Truth in Edvertising

Is $1,000 per student kind of a lot to be spending on marketing? That’s how much Success Academy spends, putting the charter network on par with a typical large corporation. In the latest episode of Have You Heard, Jack Schneider and I wade into the murky business of education marketing or *edvertising.* Fast growing and completely unregulated, edvertising is one byproduct of an education marketplace. We talk to researcher Sarah Butler Jessen about what happens when public schools must now compete against charter schools with lavish marketing budgets. And what happens to public education when schools define themselves as *brands.* We’ll be right back, after this commercial break! And if you want a complete transcript of the episode, we can help with that too. 


  1. Interesting, provocative piece, thanks.
    At the end Jack was stressing the idea that this was a zero sum game… that a dollar spent on advertising was a dollar lost to education. Doesn’t that neglect attention to the fact that schools vary widely in respect to ability to attract private donations and successful marketing may interrelate with successful fundraising? Makes me wonder how does, for example, the size of Success Academy’s marketing budget compare to its private donations?
    I see this re: donations to DC charter schools: “Some D.C. charter schools get millions in donations; others, almost nothing”

    1. I thought that was interesting, too, especially since I couldn’t help but notice that their guest was from Bowdoin College, which was criticized on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast last year using a similar argument, that Bowdoin’s investment in world class food was also a zero sum game, taking money that could otherwise be used to offer scholarships to lower-income students. Gladwell seems to argue that the food is essentially a kind of marketing that draws in richer students who pay full tuition and can then subsidize the lower-income students (although he ultimately doesn’t seem convinced that will be as successful as using the funds for direct scholarships).

      Overall, I love the podcast and look forward to listening to it every time it comes out.

  2. It would be helpful if Jack could define what he means by public good. By the economists definition, education neither pharmaceutical products nor education are public goods.

    What some pharmaceutical products and education have in common is that they both produce significant positive externalities. Your having been vaccinated against whooping cough reduces my likelihood of contracting whooping cough. Your having been educated makes me more productive because we can cooperate better with one another. Goods the create positive externalities, however, need not be produced by the government. Food is a good example. Your being well feed is beneficial to me because it will increase my productivity in much the same way that education does. This does not mean that the government should produce the bulk of food in society, indeed our experience with this ranges from poor to catastrophic.

    The debate about marketing, like a number of other debates about education on the internet, has a certain Catch 22 flavor. If a charter school vigorously markets, making themselves known to a large number of students in the area, the charter school is criticized for taking money out of the classroom. If a charter school does not vigorously market, so only a few families know about the possibility of attending the school, the charter school is criticized for cherry picking the potential students for the school. Success Academy, of course, has no choice about marketing. Success academy is legally required to advertise their availability to all students eligible to attend public school.

    I think there is a significant benefit for an institution when it has to market itself. As the teacher of a class no one is forced to take in a major that no one is required to choose at a university that no one is required to enroll in, I think about why a student should pick my class rather than another, economics rather than sociology, and my university instead of a fancy east coast private school like the one at which your guest is a visiting professor. This has pushed me to be a better teacher, to be constantly innovating, so I can have an honest and compelling answer to why a student should take my class and not another.

  3. We all agree that schools need to ENGAGE THEIR COMMUNITIES and that is “marketing” too! “Marketing” is not a “dirty word” and rather fundamentally about GOOD COMMUNICATION, not just “advertising”. In most schools marketing costs are to get the word out on new school programs and to have a PROACTIVE dialogue with families to understand their needs. Because of the public belief that every single dollar needs to “go to the classroom”, the result is often a flurry of confusing backpack fliers, inconsistent and last minute announcements, and multiple and inconsistently used communications channels even in the best of public schools. Often the only outreach communications are fund-raising requests for donations which families never understand what programs are being funded as a result.

    In addition, most schools know that the #1 source of enrollment is WORD OF MOUTH and listings which are both FREE hence schools don’t need to advertise. As a parent, I might also argue that I don’t switch schools simply because I see an ad – it’s because I am unhappy with my current school. Changing schools is too much of a PAIN! I agree that if charters are advertising, it’s more likely because they are being forced to.

    1. If a charter school depends on word of mouth it is, in some jurisdictions like New York City, violating the law. If it is legally allowed to depend on word of mouth advertising and does use that, it will be subject to intense criticism on blogs like this for not being open to all students.

      Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It makes one suspicious that the reason charter schools are dammed has nothing to do with what they actually do.

  4. The discussion of brand also should consider that BRAND is also part of a school leader’s role to articulate a CLEAR SCHOOL VISION for the community which can be considered a “waste” or a critical exercise in rallying the school community around a shared vision. Again, marketing and brand is about “engagement”. A simple example of good branding is the school mascot and school spirit!

  5. School “Branding” appears to be more along the lines of ascribing cult status to the Charter School. Sorry, but I don’t buy the whole Charter School nonsense. Just another attack on public school education and dedicated teachers.

  6. Excellent episode. Thanks for this important discussion. As was mentioned, the marketing is not just targeted to parents, but also to recruit teachers.
    Here’s an ad with a full blown pitch for how fabulous ’tis to teach in San Jose at KIPP/Rocketship (of course with children featured front and center with no mention of attrition or high turnover rates of teaching staff)

    I don’t know what it is about the video, but for some reason watching it makes me want to pop open a can of Pepsi.

    I just posted on your original Soundcloud that I’ve added the episode to a collection of concerns about charter schools and privatization. There’s a keyword search feature on the page. Enter “KIPP” and here’s what comes up:

    Quite a contrast from the brand described, isn’t it? Well don’t worry… just work hard, be nice, and drink Pepsi… and we should all be just fine.

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