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Brookline Newcomer

School magazine sale teaches wrong values

Published in the Brookline TAB

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 isn't competitive.

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 the top?

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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