A new study finds that with the education marketplace comes a whole lot of education marketing…
Jennifer Berkshire: I thought I’d set the stage for our conversation by describing a great, by which I mean appalling, example of education marketing in action. Donald Trump visits a Cleveland charter school that advertises itself as *top-rated* despite getting an *F* rating from the state. And the school is operated by a deep-pocketed for-profit chain that is *on a journey towards excellence.* Thoughts?
Catherine DiMartino: It makes me think about health care advertising. With health care you have the FDA putting certain limitations and providing some kind of oversight. Education is a public good and this is children’s learning and their future, but there’s no kind of regulation.
Berkshire: One of the points you make is that parents, and even teachers, are increasingly on the receiving end of what I’ll helpfully call *ed-vertising* without even being aware that what they’re looking at has been *marketized.* Explain.
Sarah Butler Jessen: They might not be aware that when they go to these websites, for example, that what they’re looking at isn’t necessarily imagery of the actual school they’re considering. They’re looking at websites with stock photos of kids that have been OK’d by charter management organizations that encourage schools to pick the photos. They’re not even always using pictures of the school’s own students.
Berkshire: You look at a range of school types, including public schools, which seem to be laggards when it comes to the ed-vertising *space,* charter networks as well as some elite private schools. Any big differences in how they use marketing?
DiMartino: With some of these elite private schools, part of their brand is the exclusivity. So you want to be careful with your branding so that you’re out there, but not too out there, and that you’re very directed. A charter network though may want as many applicants as possible because that’s part of making your branding story. That’s part of the matrix that charters are using to say that they’re successful and that there is demand. I keep thinking about that interview that Eva Moskowitz had with Brian Lehrer where she was touting that *we had this many people who applied to Success Academy and we had to turn them away.* But the other side of that is that families are being given 10-20 direct mailers during the course of the enrollment period, some of which actually have the application to Success with a stamped envelope attached.
Berkshire: I was also struck by your findings about the resource *gap* within the education marketplace when it comes to marketing. So that you might have one set of schools with lots of resources devoted to advertising vs. others that have very little. It’s not hard to see where this will lead.
Butler Jessen: Certain organizations have great resources and seemingly a greater institutional goal of making marketing a central piece. And there are good reasons for it if you’re, say, a new school a of choice, or a charter management organization trying to create some kind of national identity with schools scattered across the country. But it’s completely unregulated at this point and completely inequitable as far as the degree of resources that certain organizations have to to get their message out there. It takes time too. What principal or teacher has the time to keep up a Twitter page? I can’t even keep up my own Twitter page. And then the more formal branding process takes real knowledge. Schools are hiring experts to create marketing campaigns that target a specific population, and help with branded imagery. It’s a whole new world and there’s an industry that has emerged around it.
DiMartino: There’s a growing niche of people who call themselves education marketers. It’s a growing field within this sector. Actually the next phase of our research is to talk to some of those people.
Schools are hiring experts to create marketing campaigns that target a specific population, and help with branded imagery. It’s a whole new world and there’s an industry that has emerged around it.
Berkshire: I recently ran a post by a teacher in Denver at a school that was having to spend money on a marketing campaign to compete with new charter schools opening nearby, even as teachers were being laid off due to budget cuts.
Butler Jessen: That’s how I got into this. I was looking at small schools of choice in New York City when I was working on my dissertation and one of the principals mentioned to me that they were having to think about marketing and how to brand themselves. The Gates funding they’d been getting was about to run out, and they’d been using that money for paying teachers overtime to do marketing—going to fairs and things like that. I asked the principal where that money was going to come from and he said *it’s going to have to come out of the budget. We’re going to have to make some decisions.*
Butler Jessen: If you’re doing, say, a national search for non-unionized teachers, who can potentially come from anywhere, marketing is going to be really important. If you look at some of the videos online you can find teachers talking about why teaching at one of these schools is so great. I’ve taught undergraduates who watch these videos, and they’re interested. Teachers then can find themselves becoming part of the brand messaging. At KIPP, for example, they have a one-liner that they want all KIPP teachers and staff to memorize so that they stay on message when talking about KIPP in public. They even prompt them to rehearse the one-liner to make it sound natural in a training video. This is an interesting and unexplored shift in the role of teachers, I think. Our research is starting to look at that component of marketing.
Berkshire: I started corresponding last spring with a student who attends a charter school in New York City that has a prominent brand. She was writing a paper about the difference between how the school markets itself and how kids experience it. It got me thinking that someone should really make a serious study of this—hint, hint…
DiMartino: I love that you’re talking to students. In talking to parents who are on the other side of this marketing, they’ll say things like *I was sold a bill of goods.* Or, *I was told all of this, that the school would have a chess team and different languages, but the school doesn’t have any of that.* But this makes me think that we should really include students, especially high school students, in the next piece of our research. I’m sure they’ve reflected on this and are thinking about what it means when they think they’re entering one type of environment and it turns out to be something else.
Sarah Butler Jessen is serving in her second year as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Education at Bowdoin College. Catherine DiMartino is an Associate Professor at St. John’s University. Jessen and DiMartino are the co-authors of School™: The Marketing and Branding of Public Education, forthcoming from Teachers College press.
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