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Why Education Needs a New Brand

Instead of piecemeal attempts to fix the crisis in America’s schools, we really need to find a way to make the issues in education tangible enough that the country rallies together for a real solution.

Education has a branding problem. It is not a top-tier issue this election because it doesn’t connect the way it can and should. The public discourse surrounding education, by and large, is depressing and uninspiring.

At NBC’s 2012 Education Nation Summit in New York—which assembled over 300 of the country’s most provocative pundits in academia, government, media, and business—we heard experts cite daunting dropout statistics, corporations bemoan an unskilled workforce, and educators demand resources to repair a struggling system. Amongst the punditry, we wondered: Where are the student-led ideas, the disruptive solutions and true innovation? And when will education finally resonate with people the way gas prices do?

So how do we make people care? Even at the EdNation Summit, which featured renowned speakers from private and public sectors, that was a question left unanswered. The general discourse was more informational than transformational. Yes, we know that our system is broken, our teachers feel undervalued, our funding is dwindling, and our government’s initiatives have let millions of students down. Their message was unanimous: Our schools are failing. In an economy fueled by technology, teachers continue to rely on science curriculum written in 1890, half of students attend community college, and the promise of Common Core has not yet advanced a more rigorous curriculum.

In short, as the private sector rapidly evolves, American education is not keeping up. At the rate we’re going, the next generation will lack the qualifications required to fill jobs and ensure the health of our nation’s future. Of course, this is the kind of desperate rhetoric replayed at every education convention; we’ve already heard researchers speak of our depressing rankings when stacked against countries like Finland (which holds its teachers to uncommonly high standards), and China (whose students attend school for 60 hours a week).

This is not to say that there’s been a lack of solutions proposed, or inspiring individuals working to challenge traditional structures. We’ve seen charter schools like KIPP work tirelessly to close the achievement gap, schools that overturn antiquated systems of learning, and businesses like United Technologies step in to fund over $1 billion in tuition reimbursements. Corporate and public reformers have offered promising ideas. What’s missing is a collective, urgent commitment to change. How can we brand education as an issue that people cannot afford to avoid, an issue that students view as positive, inspirational, and (dare we say) cool?

Take, for example, Viacom’s "Get Schooled" campaign, which partnered celebrities like Wiz Khalifa and Nicki Minaj with political figures to trumpet the importance of graduation through school-based challenges. Or, Nickelodeon’s reality series Let’s Just Play, which empowers kids to lead healthier lifestyles. We know that leveraging the cultural impact of pop moguls like Lady Gaga can empower youth to celebrate individuality and create stronger communities. So why shouldn’t we develop more creative ways to keep education as relevant and necessary to students as, say, purchasing the latest hideous pair of Kanye shoes? Instead of repeating the same dooming statistics, why can’t we sell school like we sell iPhones?

If we could devise provocative and ongoing messaging—a relevant pitch that appeals to people’s immediate lives and illuminates the possibilities rather than the problems in education—we could unify businesses, teachers, communities, and political leaders around a singular goal. We could move learning forward, let go of mediocre standards and encourage transparent communication within districts. By scaling success stories and applauding visionaries who have made real impact, we can compel citizens to start caring. Educational progress has been stifled by red tape, political mistrust, and inefficient practices for too long; these barriers will only be removed when we start viewing education as a priority.

Ultimately, we must re-brand education to invigorate the American public, to generate a sense of optimism, and to partake in risk-taking measures rather than circular, bureaucratic arguments. While the EdNation Summit underscored areas of opportunity in education, there were few discussions on how we can move beyond incremental, predictable improvements to truly revolutionize the education infrastructure. It is not enough to indulge in dreams. We must be able to make mistakes, to let go of what we know is not working, and demand solutions from our state legislatures and most revered brands.

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  • Julieloveshome

    Great article!  I actually just wrote about this topic of education (partly inspired by an article if your magazine) and how it needs an overhaul to keep up with how the world economy and the way we do business is changing, for my column in this week's paper, you can read it on my blog:



  • Tim Holahan

    While I like the vague idea of national excitement about education, I disagree with this article in almost every way possible. In addition, I found it poorly argued, citing no evidence whatsoever.

    Here's what the authors seem to be saying:

     * American education is "broken" and in "crisis".
     * This crisis is due in large part to outmoded pedagogical styles and low standards.
     * Corporate reformers have proposed ideas that are working or will work.
     * The problem is getting the public excited about these ideas., and getting away from the tedious traditional debates.
     * Technology is a big part of the solution to both educating and getting people excited about education.
     * "Student-led ideas" can play a significant role in improving education.
     * "Disruptive" ideas can help solve the education crisis.
     * "Branding" can help make education more popular.These assertions fly in the face of my understanding of these subjects. Point by point: * American education has been savagely unequal for centuries. "Crisis" is not applicable. If it's "broken" now, it's always been. * The primary reason for this inequality is the highly regressive policy of funding schools through local property tax revenues. * High-stakes testing, charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and longer school days and years have not been shown to improve educational performance. * The public seems generally to care about the quality of the schools its kids are in, but not about national, state, or district policy. I can't imagine this changing at any scale. * Experience with technology suggests that it can be a fantastic tool for educated people (including teachers), but that only intelligent beings can transmit intelligence. * Experience with students suggests that they are unlikely to be in a position to "lead change" over the timeframe required to make it permanent. * Treating education like the free market would be irresponsible. Yes, we need to experiment, but we can't take the risks with our students that entrepreneurs take with venture capital. * Intelligent consumers see through the attempt at manipulation that "branding" generally implies.In sum, it may be "depressing and uninspiring" to debate tax policy and other core questions about the responsibilities of government, but unless we do, we aren't going to make change.

  • Christine

    Tim: "branding" is not necessarily a form of
    manipulation, as you put it. Rather, it is a means of elevating education in
    the public eye -- promoting it as an issue of National importance. Right now,
    voters do NOT consider education a top tier issue.  And that’s a big


    Recent polls show that voters care much more about jobs,
    health care, and debt as their most pressing concerns. But the quality of our
    schools is inextricably tied to our future economic and social welfare. This
    begs the question: What will it take to put education in the spotlight? Do we
    need a National “Got STEM” campaign? Well, if you ask me, maybe we do.


    Unless all Americans – and especially kids – view education
    as a critical issue and aspirational concept, we will likely not see the
    results we need. Since you know so much about education already, I probably don’t
    need to tell you that American kids are slipping well behind their
    international peers. Not just in science and math, but in critical thinking and
    creativity as well. This year’s SAT’s saw the worst scores since 1972. So
    public awareness of these issues is key. So is making education something every
    kid and parent aspires to.

  • Brink Of Reality

    The American education system is structured to largely eliminate the public incentive to care about anything beyond spoon-fed talking points.  Less than 10% of students actually receive an education that even involves critical thinking, with the large majority being reprimanded for displaying anything that even resembles original thought. Teachers often aren't allowed to teach anything outside of a very narrow curriculum either, creating a system that rewards mindless teachers for incentivizing mindless students.  Good teachers quit. Good students quit.  "Branding" the topic for digestion by the teeming masses that aren't critically thinking won't magically allow for the right kind of systematic changes to happen.

  • Tammy Tibbetts

    I am fascinated by this topic! If you could see me, I would be raising my hand and jumping up and down and say, "Here, here!! She's the First is doing it!" Fast Company highlighted us in this summer's League of Extraordinary Women issue for this reason -- we are redefining education by combining a global and local impact. We fund girls' tuition in developing world countries, helping them be the first in their families to graduate from high school (or even be literate). By "we," I mean we are a team of Millennials, founded in 2009 by a 23-year-old (me!) 

    In the U.S., we have a sprawling network of campus chapters (35 and counting) and we partner locally with schools that reach girls from lower-income communities. If they stick in school and excel, they will become the first in their families to go to college, 80% of the time. Our brand is FUN (we sponsor girls and teach leadership fundamentals through tie-dye cupcake bake sales, for example) and TRANSPARENT (you see where every dollar goes). And we do it all with social media -- using our online tools to build communities that drive offline action. Check us out at and please let us know how we can join the conversation with Education Nation!

  • Kristin_Bailey1

    Yes!  And I would suggest we start by throwing out teacher certification requirements.  I have an M.Ed. and a Ph.D. but no certification, and I've taught at the college level. I toyed for about 30 seconds with the idea of taking on the mid-career challenge of teaching in Baltimore City's tough public school system, but I have no interest in jumping through a bunch of hoops to get certified. The idea was over before it took wing.  I have to think that a lot more creative and engaged professionals would consider teaching if there was a a less hide-bound and bureaucratic way to bring them into the profession and support them in the classroom.  And surely infusions of people who bring innovations and experiences from outside the academy would be a good thing for our students.

  • anon

    Actually, BCTR and TFA both offer non-traditional routes to enter the classroom without prior certification or educational background (if you're still interested) — Baltimore, in particular, is desperate for fresh teachers with innovative strategies to repair their broken system.  

  • Dr. Ken Beatty

     I'm torn on this one, as would most people who have suffered through countless college and university classes with professors who were experts in respective their fields but had no concept of classroom management, remedial strategies, formative assessment, curriculum development or all the other concerns and experiences that are part of good teacher-training programs. But yet ... I'm sure you and many other professors would bring great things to a classroom. Is there a compromise? A fast-track program + mentorship with a traditionally trained/experienced teacher? Full disclosure, I'm teacher-certified and have a PhD in Education. I taught high school for six years, university undergrads for 15 years  and now teach in a MA TESOL program.