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A mother of a Chicago Public Schools student finds a seat on a Chicago Transit Authority train on her way home after a long day at work. She settles in and her eyes meet a “car card” advertisement across the aisle. The ad depicts a young man, dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, seated at a desk and writing intently above a tagline that reads: “Committed to Greatness.” To the left is the Chicago International Charter School (CICS) logo, adjacent to the claim: “He didn’t think he could pay for college, now colleges are paying him with academic scholarships.” In smaller, fainter type below the graphic are a few words about the institution: “College-prep charter school | Longer school day and year | Robust afterschool activities.”

Other than these, the ad makes no real claims—only powerful suggestions to this CPS parent concerning her child. And if she’s feeling impulsive, the ad makes it easy for the mother on the train to apply, urging her simply to text “SUCCESS” to the number given.

Of course, the ad fails to mention some relevant information, like CICS recently had to “turnaround” several of its campuses for chronic low performance; or that college enrollment data for CICS schools isn’t much better than district average. In short, the ad doesn’t tell this mother that Chicago International Charter School isn’t any better than her child’s neighborhood school. The only real difference is that her neighborhood school doesn’t advertise.1

Charter School Marketing

The Chicago International Charter School advertisement was developed by a marketing firm called The Grossbauer Group, a company that has designed campaigns for several Chicago charter schools. The Grossbauer website includes testimonials from CICS staff with “Communications” and “External Relations” job titles, professing the marketing agencies’ effectiveness at creating “best-in-class design and technology supporting our marketing and communication efforts,” and an “aesthetic appeal” that helps to “advance the brand identity.”2

Education was once considered too important to be left to the whims of the marketplace. However, following a dangerous political shift, schooling has become a commodity to be bought by parents and sold by businesses operating as charter schools. As a result, education has been dragged into the cynical world of product marketing.

While traditional public schools have done little in the way of advertising and public relations, charter schools have been paying professionals to build their school brands and develop aggressive marketing plans. That’s because, as a report by the Director of External Relations at the National Charter Schools Institute tells charter operators, “to be successful, your charter school will likely have to market itself.”3

“The fact is, charter schools are in a competitive market, with several other status quo organizations both seeking to raise their own level of visibility, and potentially even undermining yours,” the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) warns its members in its Charter School Communications Playbook. “In order for the charter school movement to succeed, it is essential that the public understand what charter schools are and have a favorable opinion of them.”4

Whereas charter schools do not have a magic formula for improving public education, by using professional marketing plans to sway public opinion, they do have a formula for convincing people they are magic.

Strategies

By studying online resources available to charter schools, it’s clear that charters use marketing to create customers for their schools not by helping parents make rational choices, but by appealing to values through messages that make charters feel like fresher, better alternatives to traditional public schools.

Like ball-point pens or canned soup brands, the market for schools has become flooded with products that are pretty similar. Therefore, marketing agencies discourage charter operators from focusing ad campaigns on their schools’ “functional” benefits, or what differentiates a particular charter school from its competitors. Instead, charter schools are supposed to create messages that “appeal to the audience’s ‘pathos’ or emotion, sympathies and imagination.” This will lead to “a stronger brand and stronger customer relationship” marketers say.5

Emotional messages are intended to be personal, anecdotal and to “let people know that real children are being impacted because of the presence of charter schools.”6 In one school marketing presentation titled “Inspire & Impact,” a seasoned charter marketing firm offers this example of an emotional message for “X Charter”:

The Only Thing We Don’t Respect? Status Quo. Anna Lopez couldn’t read last year. This year, she scored in the top 5% of the country. We’re not betting Anna will change the world, we’re making sure of it.7

In order to tap into emotions, marketers spend a lot of time considering values, or the principles and beliefs of their intended audiences. According to Patty Kennedy, CEO of Kennedy Spencer: “I really can’t emphasize enough the importance of identifying and leveraging an audience values…Miss the values – and talk simply about the greatness that is your school – and you’ll miss the mark.” Once the values are identified, charters are urged to create campaigns that start with a “big bang,” that “excite audiences,” and make them “feel alive”—in other words, campaigns that evoke powerful emotional responses.8

Selling the Noble Myth

While charters across the city have engaged in marketing their schools to the public, perhaps no school has done it more expansively and effectively than the Noble Network.9As a result, Noble charter schools have become shining examples of school success among politicians and in the media. For these influential parties, “Noble” and “high-quality” education have become synonymous.

“This page supports quality charter schools but not blindly. … We … support the expansion of proven, high-quality charters such as Noble Street.” – Chicago Sun-Times10

“For the past 15 years, Noble has consistently provided a high quality public education option to countless families in our great city.” –Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel11

Insert Photo: SellingChoice_Photo2.png
(Alt Description: Advertisement for Noble (“Be Noble”).

Noble is a client of a marketing agency called Harp Advertising, a company that describes “powerful brand development” as an area of expertise and offers internet marketing plans that include “an optimum mix” of email marketing, search engine optimization, social media marketing, banner ads and Pay Per Click. Also, Noble uses a web development company called Title XI, which recently led a redesign of Noble Network websites. On the Table XI website, Noble’s External Affairs Coordinator praised the new websites for providing “crucial momentum for a new marketing strategy and capital campaign that we launched in the past year.”12

Noble recently sent a targeted email advertisement to the entire faculty at a neighborhood public high school through teachers’ CPS mail accounts, urging them to apply to be Noble teachers. Last year, the Noble Network spent $225,284 in “teacher advertising and recruitment,” up from $177, 912 in 2012.13

The Noble Pitch

Much of the fanfare surrounding the Noble Network is a result of persuasive marketing that reduces education at Noble schools to a few simplified claims, personal anecdotes and memorable catchphrases. Take, for example, the school’s famous slogan: “Be Noble.” Hear it and words like “high-minded,” “principled,” “honorable” or “meritorious” come to mind. Audiences see the words in bold, assertive letters, coupled with photos of happy students doing schoolwork or the Chicago skyline in silhouette, and they are moved to imagine that Noble schools elevate troubled adolescents and our entire city. Who would dare not “Be Noble”?

Insert Photo: SellingChoice_Photo3.png
(Alt Description: Advertisement for Noble using the Chicago skyline and words ‘Be Noble’.

The message is self-satisfying, but there is very little substance to support the spirit of this ad campaign. In fact, there is nothing noble about harsh disciplinary policies and heavy fines (only recently discontinued), high rates of expulsion, counseling out severely disabled students, an ACT test-prep driven curriculum and lower teacher pay—all serious concerns with the Noble model.14

As part of its marketing message, the school makes conditional statements and presents them as standalone facts. For example, on its website Noble claims to utilize a “proven model [for] high quality high school education in an urban environment.” But this depends on how “high quality” is defined. Noble boosters point to test scores as a primary measure of success, but higher scores come as a result of a) greater control over which students attend Noble, and b) overemphasis on high-stakes test taking in the classroom, which comes at the expense of critical thinking and social engagement skills.15

Noble boasts about “hard work, discipline and high expectations” to potential customers on its website, but fails to mention, much less justify, the means to these ends. Noble schools rely on an excessively punitive system of suspensions and, until recently, cash fines for any minor misbehavior. The school was mentioned by name in a Chicago Tribune article on criticism for “zero-tolerance” approaches to discipline in charter schools after a recent report found that the Noble Network had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in disciplinary fees from low-income parents. Noble marketers call this demanding a “high degree of accountability” from students; it also could be called creating a culture of fear in its schools.16

There is something extremely troubling about a charter network funded by mostly wealthy white donors and staffed by mostly white administrators adopting a system of extreme discipline and behavioral conformity to educate students of color—and it has a history. From colonial missionaries to American slavery, to Indian boarding schools and reflected in films like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, white elites have sought submissive behavior from historically subjugated groups and argued for the need to impose a system of discipline on other peoples that they imagine as unruly, dangerous and self-destructive. Even if intentions are good, scholars have shown that underlying motives include the alleviation of white fears and the maintenance of white power.17

A closer reading of the Noble message reveals a charter school network that endorses personal as opposed to community-based values. Noble promotes the principles of the business world, which are individualistic (e.g. reaching my potential) and hierarchical (e.g. learn to be a leader) rather than socially-conscious (e.g. what’s best for all of us?) and egalitarian (e.g. we’re all created equal). Noble wants to build leaders rather than team members. It’s a system rooted in competition not cooperation. Is this the kind of world we want to teach our children to be a part of and grow?

Charters and the Free Market

Charter schools promote a culture of competition rooted in business practices, but not “free market” competition as charter school boosters would have us believe.

There are all sorts of reasons why “more choice” and “right to choose” (code for the surrender of the collective education of American children to private interests in the consumer marketplace) are bad ideas when it comes to schools. But for a moment, let’s imagine that the right to choose a school would be better for everyone based on the “free market” principles that many charter advocates like to call upon. Even as far as this is concerned, practice has fallen woefully short of theory.

According to theorists, the “free market” is supposed to improve services for all through uninhibited competition for customers making rational choices based on perfect information. The market for schooling is no exception. As education policy researchers Natalie Lacireno-Paquet and Charleen Brantly write:

“Applying an economic rationale to schooling, choice policies adopt principles of the marketplace… including that parents will choose the best school (frequently defined as academically superior), that there is abundant information on which to base a decision, and that competition can and will work as intended.”18

But charters are manipulating the market in two critical ways: by trying to trigger emotional choices through marketing (as we have seen in this report) and by withholding or obscuring information that should be available to the public. (For example, charter schools are not placed on “probation” no matter how poorly they perform, and so they avoid the stigma.)19

After studying charter school enrollment and test scores, a local journalist recently concluded: “Basically, all charter schools have gained students, no matter the quality of their education.” Another study in Milwaukee on “school choice” revealed that school parents “make their choices based on concerns about issues other than academics.” Charter school marketing has pushed parents to make emotional decisions based on imperfect information—or a total inversion of the basic free market principle.20

The point here is not to advocate for a “freer” market, where neighborhood schools and charters complete on an equal plane. Marketing is just one example of why the business approach to schooling is wrongheaded. And it’s helping to advance the cause of schools like Noble, with objectives that are less about educating students and more about selling schools and growing market share.21

To realize its growth model, Noble executives have identified two areas of concern for parents and the media: test scores and school safety. They have improved these two aspects of schooling by whatever means necessary (to the detriment of other areas of education and student life), packaged it as “high quality” education, and sold it as “choice” to consumers and decision makers—all in the name of “free market” economic theory.22

Building a marketable product, obstructing the flow of information, playing the media and employing marketing strategies that target human emotion all do not happen by accident. These are conscious manipulations of the market on the part of charter operators. The dirty business of selling charter schools is just more evidence that the “free market” approach to schooling is nothing but a rhetorical smokescreen meant to grow charters and hide a political agenda that is anti-labor and concerns the consolidation of civic power by business elites behind the charter school movement.

Chris Lamberti, Ph.D., is a researcher for Workers United.