A Case of Contradictory Missions: A Fork in the Road
Why a common purpose is necessary from the onset
In order for a collaboration between disparate groups to be productive, there needs to be a concrete, unifying mission upon which all parties can agree. Before there can be tangible results, there must first be agreement about desired results. Collaboration for collaboration’s sake is not enough to sustain such a multifaceted endeavor. Instead, participants need to actively co-construct focused, congruent goals. Otherwise, decisions about each inevitable ‘fork in the road’ are likely to be plagued with disagreement, to the ultimate detriment of the collaboration itself.
Due to growing concerns about the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) throughout the nation, the principal at a newly-formed charter school recruited a small group of teachers, administrators, and parents. This multidisciplinary team brainstormed about areas of concern related to the CCSS, as well as possible solutions. Composed of 7 teachers (with representatives from each department), 4 administrators, and 5 parents, the team began to meet for one hour once a week.
Initially, many team members found these meetings unproductive; everyone was just airing his or her grievances. After three weeks, however, a predominant area of concern began to emerge: testing. Everyone was apprehensive about how the students, who were predominantly from low-achieving, high-needs neighborhoods, were going to perform on the upcoming battery of mandated CCSS testing. As a consequence, the team unanimously agreed to a goal, a purpose, a mission: to prepare the students for the examinations as thoroughly as possible.
The team could now focus on drafting a plan for achieving that goal. After several more weeks of deliberation, the team determined that the most effective way to promote the overarching CCSS of critical-thinking skills would be through challenging the students in innovative ways. The team subsequently drafted a proposal for a pilot interschool Academic Exploration program.
The team proposed that a small group of the charter school students and one or two supervising teachers would meet after school twice a week, along with students and teachers recruited from nearby high schools. Through challenging and exciting group activities, the students would strengthen their critical-thinking and their test-taking skills.
A science teacher and a humanities teacher from the charter school volunteered to lead the program. The principal, in turn, was able to provide a small but adequate budget to pay for the teachers’ extra work, field trip expenses, and snacks. The principal also reached out to a local, partnering university which graciously provided the program free access to a lecture room. The principal hoped that the program would feel more inclusive if no one had “home court advantage”; time spent on the campus would foster excitement toward the prospect of attending college.
In response to advertising around the school, 10 students signed up for the program, at which point the principal finally began reaching out to other area high schools. The principal at a nearby high-achieving public high school immediately expressed interest: the various constituencies at her high school were also concerned about promoting the college and career readiness standards outlined by the Common Core. This school’s administrators, teachers, and parents, however, were predominantly focused on strengthening students ‘Speaking and Listening’ skills, as these students already had a history of performing well on high-stakes testing. Consequently, unbeknownst to the charter school principal, the public school principal advertised the program as an opportunity to strengthen communication skills, sparking the interest of 2 teachers (English and History) and 8 students.
Each unaware of the other school’s goals, the two pairs of lead teachers began moving forward with the program by setting up an initial Academic Exploration meeting. All parties were in accordance that the first session would be focused on community building. The evening was a complete success. The students were excited to be on a college campus, had a lot of fun with the icebreaker activities, and were already forming bonds. On his way out the door, one student even proclaimed, “I can’t wait until next week!”
Striving to be fair about balancing this additional time commitment, the teachers decided that the charter school team and the public school team would alternate between planning the weekly lesson. The charter school team volunteered to plan first, and consequently, the following week’s meeting, while active and engaging, was primarily focused on test-taking skills.
Both the teachers and the students from the public school were taken aback – this was not what they had expected. Upon realizing that the two schools had very different goals, the lead teachers set up a meeting with both principals present. Neither party was willing to amend its mission, but no one wanted to cancel the program, acknowledging that it would be the students who suffered. And so, the two schools acquiesced to a plan: alternating between the aims of the charter school and the public school, with the hope that both sets of students would still benefit from the program. The fate of the collaboration remained “in the air.”
Because the charter school developed its goals and action plan before contacting area high schools, there was no discussion between parties about the mission of the collaboration. Consequently, there was an understandable lack of understanding between the lead teachers, which severely threatened the future of the initiative. In order for a collaboration to be successful, all parties must play an active role in forming a concrete, unifying mission.