The recent State Impact piece on advertising by public schools was interesting on a couple of counts, but missed an opportunity:

Schools will start soon, but where you live doesn’t necessarily determine where you go to school anymore. Families can choose where to go to school — private, charter or public school. The aim behind providing this choice? Proponents say it will force all schools to better themselves. Whether it has done that remains a subject of controversy. But it has given birth to a new reality for public schools: with education competition, comes the need for education marketing.

First, treating this as news is a little odd. The No Child Left Behind Act began expanding public school choice more than a decade ago. Public schools advertising themselves is not new.

Second, the article does a good job of showing why school districts have a strong interest to promote themselves to parents and students: money.

Clarksville Community Schools developed an advertising campaign with an express purpose: drive students to their district. The southern Indiana district paid the ad agency Bandy Carroll Hellige over $160,000. The equivalent of four teachers’ salaries.

The investment paid off: 87 new students enrolled and $435,000 in state funds came with them.

Unfortunately, what isn’t investigated in the State Impact piece is the importance of advertising as an organizational exercise. Schools should have been asked how the need to advertise affected them internally.

Too often, folks look down on advertising as manipulation—Don Draper-ism and such—and little consider the salubrious effects advertising can have internally on a firm. For an organization to advertise itself well, it must ask questions like, “What do we offer that people want? What do we do better than others? What should people know about us?” This asking is self-reflective, and spurs recognition of the firm’s strengths and weaknesses, which invites organizational changes.

One can see this in the case of Hardy Middle School in Northwest Washington, D.C. A decade ago, if you asked parents what they thought about the school, they likely would reply that they heard it was a decent public school that was known for its music curriculum. Parents of means long could, and often did, opt their children into pricy private middle schools rather than attend Hardy. Then came charters, which enabled even more families to send their kids to D.C. public elementary schools (Stoddert, Janney, Key, etc.) and then send their rising sixth-graders swap into schools other than Hardy. (This, it is worth noting, is a common phenomenon across D.C.).

The District and Hardy saw this was a big threat, and took a long look at what it was doing and how it could sell itself to parents. Then they made changes. Now, Hardy promotes itself in media and through direct parent-to-parent outreach as a rising school where kids can get STEM, Chinese language instruction, music and more. These are the very things that parents in the affluent neighborhood around Hardy are looking for in a school. Not surprisingly, more neighborhood parents are choosing to send their kids to Hardy.

Anyhow, hopefully, some enterprising reporter out there will soon write a piece or series of pieces on how advertising has affected public schools and what strategies have proven successful.

Featured Publications