Guest Column

Marketing America’s Schools 101

by Larry Clinefelter

I’ve been thinking recently about the person or team responsible for creating the greatest title, slogan or descriptor of a new initiative in the history of human thought. Really. Because whoever came up with “No Child Left Behind” ought to get some recognition. I sure wish I had thought of it.

No Child Left Behind is without argument the most clever, creative and powerful title for an educational improvement plan ever devised. The images evoked by its mere mention are staggeringly evocative. There is probably no mental picture more satisfying or triumphant than that of some hero or heroine swooping in to save a child in distress.

We can save the whales, save the environment, save the trees, save our souls, save money, save detergent, save coupons or save a little time. Nothing, however, compares to the idea that we can save a child. Big-time marketing is at work on this child thing.

Memorable Messages

Some friends and I have tried to come up with similarly powerful marketing slogans that, in our memories, have had impressive and significant marketing impact: “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” (my friends are pretty old people), “You’ve come a long way, baby,” “Have a Coke and a smile,” “Have it your way,” “This Bud’s for you,” and “Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies 12 ways.”

They all backed big sellers, although the products they touted might not have been as healthy or beneficial as claimed. That is often the case.

One of the strongest marketing facets of No Child Left Behind is that it creates an atmosphere that almost defies contention. Any argument against any aspect of this massive educational experiment can almost certainly be revoked simply by cliché: “You mean you’re FOR leaving children behind?”

The second most influential educational descriptor I can remember involved the phrase “A Nation at Risk.” That phrase also was powerful and created sensational shock waves, but ultimately it was too negative to carry everyone to new heights. Because of the same great marketing we’re seeing today, we tended to believe we truly were at risk, yet what was it we were at risk of?

No Child Left Behind is pro-active. It evokes mental images of action. It evokes images of war. Soldiers live by this creed: Leave no one behind. We are fighting many social wars. We like to imagine social problems as military battles. We have “The War on Drugs,” “The War on Poverty,” “The War on AIDS,” “The War on Cancer,” “The War on Alcoholism” and “The War in Iraq.”

If you happen to work in education these days, you probably agree we are now in the middle of a fight on school turf too. However, the “War on Education” carries much potential for good. While politicians may be driving educational change, it is our job as educators to take new initiatives and turn them into positives for our students.

Overcoming Negatives

No Child Left Behind sounds great. And as with each new legislated reform to come our way, it brings many challenges. We must overcome a number of negative images invoked by NCLB: “failing” schools, ethnic groups that are failing and the public perception that the educational system itself is failing.

We have overcome negatives such as these many times before. And once again we can, we must and we will.

If necessary, we can apply still another great marketing slogan of the modern day to lead the charge: Just do it!

Larry Clinefelter is superintendent of the Laclede County R-1 Schools, 726 W. Jefferson St., Conway, MO 65632. E-mail: lclinefelter@conway.k12.mo.us