Should Teachers Be Allowed to Promote Commercial Products?

The New York Times ran an interminable front-page piece on Sunday raising doubts about the ethics and propriety of teachers who promote commercial products, especially those from big tech firms like Apple and Google, for use by other teachers and their schools. The example that reporter Natasha Singer focused on—”one of the tech-savviest teachers in the United States”—is an ace third grade teacher named Kayla Delzer, whose classroom is in the hamlet of Mapleton, North Dakota. Her brand is Top Dog Teaching, and she does indeed promote a wide range of instructional strategies and commercial products that range from her own line of tee shirts, to books and newsletters she’s written, to plugs for corporate products like the “itslearning” classroom management system.

That Ms. Delzer is a multi-tasking dynamo is not in dispute, nor is her instructional prowess. What the Times found a bunch of “experts” to huff about is the propriety of public-school teachers serving as “ambassadors” for the corporate world—and getting compensated in various ways for doing so.

It’s not a trivial issue—and never is when professionals who are presumably looking after the best interests of those they serve are engaged by outside interests to promote products and services sold by those interests. The most familiar version of this is when physicians are wooed and rewarded by pharmaceutical companies and end up both prescribing the products of those firms more often than might be medically indicated, as well as boosting those products to other doctors, medical students, and patients. As the Times notes, “some academic medical centers now prohibit their doctors from giving industry-sponsored speeches. And some drug companies have stopped giving doctors swag.”

The suggestion posed by the article is that there should be more “public discussion about the ramifications of similar tech-industry cultivation of teachers.”

Sure there should be such “discussion.” But as we start to huff and puff about it, let’s bear a few things in mind.

First, there’s absolutely nothing new about educators promoting commercial products—and getting compensated in various ways for doing so. That’s what happens when salesmen for textbook companies treat school superintendents to golf games and nice lunches, after which the district buys their textbooks. That’s what happens at every education conference I’ve ever attended when attendees are given lots of time to wander through vast halls full of promotions, freebies, and come-ons by the dozens (or hundreds) of conference “sponsors,” i.e., the firms that are underwriting the event itself. That’s what happens when those same firms take out ads in magazines and newsletters subscribed to by teachers and principals—or sent to them as a benefit of union membership. Speaking of which, check out the NEA website and you’ll find leads to innumerable commercial products that are recommended to teachers by other teachers.

Second—pointing out the obvious—we don’t do a very good job of compensating teachers in America and many find they must supplement their incomes in various ways. Ethically and morally, what’s the difference between a teacher who promotes a Google or Microsoft product after school and during vacations, and one who promotes Tupperware, Mary Kay cosmetics, or a particular summer camp? True, the former category includes items that may be used in classrooms, and teachers who promote them should signal to their peers whether they’re being compensated by the company for doing so, but it’s hard to see an ethical concern that can’t be dealt with via transparency.

Third—and not much discussed—shouldn’t we get just as exercised about teachers who promote unproven or even harmful pedagogical ideas, such as “multiple intelligences,” “whole language” reading, and “fuzzy” math? They’re not only jeopardizing the future of children in classrooms led by other teachers who heed their counsel; unlike Ms. Delzer, they’re also ill-serving their own pupils! One of the issues raised in the long Times article is that “there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies [such as those embraced by “ambassadors” like Ms. Delzer] significantly improve student outcomes.” Fair enough. But we have tons of rigorous research showing that some instructional strategies do improve student outcomes and others do not. How are we to view teachers who employ the latter kind—and who encourage others to employ them, too?

— Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

This post originally appeared on Flypaper.

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