Originally published in educational Horizons Summer 1994, pp. 163 - 165.

Mission vs. Function: Limits to Schooling Aspiration
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

updated 8/16/11

POWERPOINT Presentation

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One evening back when I taught junior high school, I was preparing my lesson plans when the phone rang. I picked up and was greeted with, "Mr. Rozycki, this is Garry Loess, WDUM in Lovesburg. I'd like to tape a brief interview with you if I may for our talk show, "Fresh Breeze."

I said okay even though I was not particularly inclined: I had a week's lesson plans to hand in the next day, and I didn't trust this talk-show host to not misrepresent me. "Fresh Breeze" indeed! WDUM was more a methane generation station!

"As an employee of the Lovesburg School District, Mr. Rozycki, what would you say the purpose of the School District is?" Garry Loess' question betrayed, to my mind, a misconception too profound to be disabused in one phone conversation. I resolved to scare him off.

I replied, "Purpose is too vague a term here. Do you mean to ask about a function, of which there are many, or a mission, of which there, too, are many?" To my astonishment, Loess replied, "That's an interesting distinction! What's the difference?"

I expanded, "Missions are what people aspire to, functions are what they regularly perform." "Well, then," Garry Loess responded, "why don't you tell me about the most important function of the School District of Lovesburg?" I composed my thoughts and said, "The top-priority function of the School District of Lovesburg is to redistribute state and federal funds into the economy of Lovesburg."

Dead silence. Then an angry, tremulous voice, "That's unbelievably cynical." I protested, "On the contrary, it's a judgment based on very objective criteria. You're upset because you're confusing function with mission. Let me explain."

"I'm not interested in your explanation. Nor will our listeners be. Thank you." He hung up. I got my lesson plans done that night without having to stay up too late.

Many years later, I find that even experienced educators underestimate the importance of the distinction between a school's functions and its missions. The trouble with education, some have put it, is that too often the tail wags the dog. My thought is that if you do not appreciate the function-mission distinction, you probably have your canine anatomy all mixed up. Functions will almost inevitably dominate missions, especially in a pluralistic democracy. But, please don't hang up. Let me explain.

More on Function vs. Mission

Abraham Maslow offers an intuitively appealing metaphor for understanding human priorities: the hierarchy of needs. Human needs are naturally prioritized. Clearly the need for air is more fundamental than the need for water; and water than food; and food, than entertainment. Some needs are more basic than others. When these basic needs are threatened, the efforts of the organism are focussed on their satisfaction even if the pursuit of higher needs must be relinquished.

We can extend this image of a hierarchy of needs to organizations. Unless basic needs are secure, higher order ones will be relinquished. Functions are those regularly achieved outcomes that address, among other things, the basic survival needs of the organization. Missions are those aspirations which an organization, secure in its survival needs, tends to pursue. Let us consider Chart 1 of possible functions vs. possible missions common to many, many schools.

Possible Functions
Possible Missions
Supervision of Students
Promoting Diversity
Providing Meals
Developing Academic Competencies
Engaging local vendors
Training in Traditional Social Skills
Transportation Services
Passing on Moral Traditions
Employing Personnel
Developing Citizenship
Articulating with Higher Level Programs
Relating School Studies to the "Real World"

Chart 1

Notice that the functions tend to involve many people whose interests in the schools may have little to do with learning outcomes. The missions, on the other hand, tend to be the sort of things which primarily interest educators.

Other important differences between functions and missions are that functions are recurrent achievements; they are expected, banal, not celebrated. But very important is that their failure tends to provoke dismay or outrage.

Missions, by contrast, are generally what we hope to achieve and what we celebrate when they are achieved. Failure is a "motivator" a spur to renewed aspiration rather than a provocation to outrage.

Schools differ. What is in one school taken for granted, e.g. every student's reading on grade level, may be an ardently aspired to mission for another. Given the range of educational outcomes we observe in this country, it is probably more realistic to visualize a continuum along which items can be characterized as ranging from mission to function, i.e. figure 1:

Fig 1

Latent Functions: the obscured costs of success

Functions themselves can be usefully distinguished as to whether they are manifest, that is, obvious, out in the open, or latent. Latent functions are recurrent consequences normally overlooked, and often considered with dismay. Latent Functions may be the consequences of Manifest Functions and Missions. Chart 2 suggests some possible latent functions of schooling that are brought about in the pursuit of manifest functions are missions.

Possible Latent Functions created 
by Manifest Function
by Mission
Strengthening adolescent gangs
Homogeneous grouping
Promoting diversity
Creating castes: e.g. Jocks, nerds
Interscholastic sports
Promoting community involvement
Reducing scholarly interest
Class ranking, providing scholarships
Promoting "excellence" based on test grades
Increasing pregnancies
Reducing sexual segregation in gym classes
Promoting gender equality
Strengthened emphasis on college entrance examinations
College acceptance of locally interpreted OBE outcomes
Promoting OBE at high school level
Destabilization of university governance functions
Lessened articulation with university program categories
Promoting OBE at high school level

Chart 2

What chart 2 shows us is that desirable missions with benignly functional implementations might support undesirable latent functions. Consider the attempt to promote gender equity in the Lovesburg School District by merging boys' and girls' gym classes in the junior high. The previously unimportant lax supervision of the labyrinthine passageways leading to locker rooms and storage closets had a long term negative result.

The possibility of negative outcome is no reason, necessarily, for giving up on a desirable mission. We should just be sufficiently cautious to take into consideration such possibilities and factor them into our cost-benefit deliberations.

Unfortunately, the costs of even well-accepted functions and laudable missions tend to be downplayed, if they are even recognized. The inequitable allocation of such costs is often characterized by some theorists as a latent function. Chart 3 indicates some costs that tend to be overlooked by the promoters of particular missions.

Mission or Function
Possible Costs (Latent Function)
Fielding a football team to promote " school spirit" and alumni contributions. High expenditures on few athletes, others deprived.
Gender bias in appropriations.
Maintaining a computer lab. Reduced access to certain groups of students
Campus beautification and maintenance Restricted research and teaching funds

Chart 3

The Priority Rule.

Was it just cynicism that underlay my response that the primary function of the School District of Lovesburg was the redistribution of state and federal funds into the economy of Lovesburg? Not at all. The objective basis for this judgment is that the failure of this function would most likely provoke the largest protest across the greatest number of parties involved with the school district. Mission failures do not often provoke coalitions of protest, certainly not large ones compared to functional failures, therefore missions tend to receive lowest priority in comparison to "functional needs."

We can sum up previous discussion with the following rule:

The priority of a function or mission is directly related to the size of the "coalition of protest" its failure would provoke.
Missions, therefore, tend to have low priority. Missions whose implementation would generate controversial outcomes, or which would impede normal functions, will tend to remain unpursued, even if given lip-service.

The upshot of all this, I guess, is that wisdom requires that we temper our enthusiasms with a careful evaluation of how the school missions we pursue fit in with the school functions we expect.