Monday, April 28, 2014

Branding Education

What if we were serious about treating education like a business?

I recently finished an advance copy of What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn. It is a book that has absolutely nothing to do with education. Instead, Yohn looks at how brands from Kodak to Nike fail or succeed, and how building a brand leads to a higher level of real success.

Yohn has been around through several decades of corporate work from Frito-Lay through the rescue work of Sony. She is a business uber-expert. So let's see what happens if we measure the Education Reform Brand with the yardsticks delievered in her book. Yohn presents seven brand-building principles, and it takes her a whole book to do it, so I'll be grossly over-simplifying here. So what else is new.

Great Brands Start Inside

This chapter was the one that immediately made me think of education reform. She is loaded with great pull quotes.

It's always easier to change what you say about your company than it is to actually change your company.

Or this quote she passes on from Sam Palmisano at IBM:

When your business is primarily based on knowledge, [then] people-- rather than products-- become your brand.

Yohn tells the story of IBM's reboot to underline the need to build a brand that grows from the inside, that is an outgrowth of the culture of the people who do the work of the company. She shows a process in which the company starts by finding out what their culture is (not insisting on what they think it is, or should be) and then generating a new culture by starting with employees as the foundational building blocks.

In other words, brand building can't be done as a top-down imposition with an eye on the customer experience and making that customer experience reflect the values.

In the case of the Reformy Status Quo, we already know how much the people on the inside have been involved in creating the brand culture-- not at all. But this view also shows how the brand fails. No matter what Reformsters say about their brand, the customer experience of students is high stakes standardized testing and the preparation for it.

We can see this in the tenor of the current push back. For most of the customers of Reformy Status Quo, the Test is the ultimate expression of what the whole brand is about.

Yohn quotes Jim Collins: "The great companies are internally driven, externally aware." Ed Reform has been deaf to the voices of teachers inside the system, and blind to the results for students outside of it.

Great Brands Avoid Selling Products

Yohn opens with the story of Nike's momentous decision to scrap an ad campaign about how Nike started the fitness revolution and instead launched "Just Do It."

We humans are emotional creatures. We make our purchases based on how products make us feel. That's why great brands succeed by seeking intimate emotional connection with customers. Either the product satisfies and emotional need I have ("I want to feel healthy and successful") or it offers me access to a self-identity that I want to experience and express ("I'm an athlete").

Education should be able to lock into this-- we are all about helping students fulfill desires and express self-identity. But RSQ has deliberately rejected all of this.

We know what David Coleman has to say about what you feel and think ("Nobody gives a shit") and the whole RSQ movement has been like. We don't care about feelings, emotions-- we want data, meeting standards, hitting benchmarks. We want kids to show grit, not whine. Once I started thinking about this, I was struck by how completely RSQ has worked to strip all emotional language from discussion of education. How your child feels about going to school and getting an education is immaterial. Be college and career ready as a mechanical meeting of a standard requirement, not because it will allow you to realize hopes and dreams about yourself, to become the person you dream of being.

It's striking, the degree to which RSQ passed up the chance to make the debate all about hopes and dreams and aspirations and emotions. Instead, the message has been charts and data and, when feelings are mentioned, it's only to suggest that students should feel bad (and get rigor). In that context, one of Yohn's sub-headings really jumps out--

Emotions Trump Efficacy

Great brands are built on feelings, an emotional connection between the customer and the company. Not unlike the emotional connection that so many people feel for their local school, the emotional connection that so many Reformsters believe an obstacle rather than the point.

Great Brands Ignore Trends

If you follow trends, you are always behind. RSQ goes one step behinder by following trends that are already fading because they have failed. Vouchers, VAM, stack ranking, standardized testing-- all trends borrowed from the business world and all being dropped just as RSQ is setting them in cement.

Yohn points out the value of being a challenge brand, and to their credit the Reformsters have tried to frame themselves as challengers of the status quo. They just.... aren't. As one of Yohn's subheadings notes,

It's Not the Data; It's What You Do With It

Great Brands Don't Chase Customers

The idea here is that having a strong brand attracts customers. A "lighthouse brand" doesn't chase customers, but rather lets them come.

Oddly enough, old school charter schools (back before the primary metric for a charter was ROI) used this. Be very good at something, wait for students who want that thing to sign up. But "without a strong sense of self, a brand doesn't inspire success."  What projects a strong sense of self? If we go back to the top, we're reminded that the projection comes from the customer experience and relationship with the brand employees who are suffused with the brand culture.

Meanwhile, the RSQ chases students with butterfly nets, trying to grab them up with all manner of charter takeovers and faux parent triggers.

Great Brands Sweat the Small Stuff

Attention to detail. Attention to design. Making sure that every choice is an expression of the brand culture. "The mark of a great brand is not being obsessive compulsive; it is being intentional."

This also means that a brand's dysfunctional qualities will be reflected in the details, which is where we are with RSQ. CCSS supporters complain that critics are picking away at tiny details, but it is in the tiny details that they reveal themselves. In fact, in some details (like the lack of any real plan for how RSQ will affect special needs students), they reveal what they think is tiny and unimportant (answer: special needs student population).

Yohn has advice on how to catch this: experience your brand like a customer. If Reformsters want to really experience the brand, they need to get in a classroom, take a PARCC. Yohn also talks about silos, and how disconnected parts of the company lead to a clunky, just-plain-bad customer experience. Such as when standards development is disconnected from testing  is disconnected from materials development is disconnected from staff development (if any).

Great Brands Commit and Stay Committed

This is the story, for instance, of how Krispy Kreme gets more interested in expanding and making big bucks than in making especially good donuts. The problem about commitment with RSQ is that Reformsters are committed to things like political power, making money, pushing their agenda, and winning. Lots of things other than education.

Commitment to education would look like, "We are going to find the best practices, no matter how much we have to search, who we have to talk to, how many of our pet theories we have to abandon." Instead, Reformsters make commitments like "Nobody can change the CCSS at all."

What you commit to, no matter what, is what identifies your brand. Reformsters are not comitted to education.

If you made a list of all the things your brand is able to do, you'd probably find that the list is quite long. Now try compiling another list, the list of what your brand was made to do.

Common Core and the testing regime attached to it are defined around what we are able to do. Try to find me a teacher, even a CCSS-supporting teacher, who looks at the Core and says, "This is what I was made to do." Commitment is about identifying core competencies and staying focused on them. RSQ has defined education's core competency as data generation and testing. This is not what we were born to do.

Great Brands Never Have To "Give Back"

"Great brands are themselves becoming a force for positive social change, rather than simply supporting external programs."

Yohn lists four traits to consider when looking at this aspect of a brand:

       *Success-- quality products and financially strong
       *Fairness-- well-priced, good value, honest and decent relationships with customers
       *Responsibility-- respectful of employees
       *Trust-- consistently delivers on promises about products and services

So, zero out of four for the Reformsters.

What Have We Learned       

Yohn certainly isn't the only business consultant in the world, and I am certainly the last person in the world to argue that education should be measured with the yardstick of the business world.

But at the very least, this look at an actual book about current business theory demonstrates that EVEN BY BUSINESS STANDARDS, the Reformsters are failing. Many other writers and I have spun out light-years of wordage to demonstrate that Reformsters have failed by our standards, by the standards of the education world. But it is well worth noting that they have also failed by their own standards, by the standards of good brand management.

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