Stars, sex and Bud—Super Bowlin’ schools

I spent a pile of dough on snacks for Super Bowl XXXVIII despite the fact that few in my house actually follow football, and no one really cares much about the New England Patriots or the Whatever Panthers.

It’s amazing what we’ll do for a party, an American tradition, a media-induced ritual that draws our nation together in the name of entertainment/consumption. (Other such rituals include Day after Thanksgiving Sales and Survivor parties, in which fans of the TV show watch the show while dining on Survivor region-appropriate cuisine.)

As Beyoncé sang the national anthem Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of 130 million people glued to the set, waiting for the kick-off, eating Oscar Mayer wieners and the Cheese That Goes Crunch and drinking Budweiser. We’ve been well-trained.

So I got to random thinking—that’s pretty typical for me during sports events. What if the media turned their vast powers of marketing to something important—like the state of our public education system?

Oh, I know. You wouldn’t get millions to tune in for, say, a seventh-grade spelling bee or the High School Math Bowl. And without a hundred million viewers or so, there’s no reason advertisers would pay $73,333 per second to advertise between rounds of algebra and geometry.

Or would they?

Perhaps if we applied some of the same techniques to public education that have worked so well with the Super Bowl, we’d see some change.

First off, you’ve got to privatize education. Get rid of teachers’ unions—they’re always trying to wangle higher salaries for instructors who obviously couldn’t make a living doing an honest day’s work outside the academy. Introduce vouchers across the board. Then let the market do its magic.

What might you expect to see if schools were run like football leagues?

A star system. Like fine athletes, superior students—kids who can hold viewers spellbound during well-hyped reality TV academics—would have contracts that schools, or “teams,” would buy, sell and trade. Stellar teachers, like fine football coaches, would rake in millions for schooling young stars in showmanship. Failing or non-photogenic teachers would get the axe.

Plenty of skin. Here’s an idea. Let MTV produce school talent shows! During the Super Bowl’s half-time, I watched Nelly grab his crotch as girls in short shorts sang, “I’m getting so hot/I want to take my clothes off.” Justin Timberlake groped Janet Jackson for several onstage minutes before he tore off her shirt. A breast on network TV? And the FCC is worried about U2 singer Bono’s language? Educators, listen up. Sex sells. Maybe it’s time not only to drop dress codes, but also to encourage skimpy attire. Hot freshmen in halters? Who wouldn’t tune in for that? Pharmaceutical companies would be lining up to buy upbeat commercials plugging helpful pills. Schools could make money!

Product placement. If textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill charged McDonald’s or Budweiser or Philip Morris enough for full-color ads placed throughout, say, a math book, it could offer free textbooks to budget-crunched school districts. Clever writers could work the products into actual text for additional fees. Here’s a fun math sample: If a Big Mac costs $2.14, a medium order of fries is $1.54 and a medium Coke is $1.19, how much do you save by ordering a value meal for $3.79? If you super-size for 32 cents extra, how much do you save?

I proposed that last idea to my kids, who nodded and munched and tracked first downs. My oldest son was fine with corporate-subsidized textbooks.

“Wouldn’t it bother you to have ads for fast food in your literature book?” I asked him, hopefully.

“Nah, not if it’s free,” he said.

There you have it. There’s just no down side to the free market.