Branding Irony

A posting of mine last year worried that the language of branding and the language of education would end up more or less the same, leaving the claims made for a school sounding like the claims made for Baby Einstein®. As we know, Disney offered refunds to buyers of these “educational” materials after doubt was cast by advocacy groups on the advertisements saying that they had educational value. Now, instead of carrying false educational claims, these videos merely undercut the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under two not watch TV at all.

The irony is that while a profit-making company scaled back what it asserted for its “educational materials,” actual schools, and not necessarily profit-making ones, have been inflating the claims they make for their curricula, according to The New York Times.

The baloney scrutinized by the Times has to do with schools that say they teach “advanced” or “rigorous” subjects, when evidence suggests that they don’t. The number of US students completing ostensibly “rigorous” curricula has gone up more than two and a half times between 1990 and 2009, from 5% to 13%. But the trout in the milk is that achievement as gauged by AP and SAT scores has remained flat or gone down.

What does this mean? Part of the explanation became apparent when the Times reported that one unfortunate student was ill prepared for pre-AP by her middle school, where in eighth grade she had to take something called Jungle Gym Math. “It had some geometry. Some algebra. It jumped around.” I can just picture the class, down the hall from the Sandbox History classroom where they dress in sheets. They bob for apples. They jump around. I can picture some alleged adult at that middle school thinking it would be appealing to “brand” math by using “jungle gym” in the course title. The right-minded alternative would have been an articulated year-to-year curriculum that brought students to a level of readiness in 10th grade that would leave them able to take AP (or IB, my preferred program). When they got to 8th grade, an articulate teacher would tell them, “There’s a jungle gym class already. It’s called ‘recess.’ You are 2/3 grown up, and so you will take a math class. It’s called ‘algebra,’ and that is what it really is.” No branding, just generic integrity.

When I was a boy, I remember seeing a parody Learn-to-Draw book, showing how to draw a portrait in four stages, each represented by a panel. Panel 1: a circle. Panel 2: a potato. Panel 3: the potato with smiley-face features. Panel 4: John Singer Sargent’s drawing of Henry James. What is wrong with these pictures is the same thing that is wrong with programs that spend years with beanbags and bedsheets and then suddenly take the victims and toss them into trigonometry and differentiation.

Why do they do it? To be able to say that they have a “nurturing environment” in middle school and “rigorous college preparation” in 11th and 12th grade? The only answer conceivable lies somewhere between baloney and b*******.[1] What makes this particular kind especially reprehensible is that it victimizes young people by playing fast and loose with their education.

How fast and loose? Those scoring failing grades (1 and 2) on AP tests number 42% of those who take them.

[1] See Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy, Princeton University: On Bullshit.


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