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Selling School: The Marketing of Public Education

reviewed by Mark Hlavacik October 11, 2018

coverTitle: Selling School: The Marketing of Public Education
Author(s): Catherine DiMartino & Sarah Butler Jessen
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758884, Pages: 208, Year: 2018
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The marketing of school is as old as formal education. Promoting his academy in fourth century B.C. Athens, the rhetorician Isocrates (in Against the Sophists, trans. 1929) claimed that “the study of political discourse can help more than any other thing to stimulate and form” the qualities of “sobriety and justice.” Equally old is the criticism of such marketing. In the same text, Isocrates derided his competitors for “making greater promises than they can possibly fulfill,” such as guaranteeing that their lessons would make students happy and prosperous. In a timely and revelatory look at education advertising, Catherine DiMartino and Sarah Butler Jessen show that for all that has changed about the marketing of schools, some things have not.

Selling School: The Marketing of Public Education surveys the growing public relations industry in education. In cities with an abundance of charter school offerings where publicly funded schools must compete with each other for enrollment, DiMartino and Jessen find a parallel abundance of “edvertising,” their term for “the combined practice of marketing, branding, and advertising in education” (p. 4). Bringing together analytical perspectives from economics, marketing, and organizational psychology, DiMartino and Jessen address a series of practical and ethical issues that have arisen from this competition between traditional public schools, independent charter schools, and schools affiliated with Charter Management Organizations (CMOs).

Following an introduction that describes the philosophy of edvertisement as well as the theoretical framework of their book, DiMartino and Jessen organize their survey of the contemporary educational advertising industry into seven chapters. The first reviews the process of edvertising, giving attention to its various parts, including branding exercises, the identification of target populations, and the positioning of brands against each other. Chapter Two concerns the figure of the public relations specialist in education, addressing questions about who does edvertising work, where are they located within their educational organizations, what kind of work they do, and how much they are paid.

With the basics established, Chapter Three provides an eye-opening look at edvertising budgets in New Orleans, Washington, DC, Massachusetts, and New York. Noting that “budgets are reflective of organizational values and priorities” (p. 71), Jessen and DiMartino report some startling figures. For example, one Success Academy location in Brooklyn, New York spent over $2,500 per-student in a single year on edvertising, while another spent more than $2,900.00 that same year. Figures like these are vital for the public discussion of policies regarding publicly funded education and demonstrate the need for this book.

Chapter Four concerns the activities of edvertising across media formats from newsprint to Facebook, and Chapter Five looks at the effort to cultivate a sense of prestige, especially for charter schools, as a common marketing tactic. Together, these two chapters help clarify one core finding in Selling School, that Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) are leading the way in school marketing by leaps and bounds. In their survey of school marketing on YouTube, DiMartino and Jessen found that 73% of CMO schools posted professionally developed videos compared with just 9% of public schools of choice and 0% of both traditional public schools and independent charter schools. Extending their analysis for further comparison, they found that only 13% of private schools engage in this edvertising strategy (p. 95).

Chapters Six and Seven both raise further ethical questions about the current state of school marketing. For Chapter Six, DiMartino and Jessen interviewed 22 teachers in New Orleans and found that many of them were expected to participate in student recruitment. One first-year teacher reported that she was instructed to do recruiting work during her planning time and was told that she would only be allowed to stop once she had successfully enrolled a kindergartener. As DiMartino and Jessen put it: “Recruiting is organizationally more important than high-quality teaching” for this teacher’s school (pp. 114-116).

Chapter Seven examines the professionally-produced recruitment videos of several CMOs. Employing an analytical method used by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to determine the net impression an advertisement leaves on a reasonable consumer, DiMartino and Jessen found that the ads mostly sold their schools on the promise of admission to elite universities. Although some of the CMOs they analyzed could boast strong college matriculation rates, others could not, and still others lacked strong levels of college completion. In pursuit of enrollment, many CMOs appear, like the teachers Isocrates condemned, willing to promise successes they cannot ensure. As a result, DiMartino and Jessen conclude Chapter Seven by calling on the FTC to engage in stronger oversight of questionable edvertising appeals.

Altogether, Selling School offers a compelling examination of the contemporary practices of school marketing, including some disquieting findings that warrant the attention of all of who have a stake in publicly funded education. For administrators, teachers, and those planning a career in education, Selling School can be profitably read as a field guide to the world of edvertising that is reshaping their profession. For policymakers, parents, and scholars, Selling School would most ideally be encountered alongside works of educational philosophy or communication ethics that would help them think through the social and ethical issues raised by the economic and organizational perspective DiMartino and Jessen chose for their study. For anyone invested in the consequences of school choice policy, Selling School is mandatory reading.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 11, 2018
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22528, Date Accessed: 10/19/2018 3:17:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Mark Hlavacik
    Univeristy of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    MARK HLAVACIK is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the Univeristy of North Texas and author of Assigning Blame: The Rhetoric of Education Reform (Harvard Education Press).
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