Saturday, July 28, 2012

Selling Public Education Feels Like Selling Out

Gen. George C. Marshall once said, "There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit." Purportedly, this quote was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorites and was etched on a plaque that sat on the late president’s Oval Office desk.

A plaque with this noble quote would be equally appropriate sitting on a teacher’s desk. Most educators realize from our own schooling that education is normally a no credit profession and rarely a deferred credit occupation. Most students do not mature enough to realize the amount of good teachers do until they have already outgrown schools. A supermajority of my colleagues and I do not care if we never get credit for the amount of good we do for our students. We teach because we recognize--even without the surveys and the quantified data--the limitlessness of learning. The lack of recognition is simply the nature of the teaching profession.

However, in this age of extraordinary advertising, it may be time for educators to ignore “the better angels of our nature” (like many do in times of crisis) and consider buying into the often insincere business of self-promotion.

Public education has missed out on the marketing makeovers commonplace in corporate America. In fact, the marketing void has been filled with anti-public education messaging by high-financed, free market fanatics--like the Education Action Group (EAG), MacIver Institute, Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG), American Legislative Exchange Council  (ALEC), Heartland Institute, and many others. Since many in corporate America seem so anxious to reform public education, maybe public education should steal from corporate America’s marketing playbook.

According to, the “old rules of thumb have it that the amount you spend on marketing per year should range anywhere from 1 percent to 10 percent of sales.”  If my local school district adopted the low-end standard of the business world, it would spend over $10 million annually on self-promoting the good work of its schools and public educators. If this 1-percent effort were applied in school districts across the state, Wisconsin public education would have a mass marketing budget of over $100 million. Nationally, the marketing budget would be over $6 billion annually!

We do not have to imagine what a massive marketing blitz like this would look like.
Following the marketing models of corporate America, school districts would inundate their communities with online ads, billboards, commercials, glossy fliers, and publication ads promoting its schools and public educators. Testimonials, slanted statistics, donor sponsorships, flashy signage, professional jingles, celebrity endorsements, and free merchandizing would all fit into the suped-up marketing budget promoting public schools.

The advertising could be so massive, the public would not even have time to think critically about the advertising. For instance, in a recent 10-minute drive across town, I saw five billboard ads and heard three radio commercials promoting one of the local healthcare providers. Like a branding iron, the hospital’s desired public image (as the fast, competent, and friendly healthcare provider) is seared in my brain. A public education marketing campaign would need to be of similar searing magnitude with billboards on every thoroughfare and commercials running every other minute.

To counteract the fear mongering of the aforementioned free market fanatics, public schools could adopt a crisis-marketing plan to undo the damage of the public school critics. This, according to crisis marketing experts, would include saturating blogs and social media with positive image postings. Most importantly, public schools would take this ad war to the air. Professionally produced TV and radio commercials with a Hallmark movie feel would undermine the critics' claims.

Enough of this PR fantasy.

The reality is that advertising is nearly nonexistent in public education budgets. In my local school district, for instance, one underpaid public information specialist (when not serving as instructional technology coordinator) runs most of the internal and external marketing show for our district of 10,000+ students and 1400+ employees. His efforts are subsidized by a small team of teachers, secretaries, board members, and administrators--who pitch in when they can.

Conservatively, I guess less than five thousandths of a single percent of the local school district revenues are spent on marketing public education in my local community. The anti-government crowd often complains of how 80% of government budgets go to public employee pay and benefits, but fail to mention how marketing and other corporate essentials are missing from the other 20% of the budgets.  

An absence in marketing funds has been the norm for public education since its inception. I suspect administrators of school funding have long realized that educational dollars spent on marketing are not truly educational dollars.

If educators were to acquiesce to the corporate takeover of public education, marketing budgets would certainly steal precious public education tax dollars. Increasingly, government funds are already being used for TV commercials and web advertising of corporate-styled charter and online schools. Conveniently, the Tea Party types ignore the wasting of tax dollars on charter/online school marketing because these ploys promote their free-market faith.

I suspect a privatized (but publicly-funded) education system in America would promote something resembling the questionably ethical and wasteful marketing seen in the healthcare industry. I feel ill knowing billions of healthcare dollars are spent annually on advertising of medications, speedy hospital care, friendly service, trauma treatment, and more health services. This marketing certainly drives up medical costs and promotes reckless spending of healthcare funds. The outcome of the corporate reformers desire for competition in public education would produce similarly careless spending of public education monies on marketing schemes.

“Many a small thing can be made large by the right kind of advertising,” wrote Mark Twain. Conversely, the right kind of advertising is not necessarily what is right for students and their education. My students’ education is no small thing, but taking credit for student learning feels filthy. Effective teaching and learning are intimate experiences. Mass marketing and personal learning are antithetical. Trying to sell public education to the public feels like selling out. The misinformation in charter school marketing is a snapshot of what the sellout would look like in a public education- advertising blitz.

Seventeen years since beginning my educator career as a student teacher, I cling to being a student’s teacher. While the voices of parents, administrators, board members, politicians, and the public all matter--I do not teach for them. I teach for my students. Mass marketing would undoubtedly make public schools more important to the public, but that won’t necessarily improve public schools or learning for students. As a result, educators will just have to remember, "there is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit."

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