Commercialism in Schools

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Photo: Sabrina Gonzalez

Photo: Sabrina Gonzalez

Photo: Sabrina Gonzalez

Grady Trexler, Assistant Opinions Editor

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While I was scrolling through my Instagram feed a few weeks ago, an ad popped up that took me by surprise.  It was an advertisement for the ACT. A smartly dressed young man, bursting with energy in an eerie attempt to echo the energy of a younger generation, described how the spring ACT was the “easy ACT” for juniors, and urged me to sign up.  The ad left me feeling uneasy, and asking myself: has education really become this commercialized, that standardized tests, required for most college admissions, are advertising directly to me as if I were a consumer for any other product?

Commercialism is a nebulous word.  On its face, it simply means something dealing with commerce (according to Merriam-Webster,) or the buying and selling of commodities on a large scale.  When I refer to commercialism in schools, all I mean is an outside company influencing our educational system in some way. Certainly, not all commercialism is bad, and not all commercialism in schools is bad.  What frustrates me, and what concerns me, is the degree to which we have commercialized and the lack of accountability that results from such a step.

The ACT and SAT are the biggest examples of outside influences in education, by far.  Although they are not mandated in the state of Virginia, they are de facto final exams for high schoolers.  You would be hard pressed to find a student at the Governor’s School who wasn’t taking one or the other. Across the nation, more than 1.5 million students took the SAT last year (according to the Huffington Post.)  It has become necessary for college admissions; although some schools don’t require it, the vast majority require or recommend it. In our public schools, we take PSATs, and inevitably our curriculum is influenced by the SAT curriculum.  Schools want students to achieve high test scores. It makes them look good. Furthermore, the College Board essentially controls how certain subjects are taught through Advanced Placement classes, which have become so popular they are almost necessary for the college admission process.  That is not to say that the College Board is evil. It is almost certainly made up of people who are genuinely interested in helping educators across the nation. But when they set the curriculum for the entire nation, it detracts from teacher discretion. Furthermore, they aren’t perfect, evidenced by incidents such as the 2006 score reporting error.  And they aren’t held accountable in the same way that say, a school board, or local, state or even national legislature is. That’s immensely troubling, and serves to show why we at least ought to tread carefully when we include outside organizations in education.

Another, more sinister, side of the commercialization of education is advertising and corporate sponsorship in schools.  According the the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a bill introduced in the 2018 General Assembly session would allow advertising to be placed between the rear wheels of the school bus and the pack.  This bill was “punted” into the 2019 session in order to be studied and discussed further. This is immensely wise; while I would submit that advertising really has no place in the classroom (or in this case, the school bus,) it is clearly more nuanced than that.  Most, if not all, schools could use some extra revenue, and some counties are so underfunded that such advertising becomes necessary (the reason this bill was introduced.)  If we are to have advertising, it must be in the least intrusive way possible. Advertising detracts from a school’s authority as a learning environment.  

Corporate sponsorship in schools manifests itself in other ways.  According to the NEA, teachers across the nation are rallying against “McTeacher’s night,” when teachers serve students McDonald’s food to raise money for their school.  In my home district, Chesterfield, Chik-Fil-A nights are common as a fundraiser. While these events seem benign, there is little to ensure they have a lasting positive effect.  In fact, the opposite may be true. When students receive fast food served up by their teachers, the message (for some) is clear: the school endorses that fast food. That is a not a message a school should be interested in promoting, especially since many schools include nutrition as a key platform for their education.  Surely, McDonald’s is not being taught as a healthy choice. So then why should students see their teachers, those they look up to, actively working to provide them that food? In the same way, corporations pay for hallways, stadiums, classrooms, and other resources for schools; sometimes, with strings attached- requests or demands of the schools receiving donation.  A school’s control is threatened when corporate interests are allowed inside.

To re-emphasize: it’s clear that some commercialization in schools is necessary.  In the fast paced world we live in, sometimes a traditional school administration, or school board, or legislature, or other traditional government sponsored institution is too slow to respond to change.  That’s why organizations like the College Board step in. Schools are, seemingly perpetually, underfunded. Advertising and sponsorship can provide a temporary remedy to this problem. But the split between schools, and corporations, advertising, and commercialism should remain as wide as possible.  We must tread lightly.

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Grady Trexler, Assistant Opinions Editor

Grady Trexler is a junior and the Assistant Opinions Editor. He enjoys the Opinions section because it lets him be biased. Grady enjoys listening to music...

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