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Repositioning Business and Marketing Education

--James R. Gleason, Ph.D.

Is your guidance counselor inclined to send top quartile students your way?  Probably not.  And, no doubt you find it frustrating.

But, maybe that’s the wrong question.  Although we all think we want “better” students, perhaps we need to better define what we mean.  Does better mean smarter?  Does it mean “cooler”? Or does it simply mean “interested” in our curricula.  In many respects, the challenge of enrolling more, and more appropriate, students is a simple and straightforward marketing problem.  If the potential student is our market, then parents, administrators, counselors, and guidance staff are the gatekeepers and influencers.  Let’s consider carefully the message that we send via the many decisions we make each year about curricula, activities, work requirements, academics, student organizations, and all of the other perceptions created by our program offering and our expectation of students.

Through their eyes! 
Critical to any discussion of positioning any product or service is to view it through the eyes of the customer and gatekeepers.  You purchase the instructional materials of your choice, but only if they are approved by the gatekeepers in your school.  Therefore, a textbook company must convince you that their book should be your first choice, and in turn get the approval of your school board, principal, department chair, or other gatekeeper.

We all know that we do good things for kids.  But what we fail to do is to communicate the value we add in terms that are meaningful to our customers and gatekeepers.  Since we will not make the decision to grow, close, fund, discourage or encourage business administration programs, we must learn to communicate on the basis of the interests and reward structures of those who will:  Administrators and guidance counselors in the school, parents and their children, and our business communities.

Along these lines, we must begin to think of our programs as a brand.  And, experts in building brands will suggest that we need to send a consistent message, identify and manage touch points, consider the competition, and build a marketing and communications strategy that addresses benefits of interest to the targeted groups.  Touch points are where our programs and our customers and gatekeepers interact.  Curriculum might be viewed as one.  Our classroom and the message its condition sends might be a touch point.  Certainly test scores represent a touch point of great interest in today’s academic environment.

Interestingly, at least in the case of business and marketing programs, we need to recognize that each of our potential audiences has different touch points, different reward structures, and different perspectives.  If we are to build stronger programs, we must address each.

Getting the focus right.
Rule one in building a brand is to develop a strategic message that is consistent, easily understood, and that has value to the target audience.  Unfortunately, although certainly not the case in all schools, we have too often confused our various audiences with mixed messages and misleading labels.  Some examples:

  • We call it marketing education, but in many cases the curriculum focuses on consumer economics, core business skills, retailing, work readiness, and student organization activities.  Although there have been significant improvements in recent years, in many states, the typical high school curriculum remains oriented to basic business and consumer concepts.
  • We call it business education, but in many cases the curriculum focuses on basic computer applications – on tools that are very generic and used by virtually all professionals.  Our other “business” courses often focus more on consumer education.  (Business law is often more about being a consumer than it is about business.) 
  • The administration thinks of them as DECA or BPA or FBLA students.  If, as it does to many, that translates in the eyes of our administrators to fund-raising, trips, and trophies, we’ve missed the point of our program.  (To its credit, National DECA is doing an admirable job of aligning its events with national standards, building a strong case for the co-curricular aspect of the organization.  BPA and FBLA are building similar initiatives.)
  • Cooperative work experience typically translates to part-time jobs wherever they happen to be available.  Most co-op students work side-by-side with other students who are not enrolled in marketing or any other curriculum-based work experience.  The message to administrators:  co-op is the same as work release which then begs the question: Why should I pay a teacher to supervise the program?


Our future success will depend on us developing and managing a consistent, branded message that focuses on those experiences and related benefits that matter to our various constituencies (customers and gatekeepers).  There are many opportunities to manage our touch points.  As we look at trends and issues affecting the growth of our programs, let’s consider how we might use them to build a brand message.

Trends and issues. 
As we look at what states are doing in Career and Technical Education generally, and business/marketing specifically, there are many challenges and opportunities that come to light.  Issues and trends of interest include:

  • Heavy emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curricula.  Issues surrounding STEM are clearly one of the top discussion items among State Directors of CTE.  Project Lead the Way has effectively channeled this interest into the pre-engineering program that the organization supports. 

    Challenge:  Resources are being consumed disproportionately to support STEM-based programs.  Students are being required to take more and more math. (Interestingly, we seem more interested in layering on more math in the high school than in strengthening the core arithmetic and very basic math skills taught in elementary and middle schools – the very math that our focus groups suggest is most useful to most business leaders.)

    Opportunity:  The STEM emphasis is beginning to morph into discussions of other upscale programs in health, agriculture, and through our own High School of Business, in marketing and business education.  As our schools begin to recognize that more calculus does not solve all problems, we’re likely to see more attention paid to alternatives.  The interest in STEM will wane as students begin to find an excess of engineers and the like.  Let’s document and be prepared to demonstrate how we can reinforce key math skills that do matter to all students, to all professions.  We should seriously consider building statistics into our own program requirements.  When students understand probability and very basic statistics, it quite literally changes their lives.  Every business panel we’ve asked has recommended statistics;  virtually none have pushed for more trig or calculus except in relation to engineering and comparable positions.
     
  • Computer applications courses, particularly those centered on various Microsoft Office applications, are rapidly moving to the elementary and middle schools.

    Challenge:  In some cases, the teacher moves with the courses to the middle school, reducing the number of high school faculty.  In other instances, the teacher remains in the high school and must develop and promote alternative business courses.

    Opportunity: In the latter case, we have a unique opportunity to better position new business courses within the overall business administration framework that we believe critical to the future of both business and marketing education.  As students increasingly come to the ninth grade with basic computer skills, we can use those skills throughout the balance of the business administration curriculum.  For students who choose a business focus, this also opens more time in their high school program to take more substantive business courses – including those taught by both business and marketing education faculty.
     
  • The number of business and marketing programs has been in steep decline for a number of years.  Decisions to eliminate programs at the local levels appear to be driven in part by efforts to focus on academics, concern with the level of curriculum offered by our programs, and lack of available certified teachers to replace large numbers of retirees.  Fortunately, there is some indication that these various issues are being addressed and that program numbers are beginning to stabilize.  Some states have seen small increases.

    Challenge:  Without computer applications courses,  business and marketing do not have a critical mass in many schools.  There are very few “traditional” teacher education programs preparing future business/marketing teachers.  Most that do continue to focus on teaching technology, a program rapidly moving to lower grade levels.

    Opportunity:  Businesses and business schools alike are moving to eliminate silos.  We need to do something similar.  At the very least, business and marketing teachers must work to jointly develop programs of study that make use of the specific expertise of each teacher.  Let’s begin to propose a broader and more substantive course offering, including both basic and honors-level programs.  Working together as part of a business administration team helps build the critical mass that will ultimately help us survive in the marketplace.  At the same time, let’s embrace alternative certification programs that bring industry people into our classrooms (even if it means getting the laws changed). 
     
  • Cooperative work experience is gradually going the way of register training.  Many states have abandoned all work requirements for CTE.  Requiring the traditional co-op experience appears to create enrollment challenges as students add required and college-recommended courses.

    Challenge:  In many cases, we have failed to demonstrate adequately that supervised cooperative work experience adds value.  If co-op and non-co-op students have the same experiences, it’s hard to document value.

    Opportunity:  The business community will be faced with a sever labor shortage  in the coming years.  They know it and they’re worried.  Let’s work with them now to build alternative work-based experiences, including unpaid internships, summer internships, and other short-term requirements.  Unpaid internships may provide business and marketing educators unique opportunities to move students out of typical teenage jobs and to help them see real career positions as is done in other areas (e.g., health, engineering).  In addition to providing higher quality experiences for our students, these strategies also provide opportunities for us to network into higher levels of the business community than is now typical.
     
  • The challenges of No Child legislation, particularly issues of testing, have encouraged schools to focus on test results, to increase focus on traditional academics, to increase required courses in math and language, and to require various remediation courses.

    Challenges:  These changes to course offerings, course length, course requirements, and other local decisions have limited students’ time for elective courses.  Not surprisingly, as schools have increased specific course requirements in an effort to improve test scores, the number of drop-outs has increased.

    Opportunities:  Some business and marketing teachers are finding ways to position their programs as a tool for reinforcing core academics.  For example, there are many opportunities embedded within the national standards to reinforce language, social science, and math standards.  (Our own organization is doing so as part of our work with model programs of study.)  Because of the way testing is typically administered, it will be difficult for us to prove impact.  Therefore, we need to find ways to ensure that gatekeepers recognize the contribution we make to student learning.
     
  • The Career Cluster initiative is beginning to take hold in many states.  In most, at least three and often four of the Clusters are being grouped into a more broadly-based business cluster.

    Challenges:  As Career Clusters are collapsed, it will be increasingly hard to maintain a separate identity for each Cluster.

    Opportunities:  Based on our research, there is a common core of knowledge and skill sets that apply to students interested in finance, marketing, or business management and administration.  Preliminary research suggests that these same knowledges and skills support careers within the hospitality/tourism Career Cluster.   Therefore,  MBAResearch supports a Business Administration model that encourages collaboration and articulation between business education and marketing education faculty.
     
  • Student organizations tend to influence classroom instruction as teachers align what they do with competitive events.

    Challenges:  If focus on a competitive event reduces focus on the national standards, overall learning and, therefore, test scores will decline.  Many CTSO events are very narrowly targeted and do not represent the overall learning needed by students preparing for college and career.

    Opportunities:  DECA has established a task force and is working with MBAResearch to fully align its competitive event program with the national Business Administration standards.  Both BPA and FBLA are sponsors of the research underlying the new standards and are studying next steps in relation to their own offerings.  To the degree that participation in competitive events means recognition for achieving the research-based standards that industry demands, CTSO’s will have made a major contribution to the future of our next generation managers and executives.
     
  • Over the last ten years, there has been a great deal of convergence of traditional business education and marketing education programs.  A majority of states have an administrative structure such that one leadership position is responsible for both program areas.  Many states view the two as one consolidated business/marketing program.  All states recognize and sponsor at least one business CTSO (either BPA or FBLA) and DECA.

    Challenges:  Most of the issues of convergence revolve around legacy programs and CTSO issues.  Each of us wants to protect what we know and care about.

    Opportunities:  A fully integrated business administration program provides opportunity for building a stronger, more comprehensive program of study, encourages teamwork among all business and marketing teachers,  utilizes diverse backgrounds and cultures, and can lead to better learning outcomes for all students.  Each of the three most relevant CTSO’s will continue to strengthen its own program as it adapts to the new reality.  Joint initiatives among the CTSO’s could lead to a broadly-based increase in total enrollment which translates to more members and more leadership and competitive opportunities for our students.
     
  • The convergence of business and marketing is more than administrative.  As business education has evolved from a clerical program (office education) and marketing education from a retail program, both have begun to address the fundamentals of business as the core of their respective program areas.  This is likely to accelerate as computer applications courses move to middle school and as co-op diminishes in significance.  Clearly the opportunity is for the development of a common Business Administration program of study that begins with a common core and leads to specializations such as finance, marketing, or high-level administrative services.

    Challenges:  Business and marketing education programs have developed their coursework separately in most states.  Working together to build comprehensive programs of study will require major investments.

    Opportunities:  A college-like program of study is likely to make a very strong statement among all our customers and gatekeepers.  Imagine a substantive principles of business course taken by most students (ninth or tenth grade), followed by various more specialized courses typical of a college program.  Adding the potential for college credits at the end of the total program of study leads to a package with real merit in the eyes of guidance, administration, and parents.
     
  • Perkins “programs of study” requirements demand more time of students and more strategic planning by teachers.

    Challenge:  Independent, free-standing courses are likely to have less significance within the CTE arena.  “Requiring” students to commit earlier in high school will create enrollment challenges.

    Opportunities:  Three and four-year high school options can  lead to better organized and sequenced business courses that result in more meaningful connections to work and college.  If we build the program of study so that the early years have strong appeal to all students (e.g., introducing personal finance, leadership, and applied academics), we have a model with strong appeal to our gatekeepers, as well.  We add still more value if the resulting multi-year program leads to college credits.
     
  • Perkins requires CTE programs to focus on high-skill, high-wage, high-demand careers.

    Challenge: The Perkins requirements will force all of us to rethink our program models.   Those targeted at entry-level retail or entry-level clerical careers will simply not meet the federal requirements.

    Opportunities:  Building a program focused on more challenging, more strategic business skills – whether in marketing, finance, hospitality, or business management and administration – will lead to a seat at the table as educational decisions are made locally.  To the degree that we demand more from our students, guidance counselors’ perceptions of whose needs our programs best meet will change.  It will take courage and persistence on our parts to set appropriate levels of expectations and stick to the requirements.  Some students will choose other options even as we begin to attract those who are truly interested in business careers.
     
  • School stores are being challenged.

    Challenges:  Too many of our school stores, operated most often by marketing programs, are little more than fund-raisers.  Those that focus on over-the-counter candy and snacks are increasingly losing favor.

    Opportunities:  In-school enterprises organized as learning labs – and particularly those that go beyond typical retail-based school store – have the potential to enhance work-based experiences for all business students.  To the degree that each student experience is aligned specifically with program standards, they have the potential to make very strong statements about the learning that takes place in our programs.
     
  • Our business curricula have not adequately addressed the financial side of business.  Feedback from the business community, test results and competitive event results (including judge feedback) all suggest that the business curriculum is not adequately delivering financial knowledge and skills.

    Challenges:  Finance can be hard to teach and, in many cases, is a topic we know little about.

    Opportunities:  There has never been a better time to make a statement about the validity and critical needs for our programs.  To that end, we’ve incorporated significantly more financial information into the national business administration core.  We’re introducing new instructional materials to help teachers embed finance within the curriculum. Fortunately, finance is a topic that lends itself to academic integration (both math and social studies), providing an additional incentive for support by the gatekeepers.

 

In summary, there are many national trends and issues that we must address if we are to ensure the growth and stability of a meaningful business administration curriculum (delivered via business education, marketing education, or some combination or assimilation of the two).  So, as we talk of “repositioning,” what does the future hold?

The 21st century survivors.
Although each state (and to a large degree, each local school) will find different solutions and use different strategies, our research – both formal and informal – suggest that the programs that survive and grow will share many common characteristics.  Among them:

  • Close connections to the business community including:
    • Curricula based specifically on industry-validated content,
    • Participation of local business leaders in the instructional process – internships, classroom visits, field trips, etc.
    • Strong advisory groups that include senior-level management
    • Continuing relationships with successful alumni
  • Curricula that truly teach business, from a business perspective, for example:
    • Focusing on marketing communications rather than on how to design an advertisement
    • Focusing on finance rather than the debits and credits typical of first year accounting classes
    • Teaching students how to maximize return on the sale of a car as opposed to teaching how to shop for a car
  • Proactive reinforcement of academics within the context of the business administration curriculum.  (This is different from teaching academics!) And, proactively managed relationships with the academic faculty
  • Substantive three and four-year Business Administration programs of study with common and specialized courses and offered at various levels of rigor (including honors business curricula)
  • Proactive proof of student learning via industry-based certifications such as those offered via the A*S*K Institute.
  • Close connections with local college faculty, including both the community college and the four-year college business faculty (not to be confused with the teacher educators we already work with)
  • Strong student organization involvement, including both competitive events and leadership development
  • Flexible scheduling to accommodate challenging schedules of college-bound students, perhaps including after-hours course offerings
  • Integrated technology skills throughout the entire program of study – i.e., using technology to solve business problems, as opposed to teaching computer applications as a free-standing course.
  • Integration of entrepreneurial concepts and skills throughout the program of study
  • Heavy use of problems-based pedagogy, utilizing a wide variety of projects and inquiry-based strategies that help students learn to take initiative in finding solutions to the day-to-day challenges faced by business leaders

 

In conclusion, let me be very clear.  What we have done for so many students for so many years has been very positive.  I have personally talked with many business executives who, as VP’s, Directors, Managers, and Owners, still talk about their high school experience in business and marketing classes, and who still remember their experiences with BPA, FBLA, and DECA.

The call I make for repositioning is not a criticism of our past.   Rather, it’s an appeal to recognize that things change.  We work in a very different educational environment.  Our students, parents, administrators, and other gatekeepers expect more, expect different, and expect results.

Challenging as it might be, we have today a unique and very positive opportunity to build a bigger, stronger, and more effective program.  Let’s work together to ensure that all students interested in business have the opportunity for that head start that we can provide through a challenging, research-based  business administration curriculum with appropriate specializations in hospitality, management and administration, finance and marketing. 


Dr. Gleason is President/CEO of MBA Research.  He is a former high school and college teacher.  

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