School magazine sale teaches
Published in the Brookline
October 28, 1999
When the TAB printed the comments a few weeks ago of Brookline's National
Merit Scholarship semifinalists, several high school students pondered
the political and philosophical significance of their selection
Vincent Cheng knew that "grades don't tell the whole story; neither do
standardized tests." Katherine Glickler said "I don't think it's fair
that we were chosen solely on the basis of PSAT scores, which are largely
arbitrary and more a reflection of our school and our income level." Philipp
Tsipman explained that "this test seemed quite arbitrary.... Different
people solve problems differently, my thinking probably just coincided
better with the test makers."
These teenagers are admirably aware of the surrounding context. And the
fact that five semifinalists included among their interests things like
community service and Amnesty International also demonstrated a healthy
concern for the public good. Their positive values presumably were enhanced
by their Brookline educations.
Then last week I received evidence of something more negative: the latest
fundraising material from my daughter's school. It's time once again for
the annual magazine sale.
As I understand it, Brookline schools and their Parent-Teacher Organizations
have escalated their fundraising in recent years simply to maintain Brookline-level
education. In the wake of state funding cuts and Proposition 2 1/2's property
tax restrictions, the need for fundraising is clear.
But all fundraising methods are not equal. Regardless of need, we should
never adopt educationally and psychologically inappropriate methods that
teach our kids bad values.
Some claim there's nothing wrong with the sale. Sell a subscription and
the school rakes in 40%. What a deal. But the great deal brings with it
a couple of serious problems.
For one thing, this blatant commercialization makes the school an accomplice
in getting people to buy things they don't need and often can't afford.
Our schools should discourage overconsumption and analyze its societal
causes, not disseminate it.
For another thing, this particular sales push fosters excessive competition.
It uses prizes and pressure to entice young children, and of course their
parents, into soliciting everyone they know.
Students are urged to sell to their relatives and friends and to members
of their religious groups and sports teams. "And don't forget--Ask Mom
and Dad to bring a brochure to work!" They receive more and better prizes
for more and more sales. Compounding classroom peer and teacher pressure,
the top 7th and 8th grade classes get a pizza party, the top K-6 class
a gift certificate.
More ominously, students are asked to fill out postcards with names and
addresses of relatives and friends so that the Family Reading Program
can send junk mail to "grandparents on both sides of the family, aunts,
uncles and other close family members." Children submitting seven cards
get a free bag of M&M's.
And the instruction sheet sent to parents actually indicates a "student
quota" of four orders.
Of course, we can tell our daughter we're not taking part, quota or not
quota. But opting out can be difficult when the kids are rewarded in direct
proportion to the number of subscriptions they sell. And if it works like
last year (when a number of parents objected), there will be a steady
stream of reminders to bring in those orders.
Can't we raise money for the schools without peer pressure, prizes, and
junk food? Without hounding friends and relatives and co-workers, who
no doubt are hounded enough? How many grandchildren can my parents possibly
buy magazines from?
I don't object to car washes and pumpkin sales. The car gets dirty. It's
Halloween. I don't object to the annual auction, which is a lot of fun.
I'm even willing to live with the wrapping paper sale, which at least
But I have to object to the hard sell.
There are noncompetitive, noncommercialized alternatives. And to cut
down on the constant fundraising, we can raise PTO dues or ask people
to make direct donations to the schools based on ability to pay.
On a broader level, we must do something about state funding, or better
yet come up with a town-wide solution.
In the meantime, if we have to keep selling magazines this year, how
about a pizza party for the whole school, not just for kids whose parents
have the motivation and the money to help their kids sell their way to
Using rewards and pressure to get kids to sell things most people really
don't need teaches the wrong values. Let's stop.
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