Two infamous streets in New York City — Wall Street and Madison Avenue — have had tremendous impact on the United States and the world. The interesting thing is that the fundamental values of both concern self-interest through marketing and profits. A cynic would say that the quote attributed to P. T. Barnum, “there’s a sucker born every minute” describes the operating philosophy behind both, particularly Madison Avenue.
Well, Madison Avenue has come to public education, along with its strategies, culture, market, and politics. What used to be the staid and boring area of K-12 education is now in the same category as any other “market”. The impact is evident in several ways.
Celebrity culture: Who would’ve thought that there would be anointed celebrities in the educational reform movement. Michelle Rhee has become, to some, the face of educational reform, even though her record is questionable. Certainly, Bill Gates has turned his fortune in technology into a celebrity influence on what your child should experience in school, of course, with a heavy use of technology.
Choice: In addition, people think that the so-called “market” will improve education if people are given a choice. Privatize education and the problems disappear because the market will reward excellence and penalize failure. And certainly, the “corporatization” is not far behind as approaches, packages, technology, and tests to improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment are pitched.
Of course in this culture, brands have become trendy. Charter schools have become the “wonder drug” of educational reform. While the media continually expounds on the failure of public education, charter schools are perceived as a solution even though the record based on research demonstrates differently [see: Stanford University’s Center for research on Education Outcomes Study].
Politics: Public education is an area reserved for the states under the US Constitution. But as recent history has shown, the federal government has become involved, based on the fear that public education will destroy America, the American dream, and corporate global competition. We all know the impact of Madison Avenue in politics. Slogans. Poll-tested language. Code words. Obfuscation. Misinterpretations.
We also all know what the major influence is in Washington and state capitals — Cash. Special interest money drives decisions and priorities. And there is money to be made in education. Just examine mandated test requirements and the profits test making companies like Pearson make.
Advertising: With Madison Avenue comes slogans. Remember: “Where’s the beef”, “Plop plop fizz fizz oh what a relief it is” or “Think Different” or “Like a Good Neighbor” or “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t”?
When it comes to education, we have also peddled nonprofits, laws, or schools by using slogans, e.g., “students first”, “no child left behind”, “ race to the top”, “knowledge is power”, “children first”, “personalized education”, “value-added”, or “21st-century skills”.
Along with slogans come false claims, the misinterpretation of data, over simplification of issues, and, certainly, distortion, falsehoods, and ill-defined jargon. Self-interest rules when it comes to marketing and advertising. And when it comes to education that same rule applies.
Education has changed dramatically over the last 40 years. Public education has been demonized. Teachers are targeted as scapegoats. Charter schools have been glamorized. Reformers are idealized. Egos are served.
Sound bites have been used in the media rather than a serious dialogue about what education is, what accountability should mean, and the impact of poverty and social issues on children’s ability to succeed. Maybe “where’s the beef” is the slogan we should ask of the media, special interests, and celebrity reformers?