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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

DOE Announces Cannes Festival Lion Titanium Award

As the 2007/08 school year drew to a close, the DOE’s public relations machine churned out a little-noted press release entitled, “Chancellor Klein Hails Department of Education’s Student Motivation Campaign for Winning Cannes Lion Titanium Award for Best ‘Breakthrough Idea’ of 2008.” The “breakthrough idea” turned out not to be an educational initiative or new instructional technology, nor a new concept for school operation or administration. The “breakthrough idea” award was not even for the DOE’s pilot program to give free cell phones to 2,500 students in seven middle schools. Rather, the award celebrated the packaging concepts for the underlying “cell phone minutes as motivator" idea, and it was given not to the DOE but to its advertising agency, Droga5, for its Million Motivation Campaign and The Million cell phone.

The Million? That’s the ostentatious but quietly shepherded name of the DOE’s free cell phone. The name is apparently premised on the idea that the City’s one million public school students from Pre-K-12 (you have to include Pre-K to top one million students in the DOE’s official 10/31/07 register) are all potential recipients. Doubtless among that million are hordes of Pre-K to Grade 4 children whose parents relish the idea of cell phones in their wee ones’ hands, just as there are doubtless equal hordes of NYC high schoolers simply salivating over the prospect of a DOE-monitored and DOE–controlled, limited functionality cell phone.

Back to the award, though. The Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival is exactly that – an advertising industry awards extravanza. Winners are chosen not for the merits of their products or programs but for their promotional packaging effectiveness. Otherwise, the DOE’s free cell phone idea would certainly have difficulty standing next to some of its competitors this year: anti-smoking, homelessness, HIV testing, Down Syndrome, environmental awareness, and drinking water shortages in the less-developed world, to name several. Droga5’s, and by inference the DOE’s, Titanium Award was not granted by experts in the field of academics, but by experts in the arts of style over substance, of emotion and misdirection over logic and content. A truly fitting award, indeed, for the City’s current educational regime.

A look at Droga5’s video submission (it's worth watching the whole thing) to the Cannes Lion Festival makes it clear why the advertising industry was so enamored of their campaign. Yes, it’s graphically slick, as expected from an agency whose client list includes Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Adidas, ecko unltd., and MTV. Better from an advertising standpoint, though, are the prominent displays of the names Samsung and Verizon on the cell phone itself. Better still are the “rewards” programs, featuring among others AMC Theaters, Adidas, Apple Computer, Macy’s, Foot Locker, Sean John, Virgin Megastores, all members of an innocuously described “responsible, on-screen corporate partnership” whose participation ensures that “The Million pays for itself.”

What branded product executive wouldn’t positively drool at the prospect of reaching into the purported Million young minds every day through a free, school system certified, advertising message delivery system? No wonder the folks at Cannes handed The Million its Titanium award -- they could probably barely contain themselves over the prospect of a captive student cell phone rollout across America’s major urban school systems. In Droga5’s video, DOE’s Chief Equality Officer Roland Fryer was already alluding to inquiry calls from the Chicago and Houston public school systems. The video closes with gushing accolades from the education experts at Esquire Magazine (a Droga5 client), Conde Nast, and (wonder of wonders!) Bloomberg News.

The DOE also proudly announced that The Million program was piloted in seven middle schools this year (starting back in February). While those schools are seldom if ever mentioned by name, The Million’s own website identifies four of the seven as KIPP charter schools – Academy Charter, A.M.P. Charter, Infinity Charter, and S.T.A.R. College Preparatory. The remaining three are Ebbetts Field Middle School (K352), JHS 234 - Arthur Cunningham (K234), and IS 349 – Math, Science & Tech (K349), all in Brooklyn. All three of the non-charter middle schools received grades of B on their last year’s School Progress Reports. Although the cell phone rewards were ostensibly connected to positive student behaviors, all three schools declined from between 0.2% to 1.0% in attendance rate this year compared to last year. All three schools did, however, show positive increases in the percentage of students who scored proficient (3 or 4) on the Math and ELA exams despite noticeable longitudinal (cohort) declines from Grade 7 to Grade 8 in Math (-9%) and ELA (-12%) at Math, Science & Tech and a smaller decline (-4%) in Math from Grade 6 to Grade 7 at Ebbetts Field.

The DOE’s press release closed with the declaration that, “Pending available funding, the plot will grow to reach 10,000 students during the 2008-09 school year.” Funding from which corporate sponsor(s), do you think?

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