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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's The Difference?

Given that there has been considerably more conformity on what schools teach and uniformity of how they teach, with a growing imposition of standardized curricula across all districts in a state or even the nation (e.g. Common Core Learning Standards), and the current economic climate that has caused school districts to pare their instructional menus of programs that might otherwise distinguish them from other schools, there is less differentiation among public schools for the consumer (parents). Consequently, this widening difference between public and non-public schools, operating relatively free of externally mandated programs and practices, may actually help competitors of public schools market their programs and further undermine the efforts of public schools to retain their present learner population and attract new customers (learners). This places a premium on accentuating the value added impact of relationships between and among the inhabitants of the school. 

Let's turn to Theodore Levitt, author of The Marketing Imagination, for business advice that could be converted for the benefit of public schools.

"The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer. You provide the customer with what is wanted rather than blindly with what you want to produce.

When the substantive content – the generic product – of competing vendors is scarcely differentiable, sales power migrates to all other differentiating ways in which buyers are likely to be influenced.

The generic core seldom has competitive viability by itself. It must be differentiated from competitive offerings."

Think about the message contained in those sentences. With the structure of schools becoming more alike by the day (with differences virtually limited to the color and number of bricks and mortar) the personality of schools becomes the primary point of differentiation and an opportunity to elude the confines.  Fortunately, schools have more influence over their personality than their structure. Now, more than ever, schools must exploit that element in order to flourish in a competitive marketplace. We are in a position to market our diversity of cultures and promote our accessibility and accommodation.

Imagine that you are a visitor to your school. Act like you've never experienced the school - like a parent would who is interested in moving to the school district and seeks information to assist in decision making regarding a relocation. 

Check out the school's website. Is it visually appealing, inviting and informative? Does it offer two-way communication? Is it user friendly and easy to navigate? Does it provide access to staff members? Does it link to other supportive and related sites?

Call the school district. Is the voice on the receiving end a real voice or a recorded voice supplying a lengthy list of contacts (with the most important and more frequently used contacts listed last)? How long does it take to reach a "live" person? What kind of music plays in the background while you're on hold?  How are you greeted when you do reach a "live" person?

Speak with realtors. Did they include the school in their initial presentation of the house to you? What do they "know" about the school (besides, "It's a good school.")? What inferences can you draw from what they say, or don't say (or their reaction - facial expression) when you first mention the school? Do they have readily available artifacts and resources (school newsletters, school calendars,...) from the school in their office?

Visit the school. Who greets you, and how do they greet you? What's the first thing you see when you enter the school, and how does that reflect on the school (for instance, do you find a display of sports trophies long before you discover academic awards)? Do people - learners and staff - make eye contact with you? How do members of the school community interact with each other during your visit? Are you allowed or encouraged to visit during the school day? Are you invited to visit a classroom in session? What do you see (or not see) on the hallway walls during your visit? Is there an open two-way verbal interaction during the visit or do you feel that you're receiving a canned description of the school? Can you notice any strands or stories emerging from the conversation you've had with the school representative that might indicate a sense of values and beliefs present in the school? Were you introduced to an administrator during the visit? Did anyone give you copies of a recent school newsletter or school calendar or summary of test scores or any other sources of information?

There are many other points of interest and moments of truth that once can acquire as they explore a school. I imagine that school staff members generally take their organizational culture for granted and don't see how it might represent a significant source of differentiation to consumers interested in selecting schools to shape the future of their children. Taking the school's personality for granted does little to help a school distinguish itself and sustain a viable learner population. In summary, I feel that public schools have too long taken the position once held by other professionals, notably doctors and lawyers, who felt that it was unprofessional to "advertise" their business. Why have we waited so long, even after the aforementioned professions, to distinguish our services and market our opportunities?  

Regardless of state and federal initiatives, and no matter what new and exciting research based programs and practices are implemented, success in the teaching and learning equation ultimately rests on relationships. And, one can not merely assume that every adult enters the education profession with both a love of children and an understanding of how to nurture and maintain effective interpersonal relationships. Where does that leave schools and classrooms that do not sustain constructive and positive learning environments?

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