Posts Tagged 'K-12'

Are Teenagers Widgets?

Many educational strategy proposals to better engage students assume that all students are similar in how they are motivated to do their best. Yet, students are likely to respond to educational challenges put before them very differently. Students may be engaged in different ways and perhaps not fit into a “one best model” of schooling. Ask any parent that has more than one child, and he/she is likely to tell you just how different their kids are.

Crux Research recently completed a project for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled What Teens Want From Their Schools: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement. This project was based on more than 2,000 interviews and six focus groups of US High School Students. A central feature of the project was a segmentation model that highlighted that although there are many aspects of student engagement that students hold in common, students tend to be strongly associated with one of six primary engagement tendencies. In short, it is unlikely that one model of schooling can be optimal for all children.

A full report of this project is available here.

Does Class Size Matter?

Reducing class sizes is a commonly discussed goal in education. However, there may not be a more consequential educational issue where the academic research available is a poorer match to anecdotal evidence than the issue of class size.

Ask any teacher, administrator, or parent you know what they would prefer, and almost all of them will say that smaller class sizes are more conducive to learning than larger class sizes. Peruse any higher education website and you will find most try to trumpet their low student to faculty ratio. And, intuitively, it just makes sense that students will learn better if there are fewer of them in a class.

But, there is actually very little academic evidence that class size matters. Our review of the literature indicates that there is some evidence (gathered long ago) that smaller class sizes have an effect at the youngest grade levels, but little or inconclusive evidence that smaller class sizes matter among older students.

Yet a debate rages regarding class sizes. Teacher unions are understandably in favor of lowering class sizes, as this makes the job of the teacher easier and increases the numbers of teachers that need to be hired. Administrators seem to also favor lowering class sizes, but are wary to do so without much evidence indicating that it will improve academic achievement. Politicians favor it as well, as reducing class sizes certainly sounds like ad admirable goal to pursue.

What is undebatable is that there are significant costs involved in decreasing class sizes. Reducing class sizes means building more classrooms, maintaining larger facilities, and hiring more teachers.  The costs of reducing class sizes are potentially large, which is why it is surprising the issue doesn’t have much academic study and thought behind it.

We feel the issue has been oversimplified. Like most things we study, there are likely decreasing returns as class size is reduced. In other words, there is likely an ideal level for class size. There is probably a point where a class size can be too small, as tiny class sizes don’t allow for student-to-student learning and collaboration, small group projects, etc. As class size increases, it likely hits an ideal point, where the learning efficiency of the classroom is maximized. And, invariably, a class size can grow too large, where supervision of students is compromised.

It is possible that the academic studies that are available have not investigated a wide enough range of class sizes and therefore have not been able to spot this ideal point. Since no school district could (by law) change its average class size by more than a few students, academic researchers are likely concentrating on class size differences that are not large enough to show much of an effect.

However, in the debate over class sizes, there is an important issue we have never seen discussed. It is that the ideal class size is likely not the same for all situations. Even within a school, the ideal class size likely varies by the subject taught, the academic capabilities of the students, the grade level, and importantly, the particular strengths and weaknesses of the teacher.

For example, why do we presume that the same class size is needed for English as is needed for Math, or Foreign Languages? Why do we presume that 7th graders need the same class sizes as 12th graders? Or that a first-year teacher will be most efficient teaching the same class size as a proven teacher with 20 years of experience? Or that every student benefits most from the same class sizes?

We ignore the variability that is inherent in the process.  And, we don’t give our school managers (School Principals) much leeway in how they can manage their resources to take into account this variability.

We’d like to see Principals given a lot more latitude over how to best utilize their staff. In any organization whose success is dependent on the capabilities and productivity of its workers, the main task of a manager is to understand his/her staff’s capabilities and knowing how to properly deploy human resources.

Currently, Principals are given almost no latitude regarding class sizes. The Principal is forced to take a cookie cutter approach – with all teachers being assigned virtually the same number of students. A teacher is largely given the same responsibility on his/her first day on the job as his/her last day. Regardless of his/her subject, experience level, talents, teaching style, grade level, etc.  The teaching staff is the most important asset a Principal has to achieve academic excellence, and it is time to give Principals more responsibility in this area.

Class size absolutely matters. Just not in the same way and same level for every school, teacher, and student.

Does a Focus on One Genre of Music Hurt Music Education?


It is no secret that music education in America faces many threats. Curricula have been narrowed and a focus on testing in core subjects has diverted many educational resources to science and math education. Some would say this is for the better. Others would say that our children need to be well-rounded, and arts and music education are central to maintaining our culture. Plenty of studies underscore the importance of music education and its beneficial effects on learning for other subjects.

Kids and teens have an almost inbred interest in music. Thanks to the wonders of file sharing, Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes, most of them have thousands of songs on their playlists. Having ear buds and cords coming out of their ears is as common to them as wearing shoes is for the rest of us.

Ask any teen what is on their song list and you’ll find a wide range of genres and artists. It seems that tastes in music have broadened quite a bit over the past couple of generations. The only thing you’ll find in common on these playlists is that one genre is specifically missing from most of them:  Classical music.

The decline in music education comes both from the supply side (schools not offering as many opportunities) and the demand side (kids not being as interested in playing instruments and parents not caring enough to press to save the programs). Perhaps the decline in participation is inevitable, but I have a feeling that if enough students and parents wanted them and clamored for them, music programs would be expanding and not contracting.

A key contributor to this problem may be the types of instruments we offer to students. Ask any teenager to name which instrument they would play if they had the talent and opportunity. The vast majority would play back to you what they are hearing on their iPods: electric guitars, keyboards, bass, drum kits, ever turntables and mixers. How many of them would respond with instruments like the violin, the cello, or the clarinet?

Yet for some reason those are the types of instruments we offer students in school. Almost exclusively. Why is that? I am not quite sure when it happened, but a long time ago classical music interests completely took over the direction of music education in this country.

Ray Charles (quoting someone else I believe) once said that there are really only two types of music: good music and bad music. He is right. We need to get over a snobby perception that the local Philharmonic is somehow producing better and more culturally significant music than the local hip-hop artist or the busker playing for dollars in the subway.

What matters for our children is that they learn to create and have an opportunity to work to improve their skill.  And ultimately contribute to our culture.

Music educators should learn from the changes in physical education over the past twenty years. In many districts, the physical education program is no longer seen as “play time” and as an opportunity to give students a quick break from their studies. Physical education is now seen as a way to expose young people to wellness education and to learn the value of teamwork. Its goal is to expose students to a healthy lifestyle and hopefully to impress the value of keeping fit well beyond their school years.

Why shouldn’t music education do something similar? We should be trying to spark young people’s interest in music. We can only succeed in this by incorporating instruments they like to hear and genres relevant to them into the curriculum. Expose them to a wide range of genres and help them understand the cultural significance of music. Classical music’s historical background is important to understand as it has played a key role in history. But, so has jazz, big bands, blues, folk, rock and roll, and hip-hop. In fact, a case could be made that these genres are not only more interesting to students than classical, but more directly tied to our history and culture because they are more recent.

It isn’t hard to see that these genres have a strong chance at igniting a lifelong interest in music and creativity, as they are what young people flock to on their own time. Our goal should be to get students motivated to play and appreciate music across their entire lifetimes.

We can only meet this goal by getting over a perception that some types of genres and instruments are superior to others. This won’t happen as long as the one genre children have an almost universal dislike for is the only one we teach.

Marketing in Schools – A Necessary Evil?


The youth marketing industry’s practices are coming under increased scrutiny by the media, academics, and government. Issues such as increased commercialism directed towards children, online privacy, marketing in schools, the content of children’s media and advertising, and childhood obesity have become part of a national discourse.

This post is going to stress the topic of marketing in schools.

There has been a lot of information and misinformation placed into the public debate regarding commercialism in schools. At Crux, we feel we are in a unique position to comment. We have worked with and for school districts for many years and have close relationships with many school administrators. At the same time, we work with some of the most respected brands in youth marketing. So, the topic of marketing in schools is one we contend with often.

Commercial presence in schools is not something new. Local corporations have a genuine interest in the quality of their school districts. Not only are companies significant taxpayers that want to be sure their taxes are being spent wisely, but the quality of the workforce they can attract, local housing values, and quality of life for their employees depends greatly on the schools.

In terms of brands in schools, there has been marketing in schools for a long time, but it has really been the last 20 years or so that commercial interests really started to see schools as an untapped resource. I don’t think too many people would deny that the level of marketing activity in schools has been on the rise. You can notice this in your own travels in schools. You just “see” brands in school environments much more than you used to.

I thought I would share some of my own anecdotal conversations I’ve had with school Superintendents.

First, when I myself first starting “selling” our research to school leaders, I learned right away that the “pitch” had to be couched in a certain way. I had to show them how the research would lead to greater staff productivity or greater parental involvement in the schools. And, it was the moment that I had information that showed that our studies directly lead to greater student achievement that our services got easy to promote.

Which leads me to an important point: the motivations of school leaders are very pure – in a way you don’t see often in the corporate world. They are all about the kids. If you have a program and want to win over a school administrator’s heart, show them how it benefits the kids. Financial issues are very real to them – but are not what makes them tick.

Second, if you think you have pressures in your job, consider theirs. I’ve been to dozens of school board meetings. These are people that are at the center of many controversies. They are negotiating with the union. A parent has a concern. They have a crazy school board member to appease. The governor has given them some more unfunded mandates. They are adapting to new Common Core Standards. In short, they have a lot of battles to fight. Don’t assume that yours is going to make their priority list. So I learned that early on – if you are doing something that creates controversy, they will shy away.

Budgeting and school law are a big part of their job. But, it is also a part of their job they hate.

Finally, and probably the salient point for those who want to market their brands in schools, is when you speak to Superintendents about marketing in schools, the ONLY thing they will play back are the financial benefits. I have never met a school official that thought allowing marketers into schools is a good idea. But I have met plenty that feel it is a better option than making further cuts to the school music program.

And that is a perception that needs to change.

So, why do we see corporate involvement in schools? First and foremost, school budget issues are very real and acute. But, there is also a sense that society has become so commercial with advertising clutter everywhere, that allowing it into schools isn’t such a big deal.

And, the youth market is seen as a growth area – more and more marketers are developing plans for the youth demographic. The youth market has become increasingly lucrative. At the same time, schools have become relatively poor and more focused on their finances.

This makes a point that I think many people in the corporate world don’t realize. Typically, somewhere between 80% and 90% of the annual school budget is not under the discretion of school leaders. Between the union contract and state mandates, there really is little discretionary spending. The budget situation became dire in the recent recession and has yet to pick up.

So, what we see are schools taking some desperate measures to stay afloat fiscally. Some of these measures would be quite comical if they weren’t true. We have found cases where schools have hired marketing firms to sell naming rights to their buildings and facilities, have held fundraising telethons, etc.  We have even found a case where parents held a blood plasma drive in order to make enough money to save a teacher’s job.

Now certainly all schools aren’t this desperate, but they are certainly not flush with cash either.

So, let’s think about it a little more rationally. Why would educators want corporate involvement in schools?

Certainly, financial considerations are important. But there is also a big trend towards narrowing the curriculum to core subjects. Schools are being held accountable for test scores in math and reading.  So their resources are flowing to core subjects. This is putting non-core subjects (music, languages, arts) all at greater risk.

And, since the economy hasn’t been great recently, taxpayers have not been supporting tax increases like they once would.

At the same time, corporations want to be in schools like never before. Young people spend about a fifth of their lives in schools, and schools are about the most uncluttered advertising environment available.  Also, to some extent the medium is the message – an advertising message delivered in schools carries an implied endorsement.

Finally, traditional advertising venues are not working – at least not as well as they used to. Media has fragmented and the way young people use media has fundamentally changed. It is a bit of a mess.

So, companies do a variety of things. They place ads in the schools, on buses, on scoreboards, and on book covers. They distribute product samples in schools and place yearbook ads. They work with textbook publishers to get their products mentioned in books. They sponsor programs like the High School Heisman, Odyssey of the Mind, National Science Bowl, and National Spelling Bee.

And, in what might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, they establish vending machine contracts and pouring rights for soft drink companies. This created such controversy that sugary drinks have been disappearing rapidly from school hallways.

It is easy for the youth marketing industry to look like a villain, but there are some strong arguments that can be made in support of advertising in schools:

  • Companies provide materials and financial support that would not be available otherwise.
  • Commercial materials present an opportunity for teachers to discuss media literacy in their lessons.
  • Teachers are capable of evaluating materials for commercial bias and using materials appropriately.
  • Businesses have unique information and resources that improve education – often better resources on some topics than educator’s have.
  • Problems with marketing in schools have been exaggerated. Commercialism is everywhere today and our kids can handle it, perhaps better than adults.

Of course, there are strong arguments against having a commercial presence in schools:

  • We are ceding control of education to people outside of education, and education is supposed to be locally controlled. Education isn’t and shouldn’t be a business.
  • School marketing efforts can compromise the integrity of education.
  • Ads in schools imply an endorsement from the school, which isn’t accurate.
  • There is a blurring of the line between education and advertising and kids don’t understand the difference, particularly younger kids.
  • Teachers are not appropriate gatekeepers as they have no training in this area.
  • We are promoting materialism.

So, how can youth marketers get on the right side of these issues?

Well, some ways of reaching young people in schools are seen as more appropriate than others. Sponsoring sports competitions, providing loyalty programs that reward schools for gathering product labels, purchasing sports equipment with brand names on them, school book fairs, and advertising in school newspapers tend to all be seen as appropriate tactics to reach children in schools.

Advertising on school buses, advertising on school book covers, and integrating brands into instructional support material and lessons tend to be seen as inappropriate.

So, below is our 6 step guide for organizations who seek to further their brands in a school environment.

  1. First, realize that to date opposition to in-school marketing has effectively positioned youth marketers as the “bad guys.” It doesn’t have to be that way, but the industry is starting from a negative position.
  2. Improve PR:  It is not inconceivable that marketers can be positioned as a “savior” and not a “villain.”  Done right, school marketing provides more than financial support – it can provide educational support as well.
  3. Stop doing the “really dumb” things. Your involvement has to be more than just advertising. It has to further an educational mission at the same time.
  4. Clearly delineate commercial messages – don’t “veil” them in curriculum, place them in contexts that are obvious advertising vehicles.
  5. Show that your involvement makes a difference to an educational need, and not just a financial one. I think most school leaders would agree that this is the essential approach.
  6. Leave curriculum and instruction to the educators, but if your organization has an expertise that is relevant to the curriculum, offer it!

Remember, school leaders have to choose their battles. Your in-school marketing can be something they trumpet, not something they have to defend.

The Arbiters of Cool

Why has the consumer culture in the US become so youth-obsessed?

Why has the word “coveted” become inextricably attached to the words “18-34 year olds” among media planners and buyers? After all, it doesn’t take much more than a quick Google search to discover that older demographic segments spend much, much more.

We’ve grappled with these questions for quite some time. As a firm that conducts a lot of research among youth and on youth topics, we’ve certainly benefited from the nation’s obsession with youth.

Young people do have a lot of money to spend. Depending on whose projections you want to trust, teens spend somewhere between $150 and $200 Billion a year. That might sound like a lot, but when you look under the hood a bit you will find that the bulk of that spending power is concentrated at the upper end of that age range. Today’s teens certainly have more money to spend than their counterparts did a generation or two ago, but that spending level seems minor in comparison to what older age segments are spending.

The real answer as to why the media and marketing world is so centered on youth is INFLUENCE. Young people’s influence on the spending of adults is somewhere between 5 and 10 times their direct spending. Parents feel good when they are spending money on their children (and this type of spending is more immune to the business cycle than other types). Older people feel good when they buy products that have passed a “youth cool test.” Young consumers have become the arbiters of what is cool, and adults want to jump on board.

Most children’s first words are ‘Mama’ or ‘Daddy.’ My kid’s first words were: ‘Do I have to use my own money?’ — Erma Bombeck

Another reason you see so many ads targeted to teens and college kids is that adults “aspire backwards.” Below is a chart that runs from age 8 to 75. The question asked respondents, “regardless of your current age, if you could be any age at all, what age would you want to be?”


The chart shows that up until about age 20, most people aspire to be older than they currently are. That is well known in youth marketing – so to attract say, a 12 year old, you put teenagers in the ads. It appears that in your 20’s and 30’s you are roughly happy with the age you are, but the moment you hit 40 you start to wish you were younger. Mid-life crisis anyone?

Finally, just as kittens become cats and puppies become dogs, young consumers become adults. Brand preferences can begin quite young, and a lifetime payoff can be substantial. By way of example, most US adults have a brand preference for Coke over Pepsi or Pepsi over Coke. Most will also drink the other brand if their preferred brand is not available. But, when faced with a choice of both, adults tend to show a brand preference that does not change over their lifetime. When is that brand preference formed? Early – likely by middle school. The lifetime value of establishing this preference early is huge, which explains why both brands continually race each other for the youth market.

So, youth are a substantial market, have an influence many times their size, and eventually become adult consumers. All the ingredients for a youth obsessed culture are in place.

I was recently reading an article that discussed how in China, the population reveres it older members. Evidently it is the law in China that you have to look after your parents in their old age, and there have been cases of elderly parents successfully suing their children for lack of support. Revering the old is not just cultural, it is mandated by the government. Our youth-obsession is a western-dominated concept, and one you don’t see in less consumer oriented areas of the word.

Educators: Focus on outcomes, not process

About 15 years ago I was having lunch with a school Superintendent from a tiny, rural school district in Western New York. We conducted many polls for educators and I was there to discuss educational quality and the role that opinion polls can play in helping drive improvements in school districts.

Every once in a while when you are speaking with a leader and get them in a soft moment, they will break away from telling you what it is they are supposed to say and tell you what they truly feel.

That was the case with this school leader. He said something like this: “You know the problem we have with education? The entire system rewards process and not outcomes. When a kid graduates high school, it just means he successfully got through 13 years of our system. It doesn’t indicate that he knows anything at all.”

That puzzled me a bit, perhaps because I had successfully negotiated 19 years of formal education and had the degrees to prove it. “You mean high school graduates don’t know anything?” I asked.

“It isn’t that they don’t know anything, it is that we don’t know what they know.”

I didn’t get it. Why was this school leader bashing his own system? “Go on … how should they system be run?”

“The issue is all pacing. Take high school physics for example. In a class of 25 kids, there are probably 10 who could learn the material in half the time and be ready to move on to more complicated things. 10 more might be served well by the way the course is paced now. And the other 5 probably require more than a year to understand high school physics.”

Here he got very animated. “And that is the problem. We feel like we succeeded wildly with the 10 smartest kids because they ace the test. And, the 5 who are struggling do well enough to pass, so we move them on as well. The reality is we only served 10 of the 25 kids well with how we structured the course.”

But, how should it be done? “We should never compromise what the outcomes of the course should be. Never. If a kid gets by Physics, it should mean that he knows Physics. We should never negotiate that. What we should negotiate all day long is the amount of time it takes to get to the level of knowledge. It might take a kid two months or two years to master the material. It doesn’t matter.”

He went on to say that some kids are so bright that they will be capable of meeting the standards of high school by the time they are 14 or 15 years old. Others might need more time, until they are even 20 or 21. And, all that is fine.

In essence, by setting the educational system up to pace to “typical” students and being completely uncompromising in that, we set it up to fail both the brightest students and those who require the most support. One group gets out of high school bored and spinning their wheels until college, and the other gets out of high school not knowing what they should.

This issue is all about the dangers of rewarding process and not outcomes. Teachers are masters at implementing processes. Lesson plans, programs, etc. are what they are trained to do. And, of course to some extent process matters, as how you get somewhere can matter. But what matters the most is that you arrive at your destination. This Superintendent felt strongly that what mattered is what the child had learned.

Are Kids Getting Older, Younger?


There is a lot of talk today about kids getting older younger.  You hear this described as “Developmental Compression” by academics.  The concept is so ingrained in youth marketing that it is often refer to as an acronym – KGOY (this is not a west coast radio station!).  Like many presumptions, there is some truth in the concept, but that truth may not be as simple as an acronym implies.

There has undoubtedly been an age compression going on.  The emergence of new marketing segments, notably tweens, is a reflection of this. As an example, when boomers were growing up, Sesame Street was targeted to kids aged 3-7.  Currently, it is targeted to ages 3-4.  By age 5, kids have moved on to other shows. Similarly, toys companies struggle with kids “aging out” faster than they used to.  This makes marketing to children challenging.

There is no real consensus on why this has happened – why young people seem to be growing up younger.  There is controversy over it.  There are those that say that youth marketers have caused this to happen.  Youth marketers have for years used aspirational approaches to product promotion. Youth product imagery and promotional tactics use kids older than the intended age target purposefully.  This in turn, can cause kids to feel pressured to grow up quickly and perhaps not comfortable with their current age.

Our view is there is some reality in KGOY, but there are underlying components to the concept. Development takes place along a number of dimensions:

  • Cognitive
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Social

There is evidence is that kids/tweens are progressing cognitively and physically faster than they historically have.  Cognitively, as any parent who has tried to help their child with homework can tell you, school curricula are more challenging that a generation ago.  Test scores have slowly progressed.  Physically, there is convincing evidence that both girls and boys are reaching physical maturity faster.

But there is little evidence that they are progressing any faster emotionally or socially than in the past.

This from a Girl Scout Research Institute study:

“Physically, girls’ bodies are maturing earlier than ever before. Cognitively, they are acquiring information about the world at an accelerated pace do to environmental influences like traditional media and new media. Since they appear older, society, peer, and family expectations, as well as their own inquisitiveness lead them to adopt matching teenage social behaviors. The dilemma is that these same girls do not have the emotional maturity to match their accelerated aspirations and expectations.”

So, our view is that yes, kids are growing older, younger, but that this growth is not along all dimensions of growth.  This creates unique challenges to those of us who raise them, educate them, and market to them.

Visit the Crux Research Website

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