Remember WKRP in Cincinnati ? (I know, I’m showing my age here. Let’s just say my parents let me watch the show when I was an infant and I have an amazing memory and leave it at that, shall we?) I do. What I remember most (besides Dr. Johnny Fever, easily one of the most irreverent and subversive characters in my memory) was an episode called “Goodbye Johnny” and its sequel “Johnny Comes Back.” I have no idea why those two episodes made such a profound impact on me- perhaps they intersected with some specific stage of neurological development, creating a deep imprint on my psyche. Maybe I really connected with something on a visceral level. Maybe I caught it so many times in reruns that it just stuck, like that “dun-dun” sound from Law and Order. No matter- the specifics are irrelevant.
The specific theme of these episodes were something called payola– the exchange of cash or merchandise (in this case, drugs) for repeated airplay of a specific artist or song. Back in the prehistoric days of “radio as primary source of music,” airplay was everything. Getting a song played on the radio was the key to a getting a hit, and DJs held the power to decide which records got played and which didn’t. (Payola- when done secretly- is technically illegal, but not when one is upfront about it. They call it “Pay for Play” then).
So why the rock-n-roll history lesson?
A while back I presented at a national assessment conference. I’d never attended this specific event before, but I’d heard that state policy folks were thick on the ground and it seemed like a good place to talk about Critical Skills and the great opportunities to be found in collaboratively created assessments built by students and teachers. Plus, who doesn’t love a good conference?
What I didn’t expect was the swag. Now, granted- I tend to go to some pretty low-budget events. Typically thrown by groups more interested in spreading good ideas and supporting teachers than making big money, the swag distributed is pretty basic- a bag, maybe a pen. A presenter might land a cup (Yeah EduCon, I’m looking at you. That cup has been the envy of many a colleague here at AUNE.) or maybe a t-shirt (thanks Coalition of Essential Schools! )
The swag bag at this conference? It wasn’t big enough to hold all the swag. A cup, a clock, a portfolio-binder-thing, a fancy pen, etc- every item paid for by a text book or testing company. I wasn’t’ that surprised. I don’t live in a cave- I’d expected those folks to thow some money into this game- it’s their game, right? Lord knows they have the money to spend, so why not?
Then I went to the reception. Again- I’m used to a plate of cheese and crackers and a cash bar so my expectations may be unnaturally low. This was…not that. Lots of food, top shelf drinks, live band- all courtesy of Pearson. As I looked out on the room, filled with 20-something (i know, I’m showing my age again) policy wonks and state DoE staffers with a drink in each hand, boogying the night away, I was struck with two thoughts:
1. Good for them for having a good time.
2. Wait- they’re the ones making the decisions about which tests and textbooks their states purchase. Isn’t this payola- or at least payola-ish? (Cue the WKRP highlight reel in my head.)
I know, drug companies have been doing this for ages. They take doctors on jaunts and junkets to fabulous places in reward for specific drug sales. It’s a pay-to-play world, right?
But here’s the thing: My kids’ school sells wrapping paper to pay for field trips. I work with schools who don’t have money to pay teachers or buy basic supplies. School nurses, media specialists and art, music, and PE teaches are being cut left and right. So watching those DoE folks shake their collective groove things, knowing that the money to pay for that party came out of the coffers of the schools I work with everyday- the school my own children attend?
How dare they take money from our children and use it to throw bash-after-bash for those who should be making their decisions based on what is best for those children? Seems to me that if they’re making enough money to party like that, they can afford to lower their costs to states and schools who are struggling just to make ends meet.
Or- better yet- perhaps we need to take a good look at their profit margins and choose to opt out all
together. A naive idea? Perhaps. But I know that I can’t get that image out of my head and every time my kid comes home with another fundraiser or a teach asks if I’d like to buy a candy bar during a pd session, I get angrier- and a good does of anger may be just what the Doctor ordered.