Marketing of Education
The marketing of education has turned schools into a service industry and students into the consumers of a product. As of 2007, students and their families have many educational options when compared to the traditional public school model. Whether private, charter, magnet, public, or online school, each wants the business that additional students bring, and parents and their children have to choose which institution offers the best opportunity based on promotional strategies adopted by each school.
Keywords Charter Schools; Consumer; Cyberschool; Magnet Schools; Marketing; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Private School; Promotion; Public School; Rural
For a product to be marketed, it must have consumers needing to acquire it. While public education is a benefit for all United States citizens, most people do not consider it a product. However, private school administrators, educators running charter schools, and private investors focusing on the magnet school industry are in the market for students, otherwise known as education consumers. There are several ways to market education as a product. School district administrators can create websites or television ads; they can send out mailings or go door-to-door discussing their product. The result will be the same for the community. Marketing education as a product presents information to parents and to students about what the school can offer academically. It also promotes increasing competition and increased performance for students: if we're doing X and it's working, your school needs to do Y to keep up. While promoting public schools is often the job of local school boards, marketing charter, magnet, and private schools is the responsibility of the administrators who run them. Their priority is to highlight the strengths of their institutions in the hope of luring students away from attending the school system within their own home district.
To fully understand the need to market education, it is imperative to understand the choices parents and students have with regard to education in some cities. For many people, there is only one choice: public or private. Traditional public schools enroll students who live within a certain area, and the schools function within a district that can have several schools operating at one time. Private or religious schools operate within the same school district but require the payment of tuition for enrollment and also require the conformity to specific policies for ideal operation. Private schools receive no funding from state or local governments. As a result, administrators and educators tend to earn less working in the private school sector.
Consumer Choices for Education
Parents and students may have the option of charter schools or magnet schools where available, either within or outside of their local school districts. Both types of schools are funded similarly to traditional public schools, but they both propose to offer students experiences unlike those provided by public schools. A charter school can be opened by anyone applying to the district school board. Generally, however, they are started through the combined efforts of educators, administrators, and parents wanting reform from the standard public school model. A charter school's application is only granted when the proposal for its creation specifies the difference students will have when compared to the traditional school already in existence. Charter schools are required to meet state academic standards, report on these standards, and have open enrollments. In return, they receive public funding per student and can use money from private donors/investors for the school's running costs. In addition, they can be organized as either nonprofit corporations or they can hire for-profit education service providers to perform some part of their school operations.
Magnet schools are also publicly funded institutions. Their goal, however, is to attract students to a location or an educational environment the students (or their parents) would not normally consider. Magnet schools were initially created to desegregate school districts that were racially homogenous. While the schools still tend to achieve that goal, they also focus on offering specialized education like performance arts or engineering or technical programs not otherwise offered by local public schools. Furthermore, students need to apply to and be accepted to magnet schools making them competitive institutions that are available to students who can't afford private schools.
In addition to these school options, students also have the option of attending school in an entirely online situation. Online learning can be a comfortable and convenient way for students to earn a degree. Until recently, that option was only available to students in higher education. Demast (2007) discusses online education in regard to high school. Kaplan and the Apollo Group have purchased companies that run online high schools and are marketing to students who don't want to attend a traditional high school. According to Damast (2007), "[a]bout 700,000 public precollegiate students were enrolled in at least one online or blended course [last year]" (para. 5). For example,
Florida Virtual School, which is operated by the state of Florida, was founded in 1997 and now has more than 31,000 students in academic year 2005-06, according to the school's Web site. The school started out as a strictly virtual high school, but now provides online courses to students in traditional schools who supplement their studies with online courses (Damast, 2007, para 8).
Colleges and universities show both rates of success and failures with regard to online courses. Students are diverse, and what works for one may not work for another. The same can be said about lecture classes in big rooms or classes that only meet once per week when compared to those meeting more frequently. There is always a risk to students not attending a traditional class. Not having the face-to-face contact with an instructor is an issue, as is developing effective time management strategies when a computer (a student's high school) and a television share the same space. The lack of socialization is also a concern, similar to the one critics pose against home schooled education. The milestones of playing organized athletics or being part of clubs and attending the prom are all considerations for a student debating an online education.
What Does School Marketing Promote?
Whatever educational choices parents and students have, it is no wonder that marketing strategies are necessary to entice enrollment in one over the other. According to Lubienski (2007), "competition in K-12 systems is intended to elicit a number of desirable responses from schools-increased achievement, improved efficiencies, and greater responsiveness to families" (p. 119). If parents know they have choices, and all of those choices seem like good ones, than the advertising of what a parent views as "better" could tip the scales from School A to School B.
In areas where there are no charter schools and no magnet schools, just the standard traditional model of public school education, parents still have to decide which public school is best for their child. In addition to promoting standardized test scores, teacher credentials, and administrative experience, some schools also promote customer service as way to enroll and retain students. In order to embrace the customer service view, however, one must go back to the idea that education is a product and students are the consumers of it. Many people have already done so.
Jones (1997) identifies a superintendent in Washington who feels that bad customer service should result in school employees being fired. In addition, there is a school in Ohio that prepares children to return to school each fall by offering free personal items like sneakers, shirts, lunchboxes, crayons, etc., so the children have no excuse not to return. Furthermore, a middle-school principal from North Carolina tells Jones that she gets weekly calls at home from students who have forgotten things in their lockers. She meets those students at the school and unlocks the doors so the children can retrieve their forgotten items. "I'd rather be seen as too accommodating than as not accommodating enough," she explains (as cited in Jones, 2007, para 3).
The issue here is what message this is sending to those students. People forget things all the time. If being able to retrieve those things were always a possibility, nobody would have a reason to remember anything. And, if the point is to prove that school administrators view students as customers, the adage that the customer is always right can cause debilitating effects for children who need to discover that being wrong and making mistakes are learning experiences. Furthermore, if a teacher fears being fired for not being customer-friendly there is little recourse for students misbehaving or arguing a test grade. On the other hand, even students who misbehave are bodies in chairs and dollars per school budgets
Administrators as Promoters
Most superintendents don't take their positions because they are marketing professionals. However, in some areas, the second profession is essential to the first. In urban school districts in Ohio, the public school systems are struggling to survive as "[t]he pervasive loss of state and local monies is having a devastating effect" (May, 2007, 29). Legally, public money is being filtered to charter schools that also receive resources from private organizations. According to May (2007), thirty percent of the charter schools operating in Ohio are managed by companies earning a profit (29). Steering students away from such schools is the job of superintendents who have to make a case for parents to choose to remain in their traditional public school system. For the families who don't have the option of choice - those who can't afford transportation to a charter school or to move out of their poor local districts - education is still a priority, and their needs must be met; superintendents and other public school officials have to make sure those needs are met, even with fewer dollars in their budgets.
Reaching parents and students is not the only reason schools market themselves. In order to promote higher achievement rates and better facilities, district administrators also have to attract quality teachers and show taxpayers that their money is being used efficiently. Schools are creating DVDs and hiring website creators to fill these needs. Mounds View Public Schools in Minneapolis hired professionals to create a video to promote its academic achievement rates and personalized student attention. While the video production cost the district $17,000 in 2006, the...
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