Assessing the Impact of School-Based Marketing Efforts

Olson Beal, H. K., & Beal, B. D. 2016. Assessing the impact of school-based marketing efforts: A case study of a foreign language immersion program in a school choice environment. Peabody Journal of Education, 91(1): 81-99. [journal]

The paper is part of a special issue entitled “The Role of Marketing in Public Education: Comparisons and Implications.” The guest editors for this issue were Heather K. Olson Beal, Mary “Molly” Stewart, and Chris Lubienski.


The marketization of K-12 education has led to an increase in school-based marketing efforts. Relatively little research, however, has examined how public schools market themselves, who is involved in marketing, and how these marketing efforts impact key stakeholders, including school administrators, teachers, students and parents. We explore these questions in this qualitative study of school-based marketing efforts at South Boulevard, a foreign language immersion magnet elementary school in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. Analysis of data from participant observation and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders reveals that administrators, teachers, parents, and students actively participated in marketing and recruiting, and that these efforts were associated with a number of implicit and explicit costs. Introducing two concepts from the business literature—business-level strategy and brand communities—yields a number of observations and policy questions. Finally, the shifting role of parents and administrators in an increasingly market-like school choice environment is discussed.

From the Introduction:

In the past, attendance zones made marketing and recruiting efforts unnecessary (Gorard, 1999; Henig, Holyoke, Brown, & Lacireno-Paquet, 2005; Weinberg, 1968). However, the rise of NCLB-inspired school choice options has pushed marketing and recruiting into the foreground. As Lubienski (2007) noted, “The notion of marketing is central to—albeit understated in—any market-oriented reform agenda for education” (p. 121). If competition in K-12 education produces a marketing function similar to other industries, marketing expenses could consume 10% or more of total K-12 spending, or nearly $60 billion of the approximately $600 billion spent annually. The emergence of a significant marketing function in K-12 education also has the capacity to fundamentally shape a number of different aspects of K-12 education, including content, pedagogical strategies, discipline policies, teacher preparation, and funding decisions.

Although parents may see marketing and recruiting efforts as an important source of information, we know from the private sector that marketing claims may be misleading and include subtle signals that may disadvantage certain populations (Lubienski, Gulosino, & Weitzel, 2009; Lubienski & Weitzel, 2009). Despite the increasing prevalence and significance of school-based marketing, little research examines how U.S. public schools market themselves or how these efforts shape the schooling experience (Johnsson & Lindgren, 2010; Lubienski, 2005; Marginson, 1999). Scholars in countries outside the U.S., however, have done significantly more work on this topic (Drew, 2013; Gulson & Webb, 2013; Johnsson & Lindgren, 2010; Oplatka & Hemsley-Brown, 2012; Wilkins, 2011; Windle & Stratton, 2013). As Oplatka and Hemsley-Brown (2004) suggest, “the choice is not whether or not to study the marketing of schools, but whether to do it well or poorly” (p. 392).

This study provides an in-depth ethnographic description of how one school in an active school choice environment implemented a school-based marketing and recruiting program. It contributes to the growing literature on school choice in a number of different ways. First, this study is based on qualitative data collected from a single school during a year of on-site fieldwork and participant observation, and therefore offers unique insight into the experiences and processes that form the basis for broader theorization (Cucchiara, 2013; Edelberg & Kurland, 2009; Posey-Maddox, 2014). Second, this study took place in Louisiana, a state with the third highest private school attendance rate in the nation (19.1%) (Rees, 2012, May 6). More specifically, this study took place in East Baton Rouge Parish (EBRP), where twenty-nine percent of school-age children attend private schools—nearly three times the national average of 11%. Different policy approaches to school choice include residential school choice (Greene & Winters, 2003; Hoxby, 1998), magnet schools, charter schools, voucher programs, and private school tuition tax credits, among others; each local choice environment represents a unique mix of different approaches. The educational marketplace in Baton Rouge is primarily comprised of a majority-Black public school system, majority-White private schools, public magnet schools, and a growing number of public charter schools. Baton Rouge represents an unusually active school choice environment; thus, this study contributes to a better understanding of how choice policies affect school-based marketing efforts.

Third, the authors (a married couple), whose children attended school at the study site, were able to leverage their role as parent-researchers to provide a unique vantage point for the study; the advantages and limitations of this role are discussed in the research design section. Finally, this study introduces two concepts from outside the education field that have the potential to inform research on school choice: 1) business-level strategy from the strategic management literature (Porter, 1980), and 2) brand communities from the marketing literature (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001; Schouten & McAlexander, 1995). Drawing on business theory is appropriate, given that marketing is a business construct and that the objective of market-based school reform is often to engender business-like behavior (DiMartino & Jessen, 2014).

From the special issue proposal:

An important policy narrative in K-12 public education is that market-like competition is necessary to hold schools accountable and force them to improve. The persistence of the achievement gap and the perception that U.S. public schools are losing their competitive edge in the global economy has added urgency to calls for market-based reforms. Some worry, however, that the increased focus on corporate-like goals (e.g. standardization, efficiency, and profit) necessitated by these reforms may have unintended negative consequences for American public schools and may lead to an erosion of social cohesion and general commitment to democratic processes. Despite these concerns, these reforms, especially school choice in the form of charter schools and virtual schools, are spreading at a rapid pace to urban school districts across the country, from New York City to Los Angeles, and from Detroit to Houston.

A necessary component of such reforms is a strategic focus on marketing choice programs to parents—a focus with which public schools have little if any experience. . . . Marketing can serve as an essential source of information for parents as they make important decisions about where to send a child to school, but, as we know from the private sector, that information may be misleading, and marketing can also include more subtle signals that may exclude particular families. Furthermore, while some school choice advocates see expanded school marketing initiatives as proof that market forces working, by forcing schools to self-assess and prioritize, others suggest that we need more empirical research on the relationship between schools and marketing in order to gain deeper insights into the incentives with which schools are grappling. Thus, as privatization and corporatization of our public school system moves forward, we must increase our understandings of the educational implications of the marketization of schooling that educational research has only begun to address. . . .

This themed issue will bring together seven studies with a range of methodologies, conceptual frames, and settings, including key reform districts, national charter management organizations (CMOs), locally-owned magnet schools, virtual schools, and out-of-school providers. Each paper offers nuanced insights regarding and implications of marketing in public schooling contexts.

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