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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.