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Education reformers need to learn basic marketing lessons

The reason education reform results in public schools have been ineffective is that the marketing and implementation of the reformers' ideas have been deeply flawed.

The reason education reform results in public schools have been ineffective is that the marketing and implementation of the reformers’ ideas have been deeply flawed.

If the true motivation behind the education reform movement has been to implement solutions that are “what’s best for kids,” then why have ed reform results in traditional public schools across America been so tumultuous, ineffective and harmful?

The answer lies in the fact that the marketing and implementation of the ed reformers’ ideas, and the ideas themselves, have been deeply flawed.

If, as the reformers claim, they’ve sought to bring a disciplined business model to public education, they should have borrowed time-tested wisdom from successful organizations as a guide to vet their experimental theories.

Instead — and unfortunately for the kids in the school districts where their destructively disruptive edicts have been implemented — the reformers’ corporate approach has the hallmarks of a hand-scrawled, Red Bull-stained business plan from a flailing Web 1.0 startup, rather than a coherent and sensible strategy from a profitable, top-tier company.

Here are four Marketing 101 lessons that ed reformers should have followed when envisioning their policies and putting them into practice:

1. Update and improve what you’re selling.

Imagine if Apple’s iPhone 6s offered the exact same features and functionality as the original iPhone from 2007.

Going even further, imagine if all variations of the iPhone were replicas of the first iPhone, and only their model numbers were changed. Consumers would see through the ruse, and they’d take their business elsewhere.

Education reformers have been selling the exact same “model” since they introduced their offerings over 15 years ago.

Measuring teachers and schools based on students’ standardized test scores (and then firing teachers and closing schools based on those scores), exaggerating the “benefits” of no excuses charter schools, pushing digital learning (as a way of pushing out actual teaching), teaching and testing “grit” — it’s been the same rehashed stuff with no upgrades, revisions, or modifications of their tool kit.

If the ed reformers expect to achieve positive connections with their customers — which would be students, parents, and yes, teachers, since they’d be the ones who would be implementing the reforms — they need to devise something new, test it, refine it, focus-group it with their target customers, roll it out, and be willing to modify it based on feedback from the market.

2. Don’t give your customers what you think they want, or what you want them to want.

Restaurant consultant Brandon O’Dell has found that one of the biggest mistakes that owners make is “offering customers what (they) think is good, instead of what the customer thinks is good,” which, she adds, “is a surefire way to lose money in the restaurant business.”

To help business owners understand what their customers want, business consultant Evan Carmichael offers very specific advice:

“Have customers involved in your decision making process and have them help you guide your process,” Carmichael says. “You want people to give you feedback and tell you what’s helpful, what’s not, and what needs to be changed.”

To ed reformers, this fluid, customer-centric, bottom-up system is anathema to their rigid, top-down, universal recipe.

The reformers want us to be sold on the benefits that their trusty tool kit can bring, but by now, they should understand that it’s filled with stuff that they want us to want, and not what we truly want.

While they’d point to the innumerable astroturf groups that they fund as examples of grassroots approval of their agenda, they know, and we know, and they know that we know, that these endorsements aren’t legitimate and don’t represent the actual needs and goals of the majority of American parents, students, and teachers.

3. Don’t blame your customers if they’re not buying what you’re selling.

Business.com writer Ashtyn Douglas says that “blaming your customers is always a losing strategy.”

Marketing coach David Newman puts it even more bluntly in his Top 10 Nifty Excuses for Marketing Failure:

“(If you’re not making sales and) you’re unwilling to make changes, get help, or innovate… then you suck at marketing… and ALL of these shortcomings are 100% your own damn fault.”

Ed reformers tend to blame everyone but themselves for the wide criticism and marketplace failures of their product line. They scold teachers unions for misinforming parents, and they reprimand parents for misunderstanding ed reform’s benefits.

Even former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got in on the customer bashing when he blamed white suburban moms for their criticisms of the Common Core — the centerpiece of his divisive ed reform philosophy — by saying that the moms were upset that their children weren’t as brilliant as they thought.

Ironically, some of the biggest supporters of ed reform (and blamers of ed reform’s customers) are America’s top CEOs and financiers, who wouldn’t dare implement such off-putting tactics in their own organizations’ interactions with clients and buyers.

If these business pros insisted that the same successful sales and marketing best practices that their firms follow were also used by the ed reformers, the movement might possibly have achieved greater traction.

4. Make your customers fall in love with you.

The common sense tips of content marketing consultant Brian Honingman of Honingman Media are axiomatic, but his wise recommendations are just not the way the ed reformers prefer to roll:

  1. Treat your customers right
  2. Respect your customers
  3. Hear what your customers are saying
  4. Treat a customer like a valued partner
  5. Build trust
  6. Be transparent
  7. Recognize responsibility: the customer is always right

If ed reformers don’t understand why more of their target customers haven’t fallen in love with their strategy for school salvation, they shouldn’t be flummoxed: the fact that they don’t integrate Honingman’s powerful maxims into their customer relationship management (CRM) is clear evidence that, as David Newman would say, they suck at marketing and their shortcomings are 100% their own damn faults.

The education reformers have billions at their disposal from interest groups, hedge funders, CEOs, and executives from Wall Street and Silicon Valley — all of whom passionately support the reformers’ positions.

This vast treasure is being used to buy influence with politicians, fund pro-ed reform astroturf groups and (unsuccessfully) sway public opinion.

But unless the ed reformers implement the smart marketing and CRM guidance discussed above and adapt their agenda to the needs and goals of their target customers, they’ll continue to sell us aging, defective inventory that American parents, students, and teachers will continue to refuse to buy.

Rafe Gomez is a principal at VC Inc. Marketing, a provider of multimedia content creation and strategic sales support for B2B and B2C organizations in a variety of industries. His perspectives on sales, messaging and public relations have been featured in such media outlets as Adweek, Fox Business News, Entrepreneur, PR Daily, Sales & Marketing Management, MSNBC, Direct Marketing News, and Marketing Profs. Follow him @vcincmarketing

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