Posts by Sarah Spiegel

Gifted Education Series, Part 3: A Possible Alternative

In my last two posts, I discussed the arguments of both those for and against gifted programs in public schools. This last post in this series will explore my personal, conflicted views on this topic as well as offer a possible alternative that some are suggesting instead of the traditional gifted programs.

Personally, I still find myself torn in this debate. I myself benefitted greatly by being in Honors classes as far back as I can remember. While these weren’t a part of a specially titled “gifted” program per say, they had generally the same goal. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without these differentiated classes, but a large part of me wants to say that there’s a chance I wouldn’t. Would I still have succeeded as well as I have if I hadn’t been pushed as hard as I was in middle and high school? Would I have been asked to teach other students who were lagging behind instead of moving forward with the curriculum? Would I have been bored in undifferentiated classes and therefore lost my interest in learning and love of going to school? The answer to all of these questions is simply, maybe. But also maybe not.

I do however clearly see the negatives of these types of programs as well. Coming from a very racially and fairly economically non-diverse area, I personally did not see the kind of perpetuated segregation in my school that results from them in others, but after having done research on this topic, it is clear that this is the unfortunate case more often than not. In that regard, I agree with those against them that they should not be in place.

There is one alternative to gifted programs that is being seriously considered in NYC and, if successful, could serve as a model for other schools around the country. Incoming New York Education Commissioner Carmen Fariña signaled at a town hall meeting that the city may dial back separate gifted programs in favor of personalized and more challenging curriculum for all kids in every class. All students should have an appropriate education. The question is how best to do so without reverting to a Jim Crow society where “separate but equal” was promised but not practiced. They are calling her school-wide enrichment model the “differentiated classroom.”

The premise of this program is a way of blending kids rather than isolating them, as well as stretching limited classroom resources. They argue that with the right structure (and that is the key part to me) one teacher can accelerate learning for the highly gifted in an integrated classroom without separating them from others or slighting those who lag behind. They want to give “gifted education for all” through academic enrichment tailored to each student’s strengths. Ms. Fariña said she was eager to bring strategies used in gifted programs, including project-based learning, to schools across the city. She said bright children outside gifted programs could be served by other means, including clubs, lunchtime programs, and science, technology, engineering, and math enrichment—“There’s a lot of other ways to reach the needs of these kids,” she said.

In an ideal differentiated classroom, curriculum is tailored to student’s skills, small group work is common, and so is individualized work. Students who move faster are given enrichment materials or pushed forward, while the teacher gives extra help to those lagging behind. The key to this program is that it will be planned as part of the curriculum coming from the school district and not just left up to the teacher to do by themselves. Fariña’s vision for New York is to give every child personalized and challenging opportunities, and she thinks the differentiated classroom can do it. They hope that this differentiated classroom will help eliminate the intense and difficult battle of getting children into gifted programs at such a young age.

This will not be easy to pull off however, and will at the very least require that teachers have more resources and smaller class sizes to do it properly. Skeptics say that if these needs are not met that gifted children will still be left to drift. Many still do not believe that a differentiated classroom can address the needs of students of all skill levels without leaving an exhausted teacher to focus on the middle segment. If not done correctly, and teachers hold up the entire class for the sake of one or a few students, every child’s learning will suffer.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide on which side of this heated debate you fall and if you think the “differentiated classroom” could be a useful alternative to please both sides. Personally, I think it has potential, but will need a lot of strong planning and resources to be executed correctly and have a positive impact on all students. Its success will remain to be seen.

Gifted Education Series, Part 2: Against Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

In my previous post in this series, I looked at what some of the advocates of gifted education say about the benefits of these programs. Here, I will examine what those who are against them have to say.

It is not easy to measure giftedness in the first place. Intelligence tests and achievement tests are often culturally biased and may “reflect ethnicity, socioeconomic status, exposure and experiences rather than true giftedness.” Some children just might not be good at taking tests or may be gifted in ways that tests cannot measure well—like creative thinking. When you can’t even rightly identify those students who should be placed in gifted programs, should you have them?

There are several criticisms of gifted programs, the main one being that it promotes segregation in the classroom along racial and socioeconomic lines. Many say that the practice of separating the top 2% of the population from everyone else clearly falls under the definition of segregation, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “an action or state of setting someone or something apart from other people or things.” Instead of white-only water fountains, there are smart-only schools or schools within schools. If, under the mandate of equal protection, the Supreme Court struck down the idea of schools separating children based on skin color, it seems logical to assume that this should be the case for IQ as well since this is another “immutable” trait. Providing equality of opportunity also applies to publically-funded gifted programs that receive extra money and prestige.

An example of this segregation comes from New York City’s gifted and talented programs, which have a long history of exacerbating socioeconomic and racial segregation within city schools. As of 2011, roughly 70% of all New York City public school students were black and Latino, but more than 70% of kindergartners in gifted programs were white or Asian. Even if a school has nominal diversity in itself, this is undermined by segregation in the gifted program. Schools may look diverse, but the general education classrooms look very different from the gifted classrooms in terms of racial/ethnic and economic background. In one specific New York City school, 63% of the students are black or Hispanic and 33% are white or Asian. In the gifted classrooms, 62% are white or Asian. These disparities are most apparent at the lower grades.

Socioeconomic status advantages also give better-off preschoolers a testing advantage that is compounded by gifted programs. These very young children have to cram for high-stakes exams in order to get into these gifted programs. Their parents push them and might even hire test prep services to make sure their children do well. Many educators find that this practice does not sit well with them. This flawed system reinforces racial separation, negative stereotypes about class and race, and contributes to disparities in achievement. Gifted admissions standards favor middle and upper class children and create castes within schools where some children are enriched and accelerated while others are getting the bare-bones version of the material.

When looking at the gifted classrooms, one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way children are selected into these programs. These programs create a cycle in which students start out ahead get even further advantages from the city’s schools over their years of schooling. The number of black and Hispanic students who make it into specialized high schools in NYC has declined significantly over recent decades. Some say that if the objective is diversity, this system can never work.

Parents argue that it’s more economics than race, even though this goes hand and hand in many cities. If you were upper income and well educated, you would want your child to have a more enriched education. But when you think about it, not only are the black and Hispanic children being denied more intense education and enrichment, but those white students who are in separate gifted programs are being denied the cognitive and social benefits that socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms are shown to offer.

In concordance with this thinking, the NYC schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, actually completely eliminated the gifted program at the school where she was previously the principal. Many parents of the gifted students at her school were outraged, but she calmed them by promising school-wide improvement in instruction [6]. Many are urging NYC schools to take this approach that betters the whole school and incorporates mixed-ability classrooms instead of perpetuating these segregated classrooms by continuing separate gifted programs. This will be explored further in the last post in this series.

Gifted Education Series, Part 1: For Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

Gifted education in public schools has been a highly polarizing topic of discussion, especially recently. Both sides make some compelling arguments and, in my opinion, it is hard to declare a firm winner in this debate. In this blog series I will explore this subject from both sides, as well as offer a possible alternative, and leave it up to you to decide where you land.

Many of those who are for gifted education in public schools see it as a new take on the “old American conflict between equality and opportunity.” If the goal is to make sure no child is left behind, then schools should also be helping others to get ahead. Some say that “it makes sense to at least create a haven where these kids can develop their gifts, rather than asking them to be patient in classrooms that are not geared to developing their talents.” It’s also worth noting that the students with special gifts may be those most likely to one day develop miraculous cures, produce inspiring works, invent technological marvels, and improve the lives of all Americans, so they should be pushed forward in order to get on with those future impressive tasks.

Over the last 15 years, schools have been so focused on raising the performance of the lowest achieving kids that those who move faster are taken for granted. These poorly performing students get extra help in a number of ways, but those who are advanced do not usually receive any special services, despite the fact that schools are there for all children to achieve. Gifted students can be likely to fall through the cracks if they don’t get instruction tailored to their abilities and can struggle academically or even drop out. Ann Sheldon, the executive director of the Ohio Association for Gifted Children, says that, “Because they meet the (academic) threshold, districts can ignore them.”

Many say that in order for gifted students to grow to their full potential they need to be developed and nurtured within the school system. If not pushed, gifted underachievers may decide they will only do the minimum requirements and choose easy work even though they are capable of much more. Some get bored from the easy work, some don’t develop study and organizational skills because they don’t have to, and others don’t want to look gifted because it isn’t “cool.”

Some argue that gifted students will get by on their own without any special help from the school. They say they come from wealthy families who can meet their children’s needs on their own. Gifted students require special services and programs to ensure the growth rather than the loss of their outstanding abilities. Some of the kids worst served are “at-risk, low-income kids with a lot of talent but who are stuck in schools that are doing everything they can to get kids over a minimal bar.” These poorer gifted kids will never get the advantages at home that wealthier kids have. If the school cannot push them forward, they will get lost in the flow.

One mother in Georgia, whose child attends a school where there is no gifted program, had local school officials refuse to let her son skip a grade despite his very high IQ test scores. She had to fight with teachers and administrators in order for her child to have adequately challenging work. A similar story happened in Texas where an assistant principal told a mother that “she does not support accelerating students and that [her] only option is to send [her] daughter to private school.” For many families this is just not an option for financial or other reasons and to them, public schools should be able to provide their children with an education equal to their needs, as they do with underachieving students. The average IQ score is 100 and many people argue that the further away from that mean a child is, the greater they have a need for special education, regardless of whether they fall to the left side or right side [6].

Parents who can afford to send their children to private school are doing so, however. The No Child Left Behind act is causing many families to flee public schools because it is pushing teachers to focus so much on bringing students to minimum proficiency that gifted students are forgotten about. This “benign neglect” causes them to lose interest in learning because school becomes “an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.” If public schools want to keep these students, they need to provide for them.

School board support of gifted programs, especially in large, diverse cities, shows parents that their kids can thrive if they remain in the city. For example, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s ambitious plan to attract 10,000 new families to Baltimore over the next 10 years depends in large part on convincing young families that its schools can offer an excellent education to their children. Gifted programs are a means of keeping middle and upper class families in the public school system.

Another refuted argument against gifted programs is that teachers can implement small changes into a gifted child’s assignments to further his/her thinking. Asking one teacher within a classroom of around 30 kids to differentiate their assignments and keep track of just one or a few students with gifted ability is asking a lot. Anyone who has watched a teacher labor to “differentiate” instruction in a classroom that encompasses both math prodigies and English language learners knows it’s unreasonable to expect most teachers to do this well, so they argue that separate programs are a necessity.

Those against also suggest that parents look into educational opportunities outside of school such as academic clubs, private tutoring, or other forms of private study that are less costly than private school, but are still engaging and effective. This seems far from practical. Even if parents can afford these extra services for their children, again, why should they be required to do so when schools exist for a reason? Would it not make more sense to just have special programs available within their child’s school that they already attend?

I find it hard to argue with parents who only want the best possible education for their children. Why shouldn’t public schools provide this for them? Stay tuned for my next post about those who are against gifted programs in public schools!

Gap Year Series, Part 3: Global Citizen Year

In the first two posts of this series I discussed how gap years are beneficial to students and how universities are putting programs in place to encourage them to take advantage of these opportunities. In this post I will focus on an outside organization that is aiming to make gap years universal in the US.

Global Citizen Year (GCY) does not consider itself a gap year program. Gap years have the stigma I have already discussed, so they call themselves a Bridge Year. This way, it is framed not as falling into a gap, but as crossing a bridge that will transport students from the life stage of high school to the life stage of college. GCY prides itself on preparing kids for success in college, careers, and our global economy. They see the American education system as failing to prepare students to succeed in facing global challenges—“High school graduates are entering college underprepared, families are questioning their return on investment, and colleges are facing growing concerns about relevance and retention.”

Why join GCY? Their arguments are convincing. They say being a Fellow helps develop leadership in the form of undergoing training in the US and abroad, becoming fluent in a new language and culture, and learning alongside global experts. They also market themselves as helping students uncover their passions on their own time and terms as well as finding meaningful ways to have an impact through their work. It also allows those who participate to be at the forefront of a movement that GCY sees as reimagining education and leadership in America.

They see themselves as being a step apart from other bridge year programs in several main ways: total immersion, personalized apprenticeships, a diverse cohort, intensive training, and a lifelong network. The Fellows work in community apprenticeships alongside local people where they can learn a language, form lasting relationships, and gain firsthand insight into the issues that shape their hosts’ lives. Fellows come together with staff to participate in monthly training seminars to amplify their learning and to come together as a country cohort to process their experience.

Many people question how a bridge year can more adequately prepare students for college. GCY addresses these concerns by saying that their program is uniquely designed to bridge the high school and college experience through a combination of immersive learning and world-class training in areas directly relevant to the higher education environment. They focus on three main learning spheres: entrepreneurial leadership, global skills, and college and career readiness. Their curriculum is unique, rigorous, and involves two-week departure training, ongoing training blocks, and a one-week re-entry training to tie together the year’s learning. They actually train the Fellows before they leave on Stanford’s campus, which exposes them to the college setting. They also ensure that all Fellows develop intentional learning plans for their year abroad and for their college experience after which allows them to test their interests and define their passions.

They also have a Capstone phase to their year in which Fellows must reflect, analyze, and express their learning and growth. There is a final presentation in their country about the work they’ve done and the lessons they learned over the year as an apprentice and member of the community. Once they are back home they deliver a product of presentation that encapsulates their experience to “instill the power of global citizenship in their friends, family, and home community.” They leave the way they can do this wide open, so Fellows can choose how they want to present their experience.

This all sounds too good to be true, right? Well it is unless you can come up with the money to pay for it. According to their website, all fees for GCY are determined on a sliding scale based on the Fellow’s family’s ability to pay. Over 80% of Fellows have taken advantage of their financial aid packages, including a third whom who have had their year fully funded. Aside from tuition, each Fellow is responsible for any passport and visas, vaccinations, or early withdrawals from the program, but airfare is provided by GCY. Students submit the FAFSA for aid like they would for any college and their aid is determined based on that. Fellows are admitted without looking at their financial situation and any aid awarded is determined after acceptance. If a family was getting no aid the full tuition price would be $30,950, which is roughly around the same average price of tuition and fees for a private university in the US for the 2013-2014 school year.

Fellows are also required to raise $2,500 in the summer before they leave for the fund that supplies their financial aid as well as sign on 50 blog subscribers to follow their year. The website is very vague about how students are supposed to succeed in this summer campaign besides that staff will provide them with guidance and tools to do so. This is something students need to consider before applying for this program as it will require extra time and effort on their part. They also don’t mention anything about what happens if they don’t raise the money. Do students then have to make up the difference themselves?

Despite this, GCY seems like a good option for students who want an organized program to follow on their gap year that gives them tangible results, like a Capstone project. Currently GCY only has programs in Brazil, Ecuador, and Senegal, but they are looking to expand. Programs like this, along with the university initiatives mentioned in my last post, have the potential to change the views on gap years in the US, but there is a long way to go with reversing the negative stigma associated.

Gap Year Series, Part 2: How Universities are helping

In the first post of this series, I talked about how gap years are not commonplace in the US, but can be very beneficial for students as well as American society as a whole. In this post I will talk about what universities are doing to encourage students to take a gap year before entering college and in the next post I will look at one specific example of an organization whose goal is to make gap years universal.

As mentioned in the previous post, gap years have negative associations in the US, but some colleges are taking strides to reverse this stigma. University of North Carolina, Princeton, Tufts, and others have instituted programs to encourage students to take a gap year for travelling and volunteering around the world before they come to college. Even though the program at Princeton covers almost all costs, American students still “struggle with the idea of separating from the education fast track that parents and educators expect.” It is the norm to go straight into college from high school and it’s hard for students who have worked their whole lives to get into a good school to see a gap year as a viable option. There are many benefits of doing so, as already explained, but combating the negative view of not going straight to college will take a lot of effort on the part of universities.

Princeton’s program aims to start small and then eventually send a tenth or more of its incoming students to a year of social service work in a foreign country before they set foot on campus as freshmen. They see this program as giving students a more international perspective, adding to their maturity and giving them a break from academic pressures. The president of Princeton called it a year of “cleansing the palate of high school and giving them a year to regroup.” They plan not to charge tuition for the year abroad and offer financial assistance to those who need it. Proponents of the program say it allows students to discover themselves and the world before they enter college. Some say they enter college too young and immature and this would be a way to combat that while doing something constructive for the world.

Even college counselors, whose job it is to get high school students into good colleges, tell their clients to take a year off before they go back to school. One such counselor said she had previously only recommended gap years to students who needed to mature, but now is telling most of her students to follow this path. She says she sees students never slow down and breathe and think about the person they want to become before going to college. A psychiatrist at Duke says that freshmen who delay college for a year tend to be more altruistic and empathetic because their brain continues to develop over this time period. He says taking a gap year is beneficial as long as students have a mentor, a plan for intellectual growth, and a commitment to do public service. When they finally come to campus the next fall they will be better prepared to succeed at the college level after living free from parents and the school environment for a while. They will also have a unique perspective on themselves and the world we live in that they would not have gained had they not taken a gap year.

Students who take gap years also have more real-world experience which gives them a leg-up on applying for internships and jobs while in college as well as after. With the job market as competitive as it is, it is important to stand out and this is a perfect way to do that. “Personal growth and a sense of fulfillment and purpose” is something most students get from a gap year that they would not otherwise receive.

Many of these types of programs have aims of helping students in any financial situation still be able to take advantage of them. The program at Princeton uses need-based financial aid and nearly 100 students have participated thus far. UNC offers their students $7,500 for a gap year and Tufts’ program will cover housing, airfare, and visa fees which can add up to $30,000 or more.

These incentives seem to be working at least somewhat because in 2013, 40,000 American students took a gap year, which is a 20% increase compared to past years. But there is still a long way to go. Businesses catering to gap year programs have been booming because of this increased interest. One specifically, called Where There Be Dragons, has had its revenue doubled in the last year to almost $1 million.

Can outside organizations along with universities help students gain this international experience? Stay tuned for my last post in this series about one organization that is trying to do just that!

Gap Year Series, Part 1: Why?

In my last post I talked about Study Abroad and how crucial it is for students to gain international experience in the world we live in today. In this and the following posts in this series, I will talk about another kind of international experience for students—Gap Years. This post will focus on Gap Years in general and why they’re beneficial to American students. The next posts will focus on what universities are doing to encourage more students to take advantage of these opportunities and a specific example of an organization devoted to this cause.

I always found the idea of a gap year fascinating, probably because I have always loved to travel. When I heard of my cousins in England taking a year off before University, I was intrigued and also a bit jealous that they got to go off on worldly adventures for a year while I was applying for four (or more) years of sitting in classrooms directly out of high school. Gap years are not common in the US like they are in many countries abroad, although I wish they were. They are typically seen as something only the very rich can afford or an alternative option for an off-track student who is not ready to attend college yet. It’s pretty standard in the US to fast track kids straight to college and not let them take a breath until after that’s taken care of. In doing so, students shut themselves off from the world and only focus on their studies in order to get into a good college.

Gap years allow students to see the world outside of the classroom where they will have to live after they graduate from college. Not only do students “return to school more focused, self-reliant, aware and confident, but they also become part of the global movement to improve the world through their volunteering throughout the gap year.” After college, students rush to get jobs so travelling and learning about the world is not seen as important. Taking advantage of these programs between high school and college is really the best idea for most students. It would benefit them personally and also the greater population, by producing more worldly educated young adults.

Many see the year abroad as a release from the pressures of getting into a good college. Some high schools now hold gap year fairs to inform students about this option, and the number of companies that place students in gap year programs is increasing as well. Some of the growing interest in gap years might be because of the rising cost of higher education. Parents are less willing to pay for their kids to go to school and not know their purpose in life. Around 50% of students who begin four-year colleges don’t graduate within five years, and only 54% will graduate in six years. It’s important for kids and parents alike to make sure that where they go to school is the right place for them and they want to learn.

Since the pressure to get into college is so great, some students need to take a breath when they finally do get accepted. One recent graduate put it well when he said he needed time to “create a person rather than a college student” where he would get to recover from schoolwork and find himself. This also reflects the changing attitude about going away to college as a rite of passage. Some see college as merely a continuation of their very difficult high school experience. The gap between high school and college has shrunk in comparison with previous generations.

I’m of the strong opinion that gap years would be extremely beneficial to both students personally as a way for them to grow and learn about themselves and the world, as well as for American society as whole. These students will come back from their year abroad with a better understanding of the world around them and how they can be a productive part of it. As with Study Abroad, this kind of international experience is vital in today’s globalized world and if it were to become more commonplace in the US I think it could only have positive consequences.

Stay tuned for my next post about what colleges and universities are doing in order to encourage their students to take advantage of gap year opportunities and reverse the negative stigma associated with them!

Generation Study Abroad: The Quest to Become “Citizen Diplomats”

Fewer than 10% of American college students graduate with study-abroad experience and most of these experiences are in countries with which the US already has strong ties. Three times as many foreign students study in America than the other way around. Overall, the participation in study abroad has increased over the years, but on average the duration of the programs has decreased, with much of this growth being in programs eight weeks or less. While it isn’t terrible to go abroad for less than eight weeks (it’s definitely better than not going at all), one can argue that the more time spent abroad, the more students learn about the world.

These days studying abroad is an “economic and strategic imperative.” Global citizens who are capable of functioning in countries and markets outside of their own are “a necessary component of a competitive American economy.” One aim of higher education is to broaden perspectives and there is no better way to do this than to get students abroad. This also gives students a new perspective on how other countries view America, which can only help our foreign policy in the future.

This topic is especially timely since just this past weekend First Lady Michelle Obama gave a speech at Peking University in Beijing in which she promoted study abroad programs to both American and Chinese students. She lauded study abroad as being a “vital part of [US] foreign policy” and encouraged American students to be “citizen diplomats.” The globalized world we live in today means that every country can have a “stake in each other’s success” and that studying abroad can lead to “stronger relationships—geographically, politically, and culturally. We are striving for a world that is ever more capable of transcending its differences.”

The First Lady makes a good point that “relationships between nations aren’t just about relationships between governments or leaders—they’re about relationships between people, particularly young people.” Studying abroad isn’t just about making yourself look good on a resume, it’s also about “shaping the future of your countries and of the world we all share. Because, when it comes to the defining challenges of our time—whether it’s climate change or economic opportunity or the spread of nuclear weapons—these are shared challenges. And no one country can confront them alone.” Studying abroad gives students a unique perspective from outside of the US that they would not gain otherwise. Immersing oneself in another culture for more than a cursory tourist visit allows one to have a greater appreciation for and understanding of that culture. This can only help these future leaders in business and politics be more tolerant of and work more effectively with other nations. Employers across multiple fields are increasingly looking for cross-cultural competence in their new employees and studying abroad can help increase personal and professional opportunities.

But how do we ensure that more students have the opportunity to travel abroad and gain these experiences? There are some schools, like Goucher College, which require their students to study abroad. Should more schools follow this lead and is that even feasible? Historically, those who go abroad have been white, well-off women studying liberal arts. Studying abroad is expensive and fitting it in to the time you have to finish your degree is a concern of all students. Most universities give some financial aid to those who demonstrate significant need, but if you don’t qualify for that, I know from personal experience that trying to find scholarships from outside sources is not easy. Finding out how many students this leaves out of the study abroad experience would require much more research than there is space for here, but it’s probably safe to say it’s a significant number. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times says, “There’s a misconception that gap years or study-abroad opportunities are feasible only for the affluent, [but] there are lots of free options” or ways of making money on the side. Personally, I agree more with a critic of Kristof who says that these options that he calls “free” are outside of the university setting and require people to pay “program fees and travel expenses and, of course, make a significant time commitment” that not all students can afford, especially if it’s separate from their schooling.

So how do we combat these issues? North Dakota State also has a new interesting way of helping more students go abroad. They have been redeeming the airline miles that employees build up to pay for plane tickets for study abroad students who have the financial need. This year they will give out about 20 free plane tickets, which will really help some students with the financial burden of studying abroad.

There is also a new initiative being led by the Institute of International Education called Generation Study Abroad. More than 150 US colleges have so far pledged to increase their study abroad participation rates. The extremely ambitious aim of this initiative is to double American study abroad enrollment by the end of the decade. IIE has already invested $2 million in the initiative and is still seeking more support. The goal is to get 500 universities to commit to this initiative and address issues of scholarship support, curricular integration, and diversity of students they send abroad.

It is my belief that improving upon these issues will make a positive difference in the number of American students who study abroad. Universities that claim to have a global reach and want to shape their students into international citizens should do everything in their power to make it so that more of their students have the ability to study abroad because cross-cultural education is essential in today’s world.

Promoting Consumerism and Unhealthy Eating: Commercial Advertising in Schools

These days corporations are marketing their products to children at all levels of schooling, even preschools. Food companies spend $1.8 billion each year marketing to young people and about 82% of schools have corporate ads. Everything from school buses to gymnasiums to textbooks is plastered with corporate ads. Fast food companies come to schools promoting literacy and fitness, but are really aiming to sell their products and build brand loyalty from an early age. Personally, I don’t buy into the idea that McDonald’s is really trying to promote fitness programs in schools and isn’t merely using that façade as a way to reach its desired audience where it can’t escape.

There are several different ways corporations can get into schools. Direct advertising such as ads placed on school walls or buses is a main way. Schools receive cash compensation for these kinds of ads, which most schools believe they are in need of. Another way schools think they can try to save money is with the sponsorship of materials for the classroom. A decrease in public funding for schools has left 35 states with 2012 funding below 2008, which means that school districts must make up the difference somewhere. These corporate contracts are attractive to them in this regard. Schools are receiving cash compensation for displaying the ads or getting free sponsored educational materials that contain company logos prominently displayed.

This is another primary way corporations get into classrooms. Most of these materials are not reviewed for their content. In one study, 80% of corporate-sponsored classroom teaching materials were found to be biased or incomplete while also promoting the sponsor’s own products. Some schools with limited resources have begun seeking out these offers from companies, but most find that their earnings from them are insignificant. For example, schools that sign contracts with soft drink companies are receiving as little as $3 per student in exchange for a monopoly on selling and advertising their beverages on campus.

It was also shocking to me to find out that in Seminole Country, Florida, report cards were sent home in McDonald’s branded envelopes and promised a free Happy Meal for good grades, behavior, or attendance. Blatant attempts like this to market products to students are doing a great job of promoting unhealthy eating habits. They encourage children to eat fast food or junk food and consume sugary soda drinks. Many schools have exclusive beverage contracts (EBCs) with corporate companies that give them exclusive access to all vending machines at the school. The amount of high schools which have these contracts has dropped between 2007 and 2012, but is still at a whopping 70%. Also, around 51% of high school students had company-sold food vending readily available to them and 30% had fast food available at least once a week.

For elementary schools, food coupons were the most frequent type of commercialism found in one study, and those, as well as EBCs, were more present in schools with a low or middle class student socioeconomic status which probably relates back to the fact that these schools are the most underfunded and need to find money elsewhere. Contests and incentive programs are also a big way that advertisers get into schools. Many times the incentive and the prize involve more consumption of the company’s product. Profit is their motivation, not caring about children’s education.

The problem with marketing in schools is that most people believe that this is the one space in a child’s life where they can escape the commercial and material deluge that overruns our society. It also brings up an ethical question about who owns and runs public schools. Giving corporate sponsors this much control over curriculum and resources basically allows companies to own the future of children’s education. Do we really want a world where kids grow up being even more consumption-oriented than they would be without getting extra marketing in school? Do we want them to develop brand loyalty to fast food corporations from a very young age that promotes unhealthy eating and fosters a culture of obesity?

It’s hypocritical of schools to teach nutrition when they allow fast food and junk food products to be sold on their grounds. Some schools are taking steps to ban marketing, but the legislation seems few and far between. At minimum there needs to be a call for enforceable standards for the nutritional content of all food and drinks marketed to children in school. Some people say that any kind of marketing targeted at children is always unethical because “children lack the cognitive capacity to understand how marketing works.” Others say that “schools should be all about teaching students to make their own choices, not coercing them to buy things they don’t need.” Still others say that “school property should be a place where messages to young people strengthen their bodies as well as their minds. Most foods and beverages marketed in any venue toward children and adolescents are high in calories, sugar, salt and fat, and are low in essential nutrients.”

Given all of these negative aspects of marketing to children in schools, a recent initiative by First Lady Michelle Obama has tried to focus on marketing healthy food to youths. While her intent is certainly in the right place, the execution is leaving many critics unsatisfied. Instead of getting media corporations to stop marketing junk food to young children (an arguably colossal task), she has decided to get some corporations to pledge to market healthy food instead. Public health advocates criticize this program however, because they believe marketing to children needs to stop altogether rather than these polarized campaigns that just lead to greater amounts of overall ads bombarding kids.

Despite the First Lady’s best attempts to reform the eating habits of young kids, the people with the power to do so seem to be having a hard time going against the big junk food businesses. Federal reform that was supposed to raise nutrition standards for how food is marketed to children fell apart in 2011 and has not been brought up again since. But, as critics say, focusing on changing the nature of these marketing campaigns takes away from the actual problem that is the fact that kids are being used as giant money-makers for large corporations. Corporate interests are being placed about children’s health and education and that needs to change.