Kosar Takes The Helm, Three Cheers for School Advertising

This guest blogpost is by Kevin Kosar, author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education, who edits the Federal Education Policy History website and is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute.

Thanks to Andy Rotherham for giving me the keys to Eduwonk this week. I will resist the temptation to post fish porn every day this week—which is what you’d expect from the Mayor of Fish Porn (sorry Ali Fuller—I wear the crown and hold the sceptre.)

ICYMI: The recent State Impact piece on advertising by public schools was interesting on a couple of counts but missed an opportunity.

“Schools will start soon, but where you live doesn’t necessarily determine where you go to school anymore. Families can choose where to go to school — private, charter or public school. The aim behind providing this choice? Proponents say it will force all schools to better themselves. Whether it has done that remains controversial. But it has given birth to a new reality for public schools: with education competition, comes the need for education marketing.”

First, that this is treated as news is a little odd. The No Child Left Behind Act began expanding public school choice more than a decade ago. Public schools advertising themselves is not new.

Second, the article does a good job of showing why school districts have a strong interest in promoting themselves to parents and students: money. “Clarksville Community Schools developed an advertising campaign with an express purpose: drive students to their district. The southern Indiana district paid the ad agency Bandy Carroll Hellige over $160,000. The equivalent of four teachers’ salaries.” The investment paid off: 87 new students enrolled and $435,000 in state funds came with them.

Unfortunately, what isn’t investigated in the StateImpact piece is the importance of advertising as an organizational exercise. Schools should have been asked how the need to advertise affected them internally.

Too often folks look down on advertising as manipulation—Don Draper-ism and such—and little consider the salubrious effects advertising can have internally on a firm. For an organization to advertise itself well it must ask itself questions like, “What do we offer that people want? What do we do better than others? What should people know about us?” This asking is self-reflective, and spurs recognition of the firm’s strengths and weaknesses, which invites organizational changes.

One can see this in the case of Hardy Middle School in NW Washington, DC. Ten years ago, if you asked parents what they thought about it they likely would reply that they heard it was a decent public school that was known for its music curriculum. Parents of means long could, and often did, opt their kids into pricy private middle schools rather than attend Hardy. Then came charters, which enabled even more families to send their kids to DC public elementary schools (Stoddert, Janney, Key, etc.) then send their rising sixth-graders swap into schools other than Hardy. (This, it is worth noting, is a common phenomenon across DC.)

The District and Hardy saw this was a big threat, and took a long look at what it was doing and how it could sell itself to parents. Then they made changes. Now Hardy is promoting itself in media and through direct parent-to-parent outreach as a rising school where kids can get STEM, Chinese language instruction, music, and more. Which are the very things that parents in the affluent neighborhood around it are looking for in a school. Not surprisingly, more neighborhood parents are choosing to send their kids to Hardy.

Anyhoo, hopefully, some enterprising reporter out there will soon write a piece or series of pieces on how advertising has affected public schools and what strategies have proven successful.

2 Replies to “Kosar Takes The Helm, Three Cheers for School Advertising”

  1. Nice article, Kevin.
    I’m a 26-year high school volunteer and computer marketing exec. When I started volunteering, I was met with deep suspicion because I bore the taint of industry. It took time to be accepted.
    Part of schools’ reluctance about marketing is that many educators believe school is broken, but that ship is massive and they don’t know how to turn it or, perhaps, which direction to turn it in. As specialty (charter) schools gain ground, all schools may have to start asking of themselves the questions you posed above.

  2. Thanks for reading, Philip Roybal. Well put! Yes, behind the need to advertise is the impetus of school choice. Competition is good and helps spur firms and individuals to improve. Cheers!

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