If you have a school-aged child, or you’re a teacher, or if you just know a teacher, you are probably aware of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. If you’re not familiar, the two main things you need to know about Common Core for purposes of understanding this post are: 1. it is an initiative to standardize what K-12 American schoolchildren should know in English Language Arts and math at the conclusion of each school year, and 2. it is extremely controversial and under attack on numerous political fronts, left, right and center.
In New York, a state that is both an early adopter of the Common Core standards and the site of a large-scale grassroots campaign opposing the initiative, Common Core is facing renewed criticism because the standardized state English tests invoke a great number of brand names, including Nike, Barbie, iPod, Mug Root Beer and Life Savers. For example, students who took the test reported that one question began, “Just Do It’ is a registered trademark of Nike…”
Critics believe that dropping brand names in these tests unfairly exposes children to marketing messages and commercializes public education. The state Education Department denies that mentions of brands are the result of paid placements or endorsement deals. Several of the companies whose brands are mentioned have likewise denied involvement, as has Pearson, the company that produces the tests for New York.
It should be noted that Pearson’s involvement in the process is one of the more controversial aspects of Common Core. Many people object to the extent that the for-profit assessment company has become intertwined with public educational policy. From that standpoint, the controversy over the brand names represents a thorny public relations challenge. Not only does the issue irritate people on its own, it also serves to remind them of one of the things that made them uncomfortable about Common Core in the first place — fear of their children’s educations being co-opted by corporations.
As the parent of school-aged children in New York, I have some fundamental problems with Common Core that go way beyond a passing mention of Life Savers on a test question. Putting my feelings as a parent, a citizen of New York State and an opponent of Common Core aside and speaking strictly from a marketing standpoint, I think it would be a good idea for the state and for Pearson to stop putting brand names on the tests. Having them there just adds more fuel to an anti-Common Core fire that’s already burning red-hot from Buffalo to Long Island. Even if the tests aren’t part of some stealth campaign to market to children — and there does not appear to be any evidence that they are — the optics are simply horrible. This is a case where even the appearance of potential impropriety can cause a lot of damage. For a company that’s already taking a PR beating, Pearson has led with their chin on this issue. Their best course of action would be to quietly remove the brands from future tests and let the issue die.
Finally, in the interests of full disclosure, I teach a class where the lectures, textbook and yes, the tests, frequently mention many real-life brands. Of course, I teach marketing to adult college business school students, where recognizable brands like Nike, Apple and Procter & Gamble are a major part of the subject matter. I think those are pretty significant distinctions from, say, a third grade English assessment, but just in case somebody wants to beat me over the head for hypocrisy on the issue, I figured it’s best to just hand them a club right now and get it over with.