I often get asked about the difference between health communication, or health education, and social marketing. The first thing is that a social marketer does not feel like a fish out of water – even when perhaps he should.
The field of education reform is one area where I have not been involved nor seen much use of social marketing. Yet, I was invited to a “Media meeting to promote mathematics and science education” convened by the Promoting Rigorous Outcomes in Mathematics and Science Education (PROM/SE) project. It was chaired by Bill Schmidt, a Michigan State University Distinguished Professor who, among other things, was the national research coordinator for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study - one of the world's most influential global assessments of student achievement in math and science (Note: the latest TIMSS results were released this week). The TIMSS data are referred to when people talk about country rankings of student achievement in science and math.
I was one of two marketers in the room, Jim Taylor from The Harrison Group being the other. The other eight participants represented various agencies all involved in math and science education reform projects. The first few hours reviewed the TIMSS and other data documenting the historically low performance of many American students. The research presented identified the core drivers of this lower performance as being due to (1) the nature of the curriculum – ‘it’s a polyglot,’ (2) low teacher knowledge of the subject matter, and (3) low parental and public engagement on the issue. The data point Bill emphasized was that national surveys have consistently documented 80% of respondents agreeing that ‘schools are failing,’ though they typically have not said that about ‘my own school (where their child goes).’ However, now 60% of parents say their own school is failing. The question that was posed to the group was – how do we leverage ‘the upset’ to engage parents to demand change? The subtext was: how do we develop a media campaign to do this?
This is not the first time the question of improving student scores in math and science has been addressed, and the National Math and Science Initiative and the National Science Foundation are among the key players and funders. Most of the work focuses on the first two issues. What was interesting to me in this overview is that only recently has the idea of parental engagement received the type of funding to study how to scale up such programs, and in fact, the PRISM project is one of the only projects in the country (and a pilot underway by PROM/SE) to draw lessons from about audiences and what works.
After about a half hour of discussion that focused on how to develop a media campaign to increase parental engagement (that was, after all, where the data led and where the gaps and levers seemed to be), Jim threw up his hands and said: You can do what you want, but if you go down this road the effort is DOOMED!
After some people picked themselves off the floor, he continued: Look, all the research tells us that kids drive the process now. You can fix the curriculum, make the teachers smarter, create smaller classrooms, get the parents engaged, BUT if the students don’t see the benefit in it for themselves, it will make no difference whatsoever. If a marketer were doing this, we’d focus on the kids as the audience – not the parents, teachers, administrators or school board. That brought me in with the work in the tobacco wars, the truth campaign and what we know in marketing about what kids really want - not what adults think they need. You can legislate, educate and pontificate, but in the end what works is when the kids see that they are being manipulated by the tobacco industry, that they are the ones who need to rebel against the deceptions, they need to become the solution and drive the campaign. Then we see ownership, social norms change and teen smoking rates decline.
So after another half hour of kicking all of that around, the group seemed to be coming around to the idea that maybe this needed to be a campaign for kids, not parents. A good place to stop for a group dinner and digest it all.
The next morning at breakfast Bill asked me if I would lead the discussion to create the architecture for the campaign. After some process checking – are we all still in agreement about where this is now going, any other thoughts before we dig in? – I pulled out my social marketing playbook. In 2 ½ hours we had the outline of a plan, down to what the current brand image of math might be – spoiled child, authoritative parent (do it my way, the right and only way or you are wrong)? The insight we based our campaign on is that students in 4th-8th grade, some research and anecdotal evidence from PROM/SE and PRISM tell us, are absolutely pissed when they find out they lag behind students in other countries. They get the implications for jobs, income and country immediately. And they feel cheated! If we can tap into that, they can drive change. They will tell their parents about their poor math and science preparation – then the parents will get engaged - it’s personal now. The parents will go to the teachers, school administrators, legislators and others demanding that their child get a fair chance in this new world, and the kids will be right in front of them. In response, the curriculum and instructional methods will have to change, teacher knowledge and motivation will change, administrators and school boards will have to change. And, quite likely, achievement scores will improve.
At the end of the session Bill called the proceedings mind-altering (I would say world-changing). He, nor any of the others in the room, had ever conceived of the problem from the students' pov and that they might be the solution. Of course neither do most people in education it appears. Even while we went radical (audience-focused rather than expert driven), Bill Gates was in Washington, DC calling for government to become a dynamic agent of school reform including federal incentives to boost recruitment and retention of effective teachers, aligning state standards with top international standards, rewarding college graduates and pushing school overhaul through performance measures (Robert Guth in The Wall Street Journal - subscription required). Call it the Microsoft or engineering approach. From the outside, it is impressive to watch debates over ideology and structural reform as if schools were a widget production facility.
Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School makes a[n] ... argument for K-12 education, where we mindlessly follow a century-old way of doing business. Get rid of this manufacturing era, "value chain" model -- where we take inputs (students), add value (sometimes), and spit them out the other end -- in favor of a "user network" model where unique students with distinct learning styles plug in to smart software and tutoring tools that deliver a customized education. – Bret Swanson in The Wall Street Journal (subscription still required).
The moral of the story? It’s interesting being a social marketer where being armed with only an eye for the (true) audience and an interest in advocating for them you can change people’s world. Where with just 6 questions you can move people to think about solutions in a completely new way and believe in it when they are done. That the group (or others) will now (hopefully) be able to do some much needed research about what students think about this issue and its solution (we have a campaign based on some hypotheses – now it’s time to concept test it). And that social change seems to be most disruptive when the audience is allowed to have control. And yes, we talked a lot about the Obama campaign and change, using new media and the world of the digital native [NB: these links added after original post]. But when I left it was with the feeling that perhaps something really good happened in the room, something that energized everyone and had concrete next steps, something that might not of occurred if the marketing mindset had not been invited. Kudos to Bill and the PROM/SE staff for taking the chance. And Jim who lit the fuse!
So maybe the difference between social marketers and health communicators and educators is that we have a labyrinth organ? Or call it a playbook that is pretty robust.
An Afterword: After the meeting, another set of data I came across documents the gaps in perceptions among the players about STEM education. The Speak Up 2007 National Findings for the question: Is your school doing a good job of preparing you/your students/your child for future jobs? The percent answering "Yes:"
- School principals – 66%
- District administrators – 48%
- Teachers – 47%
- Parents – 43%
- Advanced tech students – 23%
That’s an awfully tempting core audience!
And if that has you thinking - this is worth watching.
Postscript: Sam Dillon in the Sunday New York Times looks at the debate and drama surrounding the choice of an Education Secretary. He quotes Bruce Fuller who describes it as pitting “professionalization advocates such as Darling-Hammond,” who believe the policy emphasis should be on raising student achievement by helping teachers improve their instruction, against “efficiency hawks like Klein and Rhee.” The efficiency hawks, he said, emphasize standardized testing, cracking down on poor school management and purging bad teachers.
I wonder if there is a camp that advocates consumer empowerment as a platform for change and considers social marketing as well as hard power and soft power as a way of improving education in this country?