If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a gazillion times:
The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.
Annnnd here it comes. The marketing.
The latest episode of Have You Heard with Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider takes a look at educational marketing (it also posits the heretofore unknown product “Extruda,” which… just makes me uncomfortable).
There are soooo many issues with school marketing, and not that marketing a school is “unseemly.” For instance, as the cast points out, most marketing is aimed at selling a private good, while education is a public good. There is also the issue of customer evaluation– New Coke had the weight of the advertising world behind it, but that could not overcome all the people who actually drank some and said, loudly, “Yuck!” With a charter school, you may not figure out that you were scammed for quite some time.
But most striking is just the cost. Sarah Butler Jessen is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College who studies school marketing and makes a guest appearance on the show. She holds up Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies as one of the leading examples of charter marketing, and she unloads two stunning factoids– SA has spent about $1,000 per student on marketing, and marketing is the second-biggest expenditure for the charter chain.
$1,000 per student on marketing. Imagine what you could do if you had another $1,000 to spend on actually educating each student.
This is part of the problem of edu-marketing– even if your marketing is Honest and Pure and True, you have just spent a ton of money on something other than educating students.
Jessen also talks about how charter management groups and chains are far ahead of the marketing war, particularly with their branding and I was surprised (though on reflection I shouldn’t have been) that, for instance, KIPP has a whole Brand Guideline Video. Like any other brand leader, KIPP’s identity and marketing face is about much more than education. And this is a sobering part of Jessen’s research– while we’ve all been debating and arguing and thrashing about charters and charter policy and all the rest of it, KIPP and the others have been slowly building the brand perception that charter schools are like private schools in their general awesomeness and desirability.
Marketing also circles back to one of the signature issues of charters, which is regulation. The average civilian approaches advertising with an attitude of “Well, they couldn’t just say that if it was a flat out lie.” That, of course, is not actually true. When terms like “organic” (or “common core”) are unregulated, advertisers can slap them on anything. And when charters and their marketing are unregulated, they can make any promise they like, whether they plan to keep it or not. I am reminded of a local private school that used to be infamous for promising parents anything (“You’re looking for a left-handed lacrosse program that’s tied to Latin studies and underwater basket weaving classes? Oh, we totally have that.”) and never delivering on it. When it comes to low-information customers, charter schools naturally benefit from a steady supply of new parents who have no previous experience in the marketplace.
This is yet another valuable and important (and, believe it or not, entertaining) episode of this podcast. Check it out right now–