Niche.com’s Ratings Reinforce Reformers Vision of Schools as Commercial Commodities in a Competition
For the past several days my daily Google feed has features a succession of articles like this one hailing the high ratings of Scotch Plains NJ Schools based on data analysis by Niche.com. The Google feed articles seemed to be cascading state-by-state and after ignoring the posts for the past several days, it struck me this morning that this kind of rating system reinforces the reform movement’s notion that public schools are commercial commodities that compete for “customers” in an open marketplace. That, in turn, led me to see who was behind the rating system, what the basis for the ratings was, and how to help the public understand that this “ratings game” plays into the hands of the privatization movement.
So who or what is Niche.com? From what I can tell looking at their web page, they appear to be a group of well-intentioned “quants” from Pittsburgh PA. Here’s a description of their leadership team accompanies a page full of thumbnail pictures of 20 and 30 somethings:
Niche is a small team based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We’re a unique blend of data scientists, engineers, parents, and “yinzers” who are passionate about helping you discover the schools and neighborhoods that are right for you.
There was no Board of Directors page or no page outlining donors. Instead, it appears that Niche.com is funded by colleges and K-12 systems advertising fees! Here’s the page describing advertising opportunities, with some sections highlighted:
Advertising and Enrollment Marketing
Explore cost effective ways to reach students and parents on the largest website for researching K-12 schools and colleges.
Solutions for Colleges
Niche is where students choose their college. More than 50 percent of college-bound high school seniors use Niche to research colleges. Colleges can claim their school for free to manage their presence on Niche and upgrade to a Premium Profile to showcase their school and motivate next steps – Apply, Visit, etc. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solutions for K-12 Schools and Districts
Niche.com offers rankings, reviews, and statistics for more than 120,000 public and private K-12 schools. Parents use Niche.com to decide where to enroll their children. Schools can claim their school for free to manage their profile and upgrade to a Premium Profile to showcase their school, generate referrals, and get their message across to prospective families. For more information, please email email@example.com.
Solutions for Real Estate
To discuss custom advertising solutions for real estate agents and brokers, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Advertising and Partnership Opportunities
To learn more about advertising opportunities or to inquire about a partnership, email email@example.com.
It didn’t seem plausible to me that a company of Niche.com’s scale could suddenly start-up and produce such a robust and wide ranging product based solely on advertising… and a few clicks of “research” led me to the discovery that College Prowler, the original enterprise founded by Niche.com’s current CFO, got a $500,000 infusion from a hedge funder named Glen Meakem. Wikipedia reports that he made his money from the $500,000,000 he made from the sale of an enterprise he started called FreeMarkets Inc., a software company that offers services to the Global Supply Management market.
And College Prowler itself seemed to have a somewhat shady history, which may have led to it’s re-branding and mission change. The “criticism” section of the Wikipedia entry on Niche.com succinctly describes a controversy College Prowler faced less than a decade ago:
In a 2008 scandal known as “Facebookgate”, hundreds of spurious “Class of 2013” groups were created on Facebook for the purpose of promoting College Prowler. Such groups would normally be created by actual students or colleges themselves. According to the CEO, “The original purpose was to use these groups as a way to inform students that they can access a free guide about their new college on our site.” He also added, “No employee or anyone else associated with College Prowler has used these groups to send out messages or wall posts.” College Prowler later removed all administrative access from the 125 groups, admitting “It was clearly over the line”.
After reading the history of Niche.com, I have no reason to question their ethics or motives, though I could easily construct a sinister narrative given the facts I just gathered in the past 15 minutes. Being someone who believes people operate from the best intentions, here’s what I believe happened. Their founder, Luke Skurman, came up with the idea for the “College Prowler” website when he was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, believing high schoolers who are swamped with information regarding college needed a more streamlined means of sifting through that information in order to decide which college is best for them. Because he had a background in data crunching, he devised an algorithm that he used to sell a print publication. When he saw an opportunity to increase the circulation of his idea to a wider audience he sought out some seed money and launched an on-line version of his product, which he called “College Prowler”. Seeing how Facebook’s de facto algorithms for spreading information worked, he created virtual “groups” that promoted his product without thinking about how that might be perceived by end users. When he was called on this mis-use, he disabled the groups and eventually decided to re-brand and expand the service to cover “an emerging market”: K-12 education.
Which leads back to the advertising page, because ultimately Niche.com’s money flow will rely on advertising… and implicit in the advertising for K-12 schools is the notion that “parents can decide where to enroll their children” and the corollary notion that a K-12 school has the resources to “upgrade… to showcase their school” so they can “get their message across to prospective families”. But what is even worse is the notion that advertising implies that education is a commodity that can be acquired in the marketplace the same way a loaf of bread or a used car can be acquired. If a parent doesn’t like a particular bread or a particular brand of automobile, they can always find another option further down the grocery shelf or at another dealer. And while a shiny new K-12 for profit charter school can always spend money advertising it’s “product” (and determining who can “buy” their “product”), public schools will never have the funds available to compete in the Niche.com advertising marketplace nor will they ever be able to exclude any “buyers”.
I am a blogger, not a journalist… but absent any evidence that Niche.com is being underwritten by the likes of the Walton Foundation I can only conclude that they are unwittingly playing into the hands of privatizers with their ratings … and public schools who trumpet their rankings are unwittingly playing along. But I know from experience that parents, teachers, school boards, and— yes— even school administrators love to tell the world when they achieve high ratings. I couldn’t resist looking to see that the district I led was ranked #1 in NH, for example… But I am not sure that most public school advocates realize that in playing the ratings game they are playing along with those who want to create a marketplace for public education.