Published in AMS Quarterly, vol. 4 (May 2001), p. 14.
Original manuscript. Copyright retained by author.

Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Department of Marketing
Auburn University, Alabama, U.S.A.

Across the nation, many school systems now require students to meet specific reading, writing and math standards before being promoted to the next level. And as these tests or performance requirements are imposed, schools know that the real goal is to help weak students to improve, so they offer special tutorials or Summer programs. Surprisingly, instead of embracing these programs, a loud and vocal rebellion is heard from the parents.

"There is time enough for school later," the parents complain. "Instead of Summer school, I'm taking my children to the beach." While some parents welcome the special programs, others see them as punishing the whole family, taking away from vacations or other social activities. It is usually the parents who complain about too much homework, or any homework at all, and then, failing to see the connection, complain that their children can't read or write. And when the students don't learn, they blame the schools. To these parents, the fault for weak education never lies with their child's abilities or failure to work, but rather, with schools not doing their job.

Competition between schools to offer "quality programs" is claimed as a way to encourage school improvement. "School choice," allowing parents to choose which school their children can attend, is seen as a solution to perceived problems with the quality of public education.

In theory, competition encourages all schools to improve: innovative schools attract more students while poorer quality schools lose them. Since this competition requires designing programs and selling them to parents and students to increase enrollments, educators around the world now attend special seminars and conferences to give them guidance in "selling" their schools, calling it "the marketing of education." The problem is that marketing also directs changes in the product, and many consumers derive satisfaction from something other than being educated.

When New Zealand removed requirements for students to attend their neighborhood public schools, news stories in that country reported general surprise that the major short-run effect was not a drive for improvement of "weaker" schools. Instead, there was an increase in the selectivity of those schools that were already graduating students with top test scores. The option for parents to choose schools quickly became the ability of schools to choose students.

But no one should have been surprised. At universities around the world, schools claim the top graduates in part because they are able to attract the top quality students. At any level of education, the better a school's reputation, the more selective it can be in accepting new students.

Those schools unable to attract top students from the outset must still seek ways to fill classes. The temptation is strong to focus the attention on a school's "values" and perks other than education, such as availability of clubs or other activities, swimming pools or other athletic facilities, the teachers' concerns for children's "self-esteem," or the school's religious environment. This is clearly seen in the fierce competition for college students in which all sorts of education-irrelevant "benefits" come to the fore: the football team's winning record, fraternity and sorority parties, or the campus presence of a nationally known researcher who never teaches. In materials selling the schools, these peripheral values sometimes are presented as if they were more important than providing a high-quality education.

Seeing graduation as certification, not a mark of education, students and their parents want the diploma but not necessarily the abilities or experiences education should engender. They see school as a job, with set hours for work, credited vacation time and "paid" sick leave, telling teachers an excused absence means credit for that day, not make up assignments for missed work. Too many people expect education to be magically conferred after time has been served.

The impact of these views gets felt when our students express their course expectations. When I asked a student why she missed our first 90-minute class, she simply said that she never attends classes on the first day. "You don't miss much," she explained. "All they do is hand out the syllabus."

"Well," I said, "in our department you miss a lot. Like many of my colleagues, my syllabus is posted on the university web pages. In our first class, I handed out a one page note that gave the electronic address and I then lectured for the full period."

"That's not fair," she yelled, a comment that she and a few others carried through to their end-of-term teacher evaluations. I wonder if they would skip the first few minutes of a football game, since rarely does anyone score on the opening kickoff.

Education is a strange commodity because many consumers seem to want as little of it as possible for their money. After all, a real education requires the students to work and ignorance is instantaneous. The Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz" talks using bigger words and acts as if he is smarter after being handed a diploma, a situation which makes many young people extremely envious.

In marketing the education "product," too many administrators want to promote the non-academic features. Parents need to understand just what education means so they will select schools based on true academic values. And students need to be repeatedly told that the value of education is not job credentials, but the mental abilities developed.

The marketing of education needs to keep focused on the real product benefits of graduation or of a college degree. If they don't, the marketing effort gets misplaced and everyone loses.

Published in AMS Quarterly, vol. 4 (May 2001), p. 14.
Original manuscript. Copyright retained by author