Published Online:

On Commercial Television in Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The resources currently available to American teachers are not keeping pace with the new burdens being placed on them by changes in society. In seeking the means to address teachers' threadbare situation, schools should continue to explore with businesses ways of forging acceptable and mutually beneficial relationships.

Channel One, a daily news and information program for secondary schools that Whittle Communications is now testing in six schools, promises to bring corporate funds to the aid of teachers on an unprecedented scale.

But the program is controversial. Some critics would like to stifle Channel One before it has a chance to demonstrate its educational power.

We urge everyone to withhold judgment until the test results are known. The possible benefits to a generation of students are too big for casual dismissal.

While government at all levels can do more for the schools, it's clear in this age of yawning deficits and taxpayer revolts that an increase in government support commensurate with the educational need is wishful thinking.

The only other sector with the wherewithal--and the will--to make a major difference in the finances of the schools is business. Corporations are interested in young people as customers, of course, but they also have an immense stake in young people as employees of the future.

In seeking support from business, educators have traditionally asked for philanthropic funds. In fact, quite a few of the current projects fashionably referred to as school-business "partnerships" fall into this category.

But charity is a limited source: Companies allot well under 2 percent of their pretax profits to philanthropy. Takeover threats, leveraged buyouts, and other pressures to maximize short-term profits argue against a much more open-handed atmosphere. Tapping business in a more ambitious way will require innovative thinking.

The concept of Channel One originated with teachers. Whittle magazines and wall-poster magazines are distributed in more than 17,000 schools. In conversations with teachers in these schools, we heard urgent requests for imaginative materials to help teach world events in a manner that would engage teenagers and link the news to geography, history, and science.

Accordingly, Channel One is a 12-minute, network-quality news program--with big differences. The anchors are young people much like those in the audience. Every segment has clear educational significance, and every segment views world events from a teenage perspective.

Proposals for this kind of program have been floated for years, but a lack of funds and technology has kept them from materializing. Only 3 percent of U.S. school districts have satellite dishes. A typical school has one television set on a rolling cart for every 10 classrooms.

At no charge to the schools, Channel One provides the daily program and all of the equipment needed to receive and air it. Each participating school receives a color TV monitor for almost every classroom, as well as a satellite dish and a videotape recorder. Whittle Communications will install and service the whole system, which is then available to the school for other purposes.

Channel One will be the principal source of news for a large part of the audience. Though more than three and a half million teenagers become eligible to vote each year, many do not watch or read the news regularly.

Each program begins with a two-minute rundown of the day's headline stories, using animated maps to pinpoint the locale of each story. The headlines are followed by an extended "Focus" segment adding a4teenage or overtly educational perspective to one of the top stories.

The centerpiece of each day's show is an installment of a five-part series on a special subject--adding up, over the week, to a quarter of an hour of TV journalism on this topic. For example, such segments might treat teenagers in the Soviet Union, the environment, or careers of the 1990's.

The final portion of the program is devoted to features on such topics as health, money management, and technology. From time to time, we will examine a major historical event through the prism of pop culture.

Interspersed among the segments are short educational features, plus four 30-second commercials.

The two minutes per day of commercials pay for the program and all the equipment. If the pilot test succeeds and Channel One goes national in late 1990, we expect 8,000 to 10,000 schools to participate. At that size, providing the system would cost $80 million to $100 million a year, or about $12 per student.

While Whittle would be delighted to provide the service commercial-free to the schools in return for a fee, payments of that size far exceed the means of almost all schools. Nor do we see any prospect that corporations would put up such sums in return solely for brief mentions of their largesse.

The realistic question is whether schools should have access to this kind of news programming and equipment. To argue that the service is fine but that the commercials are unacceptable is to beg the question.

The advertisers on Channel One will include makers of jeans, toothpaste, sneakers, soft drinks, and similar products already heavily marketed to teenagers. The commercials will be advertisements the audience has seen at home.

All commercials will be reviewed for content; any deemed likely to be offensive in school won't appear. Ads for inappropriate or especially controversial products will be rejected. The advertisers will have no control over the program content.

Advertising in school is not new to teenagers. It appears everywhere from scoreboards to rulers. It apel10lpears in library copies of magazines and newspapers that teachers rightly encourage students to read. It appears in television programs that teachers tape off the air and show in class.

Students will pay closer attention to the 10 minutes a day of Channel One that they haven't seen before than to the two minutes they have.

And while concern about what is put before "captive audiences" is understandable, students will, as ever, choose whether or not to listen and watch. As a Kansas educator commented to us, "If captive audiences were really so great, no kid would ever fail a test."

Some critics say that nothing can be taught in 10 minutes of news and features. In this view, Channel One will simply waste valuable class time.

But the program is not a teacher--it is a resource. It will be a launching pad for classroom discussions the rest of the day. Those 10 minutes will resonate through the other 400 minutes of the academic schedule.

If Channel One were no more than a scheme to beam commercials into the classroom--or, as one critic charged, "social studies by 90-second sound bites"--it would stand no chance of being accepted by the schools. Our pilot test will challenge every aspect of the program. We will rigorously measure how well students retain information conveyed in the program, and we will adjust to reactions from teachers, students, and parents.

Joe Zesbaugh, president of the Pacific Mountain Network, an association of public-television stations in 13 Western states, put it this way in early March: "This system could be infinitely valuable to our schools. In education we are all looking for big, innovative ideas. If we are to expect financial support from the private sector, there must be some give and take."

And last summer, Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, observed: "A nation at risk will be saved only by a nation of risk takers."

What is being tested right now is whether the ratio of risks to rewards in Channel One is right for the schools and the students. The answer will tell a lot about the outlook for vigorous partnership between business and the schools.

Whittle's Plan 'Violates Public Trust,'Relies on 'Worst' Teaching Model

Education Week
Volume VIII, Issue 26, March 22, 1989. pp 25

Copyright 1989 Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Whittle's Plan 'Violates Public Trust,'Relies on 'Worst' Teaching Model

By Scott D. Thomson

Many schools enjoy solid partnerships with business. Why, then, would any educator object to the notion of trading 12 minutes a day of school time for fully installed television equipment and a news program with two minutes of advertising? Isn't the proposal of Whittle Communications a new and imaginative strategy for helping our troubled schools?

Perhaps not. Perhaps, rather, Whittle's plan violates some carefully developed relationships between the private sector and schools; perhaps it foists a superficial news show on the classroom, and maybe it does so by offering the carrot of obsolescent instructional-delivery systems.

When we force students attending compulsory schools to watch product advertising in the classroom, we are placing the minds of our sons and daughters on the auctioneer's block. Whoever is willing to pay the highest fee receives the students' undivided attention to a product. This approach creates a Valhalla for advertisers but violates the public trust given to schools to educate rather than indoctrinate.

While advertising can readily be found on school campuses, the Whittle proposal crosses a clear line previously honored by the private sector. Only its news show, Channel One, requires the focused attention of students in a classroom setting. Attention to all other advertising at school is voluntary, idiosyncratic, and casual. Students may or may not glance at an advertisement when reading a magazine article. Channel One offers no option; it provides the only live activity in the classroom.

Imagine a teacher with blackboard interrupting class after a 20-minute lesson to exclaim, "Kids, do I have a deal for you. Eat Snuggles bars and double your energy for homework tonight. I always keep a box by my desk."

This is precisely the Whittle format: The television monitor is the teacher and blackboard in electronic form. The idea of merchandising in the classroom should be as offensive to educators in an electronic mode as in human form.

Many major corporations, including ibm, Apple, Chrysler, and General Electric, have made substantial contributions of equipment and services to schools. Certainly, in these instances, enlightened self-interest and public image were involved, but no strings were attached.

But Whittle takes a direct, hard-sell approach, with major strings attached: control of both the programs and commercials aimed at captive classrooms. Corporate involvement and advertising in schools are one thing when businesses are interested in young people as students and potential employees but quite another when they see students only as consumers.

School officials work at preventing special-interest groups from coming in the front door of the building. In spite of sometimes immense pressures to add or subtract from the curriculum, they maintain a balance. But allowing advertising in the classroom simply lets special interests enter school by the back door.

Channel One itself is a three-part sandwich, including headline news, a short focus on a weekly topic, and a wrap-up, all presented by two young anchors. The production is superficial, emphasizing image above content. It provides social studies by 90-second sound bites.

The way to teach current events is not by throwing images on a screen every day but by focusing in depth on a timely topic. For example, if pollution is the subject, students should be advised to bring articles, newspaper clippings, and notes from television shows to class. The teacher and students can then discuss the causes of the problem, current efforts to reduce various kinds of pollution, and short- and long-term solutions. This method provides context, perspective, and analysis for the students, and they will remember the lesson.

We now have 25 years of research on instructional television, beginning with the federally funded Hagers4town, Md., experiment and continuing through an exhaustive analysis by the Ford Foundation. The results are a mixed bag. When used well, instructional television gets a grade of B; when used poorly, it receives a D.

Important to its effective use are two factors: control of time and topic by the teacher, and integration of the video piece with a larger lesson plan. Lacking these elements, instructional television doesn't deliver. It makes the least impact when controlled from outside the classroom and when presented without context.

Whittle proposes the worst possible model for using television in schools. All students must view programs on the same day whether or not the content is relevant to other classwork. Retention will be minimal under these circumstances.

Perhaps the school should set aside an hour a day for thorough discussion of current events? High-school faculties show little enthusiasm for this suggestion; they must already manage the curricular crush in their own subject fields, the priorities of colleges and universities, and mandates from state departments of education.

No questions about current events appear on the American College Testing program or the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or on international com8parisons of student achievement. Given recent reports that place American students at the back of the bus in international test scores, devoting large amounts of time to current events makes little sense.

Will students like the program? Except for the brightest, most will probably say that they enjoy it, or that the program makes them more aware of the news. But students would also support 12 minutes of National Football League highlights or a slice of one of the sitcoms.

The issue here is entertainment versus education. Liking a TV show does not equal learning by students; a happy face does not necessarily reflect an informed mind.

Schools today are spending their technology dollars on microcomputers rather than on television systems. A microcomputer with interactive software is a much more powerful instructional tool than is classroom TV, which in fact enjoyed more attention in the 1970's than it does now.

Microcomputers meet three of the most fundamental principles of learning: The learner should be an active participant; the difficulty of the material should match the ability of the student; and the learning environment should be individualized.

Classroom TV meets none of these criteria. The learner is passive; the difficulty of the material may be above some students and beneath others; and there is no individualization. Unless carefully tailored to individual classrooms, instructional television is about as effective as a below-average teacher.

But with software that responds to individual replies, and with word processing and simulation programs, the microcomputer is rapidly becoming the technology of choice in schools, along with videocassette players used at appropriate times in the lesson plan by teachers. For most purposes, group television presentations as proposed by the Whittle plan are obsolescent.

Advertisers salivate at the prospect of gaining a headlock on the youth market, because young people tend to become loyal to the first products used and they tend to influence parental purchases.

The Whittle proposal, therefore, is a high-stakes game. It sets a powerful industry, which wishes to increase consumption by young people, against the schools, which have been given a trust by the American public to educate fairly and thus to prevent special interests from invading the classroom. Since schools are a marketplace for ideas and not for pro4ducts, the responsibility of educators on this issue is clear.

Some argue that critics should wait for the results of the research on the pilot schools before taking a position. To conduct research, however, requires a research question. Whether or not to allow advertising to a captive student audience is not a research question; it is an ethical question.

And whether an advertising agency should dictate the curriculum and the delivery system in schools for 12 minutes a day is a professional issue as well as an ethical question.

We are confident that most educators will make the right decision.

Proposition 98 May Be 'Bad for Education'

Education Week
Volume 8, Issue 26, March 22, 1989, pp 36, 25

Copyright 1989, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Proposition 98 May Be 'Bad for Education'

Many educators were vastly heartened by the California electorate's approval in November of Proposition 98, a constitutional initiative earmarking a large portion of the state's annual budget for public schools.

School advocates in other states that have absorbed an economic battering may be casting an opportunistic eye to see if a constitutional-guarantees strategy is appropriate for their states as well.

But such measures are likely to prove bad public policy and bad politics--and may ultimately be bad for education.

Proposition 98 in fact amounts to little more than a crude, protectionist Band-Aid. The original wound, a nagging fiscal shortfall for schools, resulted from a fundamental failure of the political process. The long-term cure, in California as elsewhere, is not populist-initiated constitutional earmarking but a return to responsible representative government.

Beginning in the early 1970's, a series of blows buffeted education in California. When the baby boom burst, budgets shrank and enrollments declined; school boards had to close buildings and lay off teachers. And when inflation skyrocketed, school revenues did not stay even.

In 1973, the judicial process declared that state funding formulas were unconstitutional. The budgets of high-spending districts were frozen while public officials scrambled to find funds to elevate low-wealth districts.

A collective-bargaining bill was passed in 1976, but school boards and teachers simply pummeled each other black and blue over a few fiscal scraps.

In 1978, California's voters reacted to the relentless rise in property taxes by approving Proposition 13. This constitutional amendment withdrew billions of dollars in revenues from the public sector. More important, local control over schools virtually ceased--an outcome unanticipated by many of the measure's supporters. California's school financing was now controlled almost totally by the ebb and flow of national economic currents and state-level partisan politics.

In 1979, again skirting conventional legislative procedures, the electorate enacted another populist initiative, the so-called "Gann Amendment." This constitutional provision used a complicated formula to place a ceiling on state spending.

Facing both local and state fiscal limitations, California's schools were caught in a constitutional clamp. This was populism gone crazy.

The recession of the early 1980's made tax revenues even harder to come by, and awesome federal budget deficits guaranteed that there would be no financial bailout from Washington for public schools.

Between 1978 and 1983, California lost $7,000 per classroom in purchasing power. Teachers particularly suffered. Because of enrollment declines, there were too many applicants chasing too few open positions. Teachers' salaries, measured against rises in the Consumer Price Index, dropped 15 percent.

Improvement of economic conditions in 1983 did not solve California's school problems. Enrollments began to burgeon, and the state had to spend more money to hire new teachers and build new schools. Simply staying even now required billions more each year. And with other political forces competing for scarce resources to build freeways, prisons, toxic-disposal sites, and dams, schools felt themselves squeezed ever tighter.

In 1985, California's citizens enacted a state lottery, with profits reserved for education. Opponents claimed that schooling was too important to be supported by chance and that lotteries had a poor long-term revenue-generating record.

When the dust settled, schools were in fact receiving only 3 percent of their financing from lottery profits. But the typical Californian thought he had voted himself a chance to grab life's brass ring and solved the school-funding problem in the process. It became even more difficult to gain the public's ear regarding school financing.

By 1988, the state's school advocates were intensely frustrated. Despite a record-breaking $22-billion education budget, school purchasing power had only barely been restored to 1978 levels. Per-pupil spending still lagged behind the national average--and well behind most industrial states'. Indeed, New York State spent a whopping $75,000 more per classroom than California. Class sizes were the second highest in the United States, and teachers' salaries, when adjusted for age of workforce and regional cost of living, were only average for the nation.

At this point, the California Teachers Association concluded that the only short-run solution was to go directly to the people: The electorate had locked the schools constitutionally in a fiscal straitjacket, and only the electorate could release the bindings. Opinion polls suggested that the public was now willing to spend more tax money, if it went to education. Hence, a constitutional initiative was carefully crafted to comply with the technical intricacies of Proposition 13 and the Gann Amendment.

Although the state school chief, Bill Honig, teachers, and their supporters committed $6 million and innumerable hours of personal time to the campaign, the initiative passed by a margin of less than 1 percent.

Proposition 98 guarantees for schools either 39 percent of the state's general-fund budget, or the same amount they received the previous year after adjustments for inflation and enrollment increases, whichever is higher. Equally important, the Gann-imposed ceiling on state spending is shattered; a healthy proportion of added state dollars is now mandated exclusively to benefit schools.

In return, educators must provide additional accountability information--for example, test scores and dropout rates--to the public. To many, however, that seems like a small price for what is estimated to be $200 million more for schools in the initial academic year--and perhaps billions more subsequently. California's educators believe schools are at last receiving the public support they deserve.

But this end may not justify the public-policy distortions and political friction caused by constitutional earmarking.

When millions of votes, billions of dollars, and the public welfare are at stake, the "ready, fire, aim" mentality of many initiatives is not useful.

Using the initiative process to obtain a constitutionally protected funding base for education crudely circumvents the deliberative and balancing capacity of representative government. To attract voter support, ballot initiatives frequently must be framed in simple and boldly overstated terms. Such populist mechanisms seldom permit the careful crafting that can occur as a consequence of committee hearings, floor debates, lobbying, and thoughtful compromise.

It is said that one should never witness either sausage or legislation in the making. But both processes will likely appear tidy compared to the implementation of Proposition 98. By early this year, political actors were already jockeying in their attempts to determine exactly what Proposition 98 meant.

Initiative earmarking also invites governmental Balkanization and organizational inflexibility.

To be sure, education is a fundamental social undertaking--but some citizens feel that health, criminal justice, environmental protection, transportation, social welfare, and a host of other governmental services are also important. Should each of these interests also have its annual funding base secured by a constitutional provision?

If such an approach became the norm, there would be virtually no role for legislative and executive budgeting. Worse yet, organizational boundaries would become even less permeable, and cooperation across social sectors would be more difficult to induce.

In fact, Proposition 98 increases the likelihood of political conflict. The measure excludes the state's two university systems from its protective umbrella. Higher-education leaders, who are unhappy on the outside looking in, fear that Proposition 98 will intensify budget competition. Officials of county and municipal governments, which depend partly on the state for revenue, believe themselves disadvantaged by Proposition 98. And leaders in other public sectors, such as the state police, the criminal-justice system, and the health and transportation systems, are also expressing displeasure. Several agencies are considering lawsuits to challenge Proposition 98's constitutionality.

Earmarking not only triggers institutional rivalry, it also promotes personal political animosity. Gov. George Deukmejian openly opposed Proposition 98; it reduces his power. But Mr. Honig, the chief state school officer, spent a healthy hunk of his own campaign funds in support of the measure. He and the Governor have seldom been on friendly terms, and the proposition's enactment will do little to enhance their relationship.

In California's system, the governor holds many of the budgetary trump cards. He now may be substantially less predisposed to play them for education's benefit.

But won't the state legislature--dominated by Democrats--still be willing to battle the Republican Governor for education's benefit? The answer is not a clear "yes." Many lawmakers view earmarking as a threat to their power as well.

And legislators of all political stripes have other constituencies besides education. Now that school funding has a constitutionally privileged position, powerful legislators may be less eager to defend it--particularly if spending for one of their other favorite services has to be reduced as a consequence of Proposition 98's formula requirements. Politically, education may have lost by winning.

Indeed, there are some who hope that Proposition 98 will shortly create such political and budgetary chaos as to trigger an electoral undoing of the entire Proposition 13 and Gann-limit fiscal mess. Governor Deukmejian has already suggested that he now favors a modification of the Gann spending limit.

A measure some education advocates believe was justified by California's history is unlikely to be a practical solution for other states. Those who believe that schools in their state need more money should try to raise it in the old-fashioned political ways--through lobbying, campaign contributions, pressure groups, letters to the editor, petitioning, protesting, electioneering, and other methods.

But whatever the political tactic, school advocates must not bypass representative government. Even education as the end is unlikely to justify that means.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories