When school choice advocates tout their vision for the future, it has tended to be a picture of parents soberly examining hard data about possible schools in order to select the "best" or "most fitting." But if folks are going to great education like a commodity, then it's going to be sold like toasters or breakfast cereal or panty hose. And that means--
There is no sector of the free market where folks just make their product and let it speak for itself. The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. But while schools are staffed with lots of people who know education, school marketing is mostly not their thing. And so school choice ignites a burgeoning industry--the school marketing companies.
I've been getting peppered on Facebook by ads from Schola Inbound Marketing. The company is run by Ralph Cochran, a "leading national Christian school growth marketing authority." He went to college at Grove City College, a private Christian-ish school just up the road from me, then worked at AT&T in sales, then moved to sales in health equipment company Syncromode, then sales for American Real Estate Investors. He ran Dominion Ventures, a manufactured home company. He's now a co-founder of Turley Talks ("a new conservative age is rising") and since 2012 he's been president of Schola. So, zero experience in education, but over two decades in the marketing game.
His company promises that he'll show your school how to "Stand Out, Build Trust and Boost Enrollment" and "supercharge your school's website." Plus how to enroll more "mission-driven parents and students." This particular outfit is aimed at "Christian Schools Looking To Grow Online." Yes, one of the secrets is lots of capital letters.
Schola is just the tip of the invisible hand's little finger. If I google "school marketing company," I immediately see four companies that have bought google ad space.
Now, some of these, like Doublepositive Marketing, are aimed primarily at the post-secondary world, and colleges and universities have been playing this game for a long time. The language is, well--something. Doublepositive promises that they "grow institutions through award-winning channel management expertise, extensive industry experience, thought leadership, proprietary front-end technology, agile reporting, and obsessive focus on data-driven student acquisition."
Others, like Single Grain are focused on "growing your online education business." They promise "HIGH-ROI Online Marketing Campaigns," and their satisfied customers include Treehouse ande Khan Academy.
Here's Truth Tree Consulting--offering "edge-defining excellence for preschools, private schools, summer camps, and more." They want you to remind you that mom and dad may know who you are, but do you want to leave that to chance?
Sonority Group does both education marketing and business growth consulting. They want you to know "Schools that are leveraging technology, processes, and content are connecting with their prospective students in authentic ways. In today's education landscape, hard-sell marketing and admissions strategies are a thing of the past."
Kreative Webworks has been "assisting Charter schools and Private schools meet their enrollment goals since 2011." Straight North notes that "with voucher school programs popping up in districts across the country," the field is becoming "increasingly competitive." And eduMedia claims to be the largest school marketing agency in the US.
The Clutch website offers a ranked list of education advertising and marketing agencies and there are 1,181 firms on that list!
Agencies seem to focus primarily on getting enrollment up. They offer to optimize web presence and talk a lot about "telling your story" and reinforcing your brand. None that I saw described a program built around a straight reporting of test scores or academic excellence.
Looking through all this, a couple of things strike me. One is that the industry is so big--big enough to represent another constituency for school choice, because if the country just focused on improving and supporting the public school system, most of these folks would be looking for a new gig.
In their new book A Wolf At The Schoolhouse Door (a book you should buy right now), Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider devote a whole chapter to school marketing, and it underlines what my simple online poking suggests, which is that 1) it is pervasive and 2) there is a mountain of money disappearing down this golden toilet. We are not even getting into the charter school companies that do all of this stuff in house (because they are, in fact, businesses, and what good business doesn't have a marketing division?)
But so much money. So much money that isn't being spent on educating students. So much money that, in many cases, came from taxpayers who thought they were paying taxes to educate young humans and not to put up snazzy billboards and shoot slick webmercials.
There's more to consider. In the private sector, sales and marketing can become a tail that wags the dog, with the sales department dictating what products should be created and what features should be included not because that's what would be best, but because it's what the marketing department believes it can sell. If your widget company defines its mission not as designing widgets or building widgets, but instead as selling widgets, you start to get all sorts of things backwards.
In the end, I have to believe that a big, busy school marketing industry is a bad sign for the health of education--public and private--in this country. When the invisible hand is more pre-occupied with enrolling children than educating them, everyone suffers.