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Most innovative advertiser in the world: the DOE

It’s been a big year for the DOE. In September, it won the Broad Prize, given each year to an urban school district that has improved its poor and minority students’ test scores. This spring, students continued on their upward trajectory, at least according to the state math and reading scores that were released yesterday. But the biggest coup may have happened this past weekend, when the DOE, in partnership with the agency Droga5, snagged a prestigious international advertising award given each year to the “most innovative and ground-breaking idea” in advertising.

The DOE took home the Cannes Lion Titanium Award for the “Million” Motivation Campaign, which aims to increase students’ engagement with school through the use of cell phones. Through a partnership with Verizon and Samsung, the DOE gave cell phones to 2,500 students in seven middle schools. The number of minutes available to each student depended on their performance in school; a child who successfully completed all of his work, therefore, would have more minutes to use than a lackluster student. When the program launched last fall, the DOE planned to use the phones to deliver motivational text and voice messages, sometimes from celebrities such as Jay-Z; it’s not clear whether that portion of the campaign has been rolled out yet.

As a whole, the DOE is looking to the Million campaign as a way to “re-brand achievement.” The DOE launched the campaign after Roland Fryer, the department’s chief equality officer, identified it as the most promising idea among the initiatives suggested by ad agencies in an open call for proposals. In its press release about the advertising award, the DOE outlines promising preliminary data and notes that the program will be subjected to more rigorous analysis next year, when the pilot is scheduled to quadruple in size, so long as private donors contribute enough to the Fund for Public Schools to make an expansion feasible. In the last school year, the pilot was smaller than planned because private donors were hesitant to support the program, the Times reported this spring.

Some have questioned why the seven schools in the pilot program included all four of the city’s KIPP charter schools, which educate students who are likely to have caregivers who keep them motivated without the added incentive of free cell phone minutes. I would wager that the culture of experimentation at charter schools made KIPP more likely to agree to participate in the pilot, and school leaders were confident enough in their schools’ discipline to introduce a potentially disruptive program. I would also note that one of the non-KIPP schools included in the pilot was probably the very most troubled school I visited in my three years as a school reviewer for, so the pilot did include a range of schools.

One interesting note: The cell phones are not permitted in schools. The city has had a blanket cell phone ban for many years that was upheld by a state appeals court in April after parents challenged it. Some schools choose not to enforce the ban on a daily basis.

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