accomplishes little might be less eager to participate the next time their input is needed and might actually matter. Envisioning that thing causes worry.