Tag Archives: school mission

The Paradox of International Schools


Wordle the mission statements of international schools and I am sure you will see wonderful patterns like the one above espousing the virtues of educating young people in a globalized environment of interdisciplinary responsibility, innovation and compassion.

Then visit one.

I am not going to make the point that schools are not living their missions. That is unfair since I have only visited dozens of perhaps thousands of such institutions. Please allow me to elaborate on the last word choice in that sentence.


I recently had a conversation with a panel from one of the best international schools in the world. Large in scope. Ambitious in numbers. Multi-campus, well-funded, idyllic location, superior teaching resources. They had it all. The glorious mission statement was a mosaic of whole child ideology sprinkled with the virtues of holistic learning and community. It was poetry.

Then came the questions about performance, standards, and college. And it got me to thinking. What was their mission? What were they expecting me to do when and if I got the position? I soon found out when I made the offhand remark that not everyone could get into Cornell. I was corrected by one on the panel who said, “You mean Harvard.”

So, here’s the paradox: You will not realize your mission as long as you base its fulfillment on the singular indicator of college entrance. It is an explicit outcome that ties the hands of every international school to meet the demands of its clients, to indicate levels of “success” and to demonstrate to one another that we are, in fact, able to keep up with the competition. Performance based on college acceptance is a large shadow that has not changed in nearly a hundred years but continues to be the keystone that gives us legitimacy. What about the mountain of data that continues to demonstrate that this outcome is no longer the key to success, let alone the fulfillment of our missions? Yes, it’s the best we’ve got for now. No, college dropouts don’t always become Bill Gates.

Then why do we continue to produce these lofty mission statements that satiate our 21st century ambitions to appear relevant and fresh when our actual mission hasn’t changed in decades? Dare I say that this clearly defined, though not explicit outcome, is holding us back?

Is it time to stop pretending that we are being innovative and revolutionary in our multi-cultural global citizenry when we all really have one mission statement that we are all fighting over?

Get as many kids as we can into the best colleges possible. So clean. So simple. I feel better already.

It’s a difficult paradox. I know. Not everyone is going to Cornell. I mean, that other place.

The Mission’s Position

If America’s President Kennedy had adopted the current school template in 1961 for declaring his mission to the moon, Neal Armstrong might never have had the opportunity to say he made a small step for man. There would have been inclusive statements about aerospace excellence in propulsion, broad declarations of lunar gravitational aptitude, and surely something about an individualized return to a home-like environment. But getting to the actual moon and back? Not so much.

His ambitious but simple statement said it all.

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

I recently attended a conference that featured a session on school missions.
I found it informative and complex, the speakers well versed in the delivery of what a good mission should include. We all did our diligence and compared various statements, unpacking the good from the not so good. We had insight. We laughed at the hyperboles.

However, what grabbed me was the session’s introduction. The presenters showed a clip from Apple’s popular “Think Different” campaign in the 1990s that featured rebels, troublemakers, and non-conformists. Gandhi, Edison, Lennon, Robinson, Earhart to name a few. It was when they were still the upstarts, challenging the behemoths of IBM, Digital, and Microsoft.

And then we politely carried on about global citizenry and politically correct ambitions of academic excellence and earnestness. No one stepped across the lines. How could we? These things go on our web sites!

There was nothing wrong with the conversation. We had some laughs about the vagueness and language of the statements, trying to be all things to all people while being none of them. One of the sample missions caught my attention. It aspired to educate homeless children. Everyone in the room found it so refreshing. So clear. Like putting a man on the moon by 1970.

I felt like asking the presenters how they thought the characters featured in the opening video clip would have participated in our conversation. Would John Lennon have sat patiently while we debated the meaning of global citizenship? I pictured him doodling on a piece of paper, distracted with boredom, and then looking up through his round spectacles, in a Liverpool accent asking us what the students thought we did with them all day.

The great ones, the game changers always seem to do what they do not because of but in spite of the institutions around them. We all know about the famous Harvard dropouts and the other failures that changed the world. They didn’t have patience for the conformity of learning. What they had was unlimited creativity, a lack of patience and a hunger for something else. This is bad news for the school mission statement. To be fair, it was a big institution that put Armstrong up there, and the rest of Kennedy’s speech on that day was quite verbose, sometimes bureaucratic, and even uninspirational. But what stuck with everyone, and what actually got accomplished, was the part that was clear, coherent, and committed.

So, I rewrote our mission. It won’t appear on my school’s web site any time soon. But it stays on a post-it by my desk.

“Challenge each student to make the world a better place. Now.”