Education in the classical sense is padeia: a holistic approach to student formation that is geared towards the cultivation of the student’s mind, imagination, perception, and emotions so that they become the type of person who can flourish and thrive inside the school community and well beyond. For this to happen, however, requires that the school have a clear vision of the sort of graduate it aspires to form and what are the essential elements of that formation. It also needs to have a clear mission statement that effectively communicates how the school unifies its curriculum and practices around this vision.
Many schools, unfortunately, have no explicit vision or mission statement. Even those that do can be disappointingly uninspired. For example, the vision statement of my neighborhood school is that “Every student will enter middle school reading at or above grade level.” Period. In the aspirations department, this is mighty thin gruel. The school also has a mission statement: “We collaboratively empower students to be accountable and successful.” Then one finds a list of core values, divided into age groups. For pre-K through second grade, these comprise respect, cooperation, community, responsibility, self-control, caring, and trustworthy. For third through fifth grade, the list consists of respect, collaboration, citizenship, responsibility, self-discipline, empathy, and integrity.
What is immediately striking about these lists is how many of the values are traits of good character, which shows that the school is interested in moral formation after all. But what does it mean to value cooperation and trustworthiness, for example, if the students in the school are not explicitly formed, as part of the curriculum, to become cooperative and trustworthy? Trustworthiness is not merely a value, but a disposition of good character, and students must learn to develop these dispositions over time and with explicit practice, just as students must learn to read. In other words, schools need to communicate how the vision and the mission—curriculum standards and character formation—are integrated.
Looking for a more inspiring example, let us turn to Meeting Street Academy in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which is ranked fourth in the state in terms of measurable educational outcomes. Here is its vision statement in full:
At Meeting Street Academy, we believe in the power of a rigorous and inspiring educational experience to put young people from all economic backgrounds on the path to success. Our model of excellence is built upon academic challenge, development of character and partnership with family. We provide under-resourced families with a life-changing opportunity for their children to learn what it takes to succeed both inside and outside of the classroom.
The school’s mission statement then reads:
Empowering young people from under-resourced neighborhoods to become confident, productive and principled members of society through excellence in academics.
Meeting Street Academy’s goal is to create graduates who are confident, productive, and principled members of society, and its means of achieving this goal is through excellence in academics. It is clear from the vision statement that school leaders understand this in terms of development of character in partnership with families.
In the “path to success” section of its website, Meeting Street elaborates on these statements as follows:
Meeting Street Academy’s educational belief is that strength of character is equally as important as academic progress in the long-term success of a child growing into a responsible, productive citizen of our community. To that end, we have designed our character development curriculum to be interwoven into every aspect of our student’s academic education.
The school then lists and carefully defines each character trait that it endeavors to model, teach, and celebrate: grit, gratitude, optimism, empathy, citizenship, integrity, self-control, and curiosity. It explains how each of these specific traits positively contributes to student success in the classroom and beyond. Thus it becomes explicit how the school’s mission is informed by its vision of good character, which then guides and unifies the curriculum.
It is no surprise that this school has been so spectacularly successful in meeting state standards; it has explicitly sought to form its students into the kind of people who can and want to meet them.
Every school should do this because the truth is that students do need specific positive character traits to succeed in any community, but especially in the schools where our children spend the majority of their days. Schools should be specific about the character traits they wish to instill in their students and explicitly link these traits to student success, thereby making them essential to all aspects of the curriculum. This is the necessary (but not sufficient) first step schools need to take in order to embrace the deeper vision of education that is padeia. Public schools that have done this have shown incredible success. They are shining examples for other schools to imitate.