To Market, To Market

A new study finds that with the education marketplace comes a whole lot of education marketing…

dressforsuccessJennifer 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.*

Berkshire: I’d been thinking about marketing as a recruitment tool aimed at parents, but as you point out, potential teachers are a target too. How does this work?

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. 

Send story ideas, comments or branding suggestions to Like my work? Help me do more of it. 



  1. Let’s do a unified lottery so we don’t need to market…oh wait, that’s a Gates idea. Guess not.

    1. You’ll be happy to know that I have an interview I’ll be sharing this fall about unified enrollment. Alas the experience of the communities where unified systems are “a thing” has not been that somehow school marketing stops… Stay tuned!

  2. Interesting piece. Thanks.

    1) From the study: “With the creation of markets in education, educational choice becomes primarily about perceived value of a school versus the actual value of the education provided within its walls.”

    One would hope that a rich assortment of information provided by state and local school systems could greatly diminish reliance on school advertising materials.

    Relatedly, there’s this recent piece by Audrey Kim at the Fordham Institute: “School report cards don’t matter if parents can’t find them”:

    2) Pages 38-40, at least, of the W. Bentley MacLeod and Miguel Urquiola paper “Anti-Lemons: School Reputation and Educational Quality” may be of related interest:

    3) In the recent debate between proponents and opponents of ballot question 2 in Mass that would lift the cap on charter schools, there was discussion about the rate of enrollment of ELL students in our state’s charter schools. One of the debaters, Marty Walz, alluded to the fact that in 2010 (when she was House Chair of the legislature’s Education Committee) new education reform legislation pressured charter schools to serve more ELL students while giving them the tools to effectively recruit, e.g., by enabling them to better identify ESL families and send them literature in their native languages. While overall that effort to have more ELL students enroll has been enormously successful, I don’t have a sense of how much value was contributed by each of the elements of the legislative approach. It would be interesting to see a systematic study that would examine efficacy of outreach by charter schools to non-English speakers in a variety of locales.

    1. Isn’t that sort of like arguing that if only patients had access to a rich assortment of information about health care providers and drugs big Rx wouldn’t need to advertise? Alas, one of the byproducts of the education marketplace is advertising. Ohio, for example, has an easily accessible report card system, which is how one can ferret out that the charter Trump visited is an F school. But the school still advertises itself to parents as “top rated.”

      I’d be interested in a study of outreach by charter schools to non-English speakers. One of the issues that we didn’t really cover in the interview is the role that marketing and branding plays in the inequitable sorting of students into schools. In other words, in a place like Boston which is dominated by “elite” charter schools, the issue isn’t just that non-English speaking parents aren’t receiving brochures in their native languages, it’s that the schools strongly convey that they are for certain kinds of students and not others. Alas, a topic for another day!

      1. “Isn’t that sort of like arguing that if only patients had access to a rich assortment of information about health care providers and drugs big Rx wouldn’t need to advertise?”

        Perhaps more like, if there were a reliable, free, public source of information about health care providers and drugs it would _diminish_ the need to rely on commercial advertising. Last time I fell off my bike and dislocated a finger, I very much regretted the absence of a neutral party paid by the government available to effectively advise me on my options, their likely efficacy, and how much they’d cost. But you’re right, there’d still be motivation to advertise, perhaps as much or more.

        “one can ferret out that the charter Trump visited is an F school”
        Not sure you had a chance to read this but it adds helpful additional color:
        Similar to teacher VAM, eh? A potential, and often real, mess.

        A local example, I was looking at MATCH accountability data:
        I looked at all the blue bars there that fall short of their red targets… Saw that it was “Level Two” rather than “Level One” because it was “Not meeting gap narrowing goals.”

        Had to dig around a lot to ascertain (if I understand correctly) that the gap whose narrowing is being measured there is the gap between 2012 levels of student advanced + proficient scores and a target that would halve the gap between those scores and 100% advanced or proficient by 2017. In other words if 80% of kids were either advanced or proficient by 2012, is the school on a steady, year-by-year, pace to get to 90% by June 2017. Problem trying to portray MATCH using that model… it was at 100% proficiency score for both ELA and Math in 2012. How do you narrow the gap between 100% and 100%?

        I look forward to your suggested “topic for another day”. Interesting subject.

        1. As part of your self-guided tour through the swamps of reform-land you should look up Fordham (the source of the “additional color” you linked to) and their somewhat, ahem, complex role with respect to Ohio’s charter sector, universally agreed to be a disaster. I’ll spoil the surprise by explaining that Fordham’s role is to wave the perfumed hankie over the mess of the day so as to say “see–it’s not so bad!” – which is exactly what they did in this case. Personally I’m a fan of Fordham as their lead spox, Michael Petrilli is forever blurting out truths about high-performing charter schools that we’re not supposed to talk about. You should look up some of these as well, should you find yourself weary of perusing MATCH accountability data!

          Re the topic for another day – I’ve found some young academics who are studying this. Good reminder for me to follow up.

          1. Within recent weeks I subscribed to the Fordham newsletter. That’s how I came across the Audrey Kim article concerning state report cards that I referenced above. Like you, I would guess, I examine and evaluate their materials on an item by item basis, rather than with persuasive preconceptions about the quality of what they’ll produce.

            “should you find yourself weary of perusing MATCH accountability data!”
            I think I finally got a good grip on that thanks to eventually stumbling across this:

            Now, I’m preoccupied with Brooke’s 2015 materials proposing (successfully) to open a high school:

            pp 22-27: Special Education Access
            pp 27-32: ELL Identification and persistence.
            pp 32-34: Attrition and Suspensions

            Why the disparity between what we see there and the portrait that charter antagonists present? We are seeing millions of dollars being spent by the charter sector on cotton candy advertising that doesn’t effectively nourish understanding of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And while, surprisingly, I haven’t come across much charter-> parent advertising, I suspect it greatly more resembles the fluff TV ads than the pp. 22-34 Brooke materials.

          2. So much to respond to! And alas I’m prepping for a trip to Atlanta where I’ll spend the week recording a podcast episode of THEIR divisive ballot question. I can’t get enough 🙂

            I’m curious as to what you think is the reason for the pro Question 2 side’s decision to go with “cotton candy advertising” rather than a more “nourishing” approach. I’m also interested in how you explain the fact that there aren’t more high profile backers of Question 2 in Boston – why no leaders of color? Is EVERYONE fearfully afraid of the nefarious teachers unions? What of the prominent reform groups sitting this out? Given the strength of the data, you’d think this would be a “no brainer,” and yet…

            As for unified enrollment and advertising, I’d encourage you to take a look at New Orleans where the creation of #1 hasn’t at all diminished the overwhelming presence of #2. There IS a 175 page parent guide, but interestingly what’s happened there is much like what Marty Walsh cautioned against in his radio interview last week – the deep pocketed chains have pushed the free-standing schools out of the market. Definitely something to think about as we march boldly forth!

            Last but not least, here’s a delightful piece I wrote on Fordham back in my lighter hearted days! How I miss them…

          3. Jennifer: “I’m curious as to what you think is the reason for the pro Question 2 side’s decision to go with ‘cotton candy advertising’ rather than a more ‘nourishing’ approach.”

            I’m woefully ignorant about how exactly this ballot question got off the ground… who the key decision makers were who pushed it forward, and what exactly they were thinking. From the sidelines, the campaign looks as if it’s being run by folks with experience very skillfully burnishing the public images of non-controversial entities, rather than those well-prepared to um, er, let’s leave it at “persuade” in legislative backrooms and hallways, and public alleyways like the MTA is. Do the core lift-the-cap decision-makers have any idea how rapidly a blizzard of misinformation can make a mess of a megaton of cotton candy? I don’t know.

            I can’t imagine why they didn’t fight mightily to get 100% reimbursement in place alongside the ballot effort. Perhaps they did, and the wily Senate anti-charter folks foiled them.

            And I’m mystified by why they haven’t flooded the landscape with refutations of erroneous SOS/MTA materials. Someone like Marty Walz seems to well-understand the realities, would love to see her in a 2-hour debate; it’ll take more than brief, swapped sound bites to get her message across.

            Jennifer: “I’m also interested in how you explain the fact that there aren’t more high profile backers of Question 2 in Boston – why no leaders of color?”

            Good question, though I’d phrase it “why so few”. In respect to the state legislature, there’s a general, strong prejudice against ballot questions circumventing the legislative process, and that helps tilt the balance for the many who are ambivalent… Tilts it not necessarily all the way to opposition, but at least to precluding support.

            Jennifer: “Is EVERYONE fearfully afraid of the nefarious teachers unions?”

            Well, yes, of course. At least any legislator in his or her right mind.

            Just to refresh ourselves on what the unions here can do, see:
            And that was written before the post-election revelation about the $480,000 funneled at the last minute by the AFT through a New Jersey group not required to disclose its donors.

            Perhaps the major part of it, though, is that the MTA and allies have successfully dominated many folks’ understanding of charter schools. Many genuinely believe things about them that aren’t true. Would I support Q2 if I believed everything MTA/SOS/QUEST is saying? No.

            Jennifer: “What of the prominent reform groups sitting this out?”

            Which ones are those? I’m likely far less familiar with you of the array of such groups and their interest or disinterest in MA legislation.

            Jennifer: “Given the strength of the data, you’d think this would be a ‘no brainer,’ and yet…”

            I, perhaps naively, imagine that once the data is widely and thoroughly well understood… but to get to that point is not a ‘no brainer’.

            In starting to try to understand NOLA school assignment/advertising, I found this gem pitched right at my grade level: I look forward to getting further educated on the subject by you.

            Brilliant piece re: ALEC/Fordham… Have a great trip.

  3. I have always thought this is one of the more interesting criticisms of charter schools.

    1. If a charter school does not market itself widely, the charter school is guilty of cherry picking because only a select few will now to apply to the school.

    2, If a charter school does market itself widely, the charter school is guilty of wasting resources that could go to teaching students.

    Conclusion: charter schools are always guilty of something no matter what they do when it comes to marketing.

    No doubt Yossarian would be deeply moved by the simplicity of the argument.

    I live in the world of post secondary education where marketing happens all the time. I have talked to many perspective students and their families about the advantages and disadvantages of attending a large research university like the one were I teach. I do think the school works well for some students, and have some flesh in the game as one of my own children now attends the university where I teach.

    If you can not think of reasons for students to attend your school, you might want to consider the possibility that students should, in fact, not attend your school.

    1. The obvious parallel between higher ed and charter sector here is ITT, which is filing for bankruptcy as I speak. Interestingly, when the state of California went after virtual charter giant K-12 this summer, they cited many of the same issues that arose with ITT: that these schools make inflated claims, targeting, and in the worst instances, defrauding vulnerable populations. What intrigues me about the marketing aspect of the education marketplace is where you draw the line on the issue of false advertising and deceptive claims?

      1. I do not think that any single institution is an obvious parallel with all the charter schools in the country, and frankly I am surprised you would think it appropriate. I don’t see any parallel between ITT and the Walton Rural Life Charter School.

        I do think that the post secondary education SECTOR and the charter SECTOR have much in common. My university, for example, markets itself extensively. Mailings to targeted students. Billboards along the highway. Prospective student tours from morning till night. Want to talk to a faculty member and I am available. One poor student was trying to decide between the university where I teach, the university my middle child was attending, and the liberal arts college where I graduated. We talked for two hours (and he ended up my student at my university). Did I do him a disservice? I don’t think so.

        By the way, you need to be very very very careful posting photographs of children on the internet. Did it occur to the authors that using stock photos was a legal necessity and the best thing for the students at the school?

        1. Since I specifically said “sector” not sure what’s up with the tone taking, sir. In fact I’m not sure I quite understand your approach to dialogue. I personally have a weakness for condescending types having spent many years in academia, but it’s the combo of condescension and straw man arguments, or just points that are completely irrelevant to the subject that prompted the comment in the first place, that I find so puzzling about most of your appearances on this page. No doubt Yossarian WOULD be moved by the simplicity of the argument especially since it wasn’t the one being made…

          1. I’d appreciate if you’d expand, in some respects, on that comment. I’m not sure I understand your position well.

            You had written:
            “The obvious parallel between higher ed and charter sector here is ITT, which is filing for bankruptcy as I speak.”

            I think for many of us it seemed that you were comparing the entire charter sector to ITT. That’s not correct?

            In respect to teachingeconomist’s point that charter schools are subject to criticism if they either advertise too much or too little, could you clarify why you think that’s inapposite to the blog posting and/or unjustified?

            It does seem to me a hard-to-solve problem that if charter schools don’t advertise they may only be discovered by parents who have the most resources. While competitive advertising can bring a whole host of problems as the blog posting/study suggests. Still, I think the Mass Law to pressure charter schools to advertise to ESL families may have had benign results at least thus far.

            But a more unified enrollment plan, with loads of information provided by neutral parties about each school, seems to me the best approach. I had a dialogue on Dr. R’s site recently with a notable academic with whom you are very familiar where we looked at DESE-provided accountability data and both of us, I would allege, couldn’t make adequate sense of it. DESE does so much excellent work, but falls short of effective conveyance of relevant materials to parents. Would love to see you have a public dialogue with their key players about these issues.

          2. Edushyster,

            If you had said something like “Just as higher education has some bad actors like ITT, the charter sector has some bad actors” I would have agreed and joined a chorus of voices calling for the elimination of bad actors in every sector of education. I do not think that was what you meant when you said “The obvious parallel between higher ed and charter sector here is ITT, which is filing for bankruptcy as I speak.” Was I incorrect in my understanding of what you meant?

            It seems to me that in some threads charter schools are criticized for spending too much on marketing (taking resources from the class room, for example), other threads they are criticized for spending too little on marketing (your concern that charters are not providing marketing materials in the native languages of all the potential students in Boston, for example).

  4. “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.”

    That reminds me of a couple of cliches:

    “Always be sincere, even when you don’t mean it.”


    “The key is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’re set.”

    By the way, what is that one-liner?

    1. Higher ed has to spend money marketing because students must choose to attend a college or university. Traditional K-12 did not need to market because students are legally required to go to school X and legally prohibited from going to school Y.

  5. Hi Jennifer,
    I’m a preservice teacher at the University of Illinois gearing up for my last semester of student teaching and my first year teaching. I’m doing a project in my Curriculum and Instruction class that involves following blogs to start putting yourself out there in our professional learning community. I decided to follow your blog because I think you talk about a lot of issues that I’m unfamiliar with. I found this article very interesting because it’s something I’ve never really considered. I went to Catholic school preschool through 12th grade, so I know my schools had to do a lot of “ed-vertising” to get keep up enrollment. In particular, my all-girls high school marketed the school focusing on the advantages for women of learning in single-sex environment. Research on single-sex schooling rarely backs up this claim, but many people’s experiences, including my own as a woman in STEM, do. Would you classify this as false advertising?

    1. What a great question! In fact, I think it’s such a great question that we should pass it along to the Edulosopher, education ethics specialist Jacob Fay who recently debuted his Q and A on my site. As you could probably tell when you were writing this, it’s not as straightforward as saying that all advertising is bad or misleading. The issue that I was trying to get at in that interview is that when we reshape education along market lines, “edvertising” becomes yet another terrain of inequity, as you have some schools that devote incredible resources to promotion, brand building, etc, now competing against schools that do not have those resources. The problem is compounded by the fact that there’s no regulation of “edvertising.” Your question gets at something far more complex, though. Catholic schools being private have always had to promote themselves, and the selective use of research adds yet another intriguing layer. Hence this one is a job for the Edulosopher! ps: If you’d ever be interested in writing something for my blog, just let me know. It would be a great opportunity to “put yourself out there.”

Comments are closed.