Standardizing education advertising

As the school year starts, many an urban district has been disappointed by slack first-day enrollments. In Washington DC, for example, enrollment in DCPS has dropped from 49,422 in 2007-08 to 45,190 in 2008-09 and to just 37,000 on the first day of the class for 2009-10; that's twelve thousand students lost in only two years. Detroit, too, has seen a mass exodus from its public schools. State-appointed financial manager Robert Bobb budgeted for 83,777 students for 2009-10, 11,000 fewer than in 2008-09 (94,054) and a whopping 25,000 fewer than 2007-08 (108,145).

These urban centers suffer from two primary maladies. First, shifting economic conditions, particularly the loss of jobs in the inner city, have parents moving out to more affordable suburbs, where their buck goes further, life is simpler (and safer), and the schools are typically better. Second, a widening variety of non-district options are available to students, which means that an increasing number of students no longer "belong" to the school system.

Three responses are popular:

1. Kill the competition. Typical tactics include lobbying for state charter caps, directing negative PR campaigns, and starting charter-alternatives, like Boston's "pilot schools." Districts also try to discourage virtual schooling and homeschooling, fight voucher programs, and oppose inter-district choice. Though this is a popular option, at most it slows the pace of school choice; it doesn't reverse it or produce better alternatives for kids.

2. Improve the product. It's exactly what it sounds, and yet woefully uncommon. Broad in scope, it includes everything from organizational and policy changes to ones that directly affect teaching and learning. The heavy lifting here, however, makes it a tough sell. Few districts have made many strides in this area, preferring incremental changes that have limited impact; the ones that have taken it seriously deserve kudos for their efforts.

3. Advertise like crazy. Hire marketers. Use TV, radio, newspapers, Twitter, Facebook, and billboards to promote schools' strengths and downplay their weaknesses. Place "come hither" messages on the sides of city buses. Send district officials and school administrators to community fairs, to poster neighborhoods, or go door-to-door to talk to parents. This is a relatively new phenomenon for the traditional districts, though charter and private schools use it regularly. It doesn't much disrupt the system and it's relatively easy and inexpensive to do (at least compared to options 1 and 2).

Marketing became particularly popular as the back-to-school season started this year. School officials in Denver have been pounding pavement to give the recruitment process a personal touch. DC Public Schools opted for radio spots and bus ads. Detroit has started a $500,000 "I'm In" campaign, backed by the likes of Bill Cosby and Derrick Coleman.

It's slightly surprising that it's taken this long for many school districts to market themselves. Their competition has been advertising for years, recognizing that a functioning market requires functional marketing. It's also the Mama Bear option of the three--neither steaming (kill the competition) nor frozen (actually change your product). That's not to mention that it allows districts--and cities--to tackle two problems at once: luring back students and jobs.

It's good that district schools now understand that they're not a monopoly. Students do have other places to go; in fact, over 50 percent of students are employing some kind of school choice.

But school advertising can take both good and bad forms. On the one hand, schools can use this opportunity to describe the product they're trying to sell, warts and all. They can run truthful ads that accurately represent the condition of education. On the other hand, they can play on consumer hopes and fears, touting the nice-looking but unimportant bits--like spiffy facilities--and downplaying less welcome realities, like dismal test scores.

Madison Avenue has had plenty of practice with the latter approach. Using supermodels and celebrities, for example, to sell a product is one way to make a mundane, or even subpar, product more sexy. It's not that Entenmann's is exactly lying in its doughnut and pastry ads, but they downplay the negatives of a product (the fat and sugar content, for example) by diverting the consumer's attention to something else--like who's eating it and how yummy it is.

School districts sometimes do this, too. DC's summer bus ads, for example, showed groups of cheery children accompanied by quotes about how happy they were that they had stayed in the public school system. DCPS spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway explained to the Wall Street Journal, "We wanted to show the city that there are smiling, happy kids in D.C. public schools." There are no ads, of course, depicting school violence, abysmal test scores, or depressing graduation rates. Why mention the 600 calories in that delectable doughnut?

Denver has taken a different tack. When tempers flared over a Denver charter school flier that compared its higher graduation rates to those of surrounding district schools, the superintendent called in education consultant Amy Slothower to compose a code of conduct for ethical marketing. When it comes to the facts, Slothower explains, "So long as it's truthful, they can use it."

This makes sense for charters and districts alike, but it may not be enough. Advertising something as important as education requires a level of honesty, accuracy, and probity that surpasses that of doughnuts. A "truth-in-marketing" code for schools should focus on telling the truth and also minimizing deceptive spin and encouraging schools to spotlight numbers that matter--things like student achievement and graduation rates, not new football uniforms and building renovations. After all, this isn't just about your pants being a bit tighter after one too many pastries; this is about the education of a generation of children.

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