Some schools sell themselves in silly, superficial ways

Back to school shopping in Michigan takes on a whole new meaning in this era of free market school choice.

Parents are still scouting deals on pens, pencils and backpacks, but now schools are also on the prowl for students. The gimmicks they’re using borrow the best—and the worst— from retail.

In the frantic effort to fill seats and meet budget targets, schools, particularly schools in the city of Detroit, give away uniforms and gift cards to places like Foot Locker or Target. They offer bounties to parents who recruit friends and family.

One principal rented an ice cream truck and drove it from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for students to lure to his school.

Too often the best gimmick—not the best school—wins.

“Schools are giving away gym shoes, gift cards and Kindles, among other materialistic objects,” said Jameka Robison, a Detroit mother of two school-age children.  “The thing is, shoes wear out.  The gift cards are useless once funds are depleted. Kindles become obsolete when a new version is released. Education is forever! I'd prefer a school sell me on their science lab, their test scores, even their plan for when a student may become distracted and misbehave.”

Parents and students as customers is the heart of school choice, and it can be a powerful force for reform—if the customers are well informed, know their children’s learning needs and have objective, user-friendly and truthful information. Or if all the choices in the market are good choices.

But if parents struggle to make sound choices—and most do—then the power of the market to improve the quality of education is diminished and schools are reduced to selling themselves in silly and superficial ways just to get noticed.

“I recall being sold on skylights so the children could acquire Vitamin D,” said Robison.  After making a disappointing school choice in the suburbs for her son, Robison learned more about what differentiates good schools from bad ones and enrolled her two children in University Prep Science & Math (USPM) elementary and high school in Detroit. (*Disclaimer—Margaret Trimer-Hartley is a member of the Advisory Board for Bridge Magazine and also  superintendent of UPSM.)

What makes a school good?

The question has been discussed, dissected and debated for as long as public schools have been in existence.  Yet, there is no national consensus on what a school should be. There are, however, many schools that succeed at many things—workforce development, college prep, community service, citizenship. Today the choices are vast and parents can choose a school—and assess it—based on what is important to them.

One thing is certain:  customer satisfaction alone is not a reliable indicator of student achievement or school performance.

Thousands of parents keep their children in low performing and failing schools, particularly in Detroit, while seats in higher performing schools sit empty.  And polling shows they have no intention of moving them—even when they acknowledge the schools are low performing.

Ignorance, low expectations, transportation—or lack thereof—safety and personal relationships drive the selection of schools far more than academic performance, instructional model or student interest and ability.

Organizations like Excellent Schools Detroit (ESD) and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA) are trying to change that by educating parents and influencing their decisions for the better.

The ESD Scorecard, released this month, is one effort.  The Scorecard literally grades schools in the Detroit area on culture, student proficiency and student growth and publishes a directory of results with the goal of steering more families to high-performing schools and away from low-performing schools.

The tool isolates five essential elements of a good school.  They are:

  • Effective leaders
  • Collaborative teachers
  • Involved families
  • Supportive environment
  • Ambitious instruction

Jocelyn Brown, another Detroit parent, appreciates such tools, but said savvy parents do not rely only on data or what is written about schools.

“They go by word of mouth and what they see,” she said.  “Look at it this way, if every poll or column written about Detroit were accurate then it would be impossible to believe there are intelligent children being educated here.”

Educators often say that children rise or fall based on what the adults in their lives expect of them.  Schools are the same.

The more parents hold schools to high expectations and demand that each child’s academic and social needs be met, the better schools will become.

On the other hand, the more they jump at gift cards and ice cream bars the more schools will deliver gimmicks and goodies at the expense of quality instruction.

Margaret Trimer-Hartley is superintendent of the University Prep Science & Math Academy in Detroit and a former head of communications for the Michigan Education Association. She was also an education reporter at the Detroit Free Press. 

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Comments

Mike Stephens
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 9:57am
I would like to hear the list of schools that were discovered "bribing" students to enroll.
Ireene Marx
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 10:46am
Reminds me of the fairy tale, Pied Piper of Hamlin.
Matt
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 12:05pm
Which is better? Parents and kids choosing a school based on goodies, or a bureaucrat/politician picking their school based on their zip code? At least it's clear who to give credit or blame.
Charles Richards
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 12:22pm
Margaret Trimer-Hartley has given us a clear-eyed, frightening assessment of the judgment of too many parents. After noting that "Thousands of parents keep their children in low performing and failing schools, particularly in Detroit, while seats in higher performing schools sit empty." she goes on to say, "And polling shows they have no intention of moving them—even when they acknowledge the schools are low performing." That's appalling. It will be of considerable interest to see how much the Excellent Schools Detroit Scorecard influences enrollment this fall. But why do parents keep their children in low performing schools? Is the need for solidarity and togetherness that compelling? is there a reluctance to stand out, or discover that others' kids are more talented than your own? That group loyalty is important in Detroit is supported by the fact that most of Benny Napoleon's support came from his neighborhood. But cultural isolation, even self-imposed, is a severe handicap. Thomas Sowell, in a recent column, noted that northern, urban blacks scored better than rural southern whites on IQ tests given as part of the screening process during World War I. After noting that isolated mountain communities lagged behind culturally, he says, "As distinguished French historian Fernand Braudel put it, "Mountain life persistently lagged behind the plain." He then goes on to say, "Against this background, racial and ethnic leaders around the world who promote a separate cultural "identity" are inflicting a handicap on their own people. Isolation has held back many peoples in many lands, for centuries. But such social and cultural isolation serves the interests of today's ethnic leaders." Margaret Trimer-Hartley, after pointing out the tools of Excellent Schools Detroit, says that, "Jocelyn Brown, another Detroit parent, appreciates such tools, but said savvy parents do not rely only on data or what is written about schools. “They go by word of mouth and what they see,” she said. “Look at it this way, if every poll or column written about Detroit were accurate then it would be impossible to believe there are intelligent children being educated here.” There is certainly much to be said in favor of relying on what you see and the judgment of those you trust, but it does seem to be the case that, although there are undoubtedly intelligent children in Detroit, not many of them are being well-educated.
Sara H
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 2:11pm
It has been commented by many that parents choose to keep their kids at failing schools. For many it is not a choice but their only option. I work at a school that accepts a large number of school of choice students. We always have a number return to their neighborhood school with in the first weeks because they lack transportation. Parents have no choice but to send their children to the closest school that they can walk to or be bused. Transporting the student to an out of district school is not an option. So insteead if treating schools as a free market system, a product that can be sold; let focus on funding equal quality schools in every neighborhood.
Jeff Salisbury
Thu, 08/22/2013 - 4:17pm
Is that so? Well maybe that's because critics and so-called "reformers" are selling public schools short in silly, superficial ways.
jordanc
Sun, 08/25/2013 - 10:49am
This article points out the worst of schools of choice and charter schools. School reform based on the market place and competition is destroying neighborhood schools in poor and urban districts. It is creating winners and losers in education, districts, and students. Students in poor urban districts are the biggest losers. The idea that parents choose to leave their kids in poor schools is at best naïve. Parents in many many places are just struggling to survive. They are working 2-3 jobs or not working at all. Those not working at all do not really see the advantage of education and why should they? Those working and barely scraping by have other priorities like getting food on the table. On the other hand, I'm not totally against schools of choice or charter schools. The problem comes when the best parents and their children are taken out of a neighborhood school, what happens to that school? Those schools are being closed, increasing class sizes, and resorting to drills and exercises intended to raise the all important test scores just to stay a school instead of providing a well rounded education. Selling our children to the highest bidder with trinkets just shows how bad schools want those students - or rather the money that comes with them. Something is terribly wrong and getting worse.
Rita Casey
Sun, 08/25/2013 - 11:29am
When market forces are considered to be a good thing by some education reformers, why is it surprising that marketing strategies such as free give-aways are put into play? I, too, am appalled at such a waste of funds, but such things are to be expected when education is turned into a business, rather than something for the common good.
Tom
Sun, 08/25/2013 - 12:20pm
Parents that send their kids to schools that bribe them to enroll should not be able to send their kids to the "better" schools in our area. Then again, more-and-more parents in the "better" areas are starting to get after their school boards for allowing kids from outside of their district to come in funding or no funding. You folks that are under the illusion that Governor Snyder and the GOP will make vouchers a reality will see it stopped in its tracks when the parents in the better areas revolt against seeing kids that don't belong in their districts. Sorry, you may think that's racists or elitist, but some of you failed to notice the failed state-wide EAA attempt last December when those "well-to-do" parents made the phones ring off the hook in Lansing. Wait until this blows up in the next few months.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 08/25/2013 - 12:25pm
This article points out the worst of schools of choice and charter schools. School reform based on the market place and competition is destroying neighborhood schools in poor and urban districts. It is creating winners and losers in education, districts, and students. Students in poor urban districts are the biggest losers. The idea that parents choose to leave their kids in poor schools is at best naïve. Parents in many many places are just struggling to survive. They are working 2-3 jobs or not working at all. Those not working at all do not really see the advantage of education and why should they? Those working and barely scraping by have other priorities like getting food on the table. On the other hand, I’m not totally against schools of choice or charter schools. The problem comes when the best parents and their children are taken out of a neighborhood school, what happens to that school? Those schools are being closed, increasing class sizes, and resorting to drills and exercises intended to raise the all important test scores just to stay a school instead of providing a well-rounded education. Selling our children to the highest bidder with trinkets just shows how bad schools want those students – or rather the money that comes with them. Something is terribly wrong and getting worse.
Nancy Derringer
Sun, 08/25/2013 - 8:17pm
Mr. Jordan, First-time commenters always go to moderation, and I apologize for the delay in getting yours on the site.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 09/08/2013 - 10:48pm
No problem. But I have commented here many times in the past, which is why it surprised me.