Advertising to Calculus Students: The Standard of Proof

Try these math problems on for size:

  1. Tom Farber, a calculus teacher in San Diego, California, has a $316 budget for copies. He needs $500 to provide his students with the practice they need to master the course.

    True or False? $316 < $500

  2. Getting a larger budget from the school is not an option. There is no discretionary or R&D budget. What is the most sustainable way for Mr. Farber to solve this problem?

    A. Pay the $184 difference out of his own pocket.
    B. Keep printing tests as normal, hoping the $184 would be found somewhere between now and then.
    C. Reduce the number of tests. Use up only what his budget allows, possibly sacrificing the course’s effectiveness.
    D. None of the above.

Assuming his methods really are effective, give Mr. Farber extra credit for choosing “D” and refusing to sacrifice the quality of his students’ education. When faced with the prospect of a budget shortfall, Farber invented a way to make up for it.

Testadsx-largeHe sold advertising.

On tests.

And worksheets.

Even the final exam.

But is it ethical?

The managing director of Commercial Alert, an organization formed explicitly to prevent commercial interests from intruding on spaces they deem ought to be impenetrable, is worried that, since Mr. Farber raised nearly twice as much as his shortfall, this feat might be duplicated by other struggling schools.

Before jumping to conclusions, here are a few questions worth asking:

  1. Do Mr. Farber’s extra tests make the course more effective at teaching Calculus?
  2. Can that effectiveness be duplicated by some other means, less expensively?
  3. Does selling any ad space, whatsoever, in any format, inherently corrupt the education process?
  4. Do ads inherently corrupt the students?
  5. Is it possible to corrupt students with advertising?
  6. What measures can be taken to prevent it?

When are sponsored ads on tests justified?

If the answer to #1 is yes and #s 2-5 are no, then by all means, sell the ads and let the kids learn.

If the answer to #1 is no, then it doesn’t much matter what the other answers are, because the problem isn’t with the number of tests, but with the teaching method.

If the answer to only #1 and #5 are yes, then it becomes necessary to answer #6 and to determine which option costs less: Forking over the dough for copies or investing the time, energy, and money to institute proper safeguards that prevent the corruption of the students or the process.

Who is responsible for finding out?

The teacher and the school have the duty to educate the children under their care. Thus, it is up to them to confirm the effectiveness and integrity of the system.

Once they’ve established a positive correlation between number of tests and better grades, they can determine if the better grades were caused by another factor, such as some sort of quid pro quo between the teacher and the advertiser.

Beyond that, the public can subject the process to what is called a “reasonable person” test. According to Wikipedia:

The reasonable person is a legal fiction of the common law representing an objective standard against which any individual’s conduct can be measured. It is used to determine if a breach of the standard of care has occurred, provided a duty of care can be proven.

The standard performs a crucial role in determining negligence in both criminal law—that is, criminal negligence—and tort law. The standard also has a presence in contract law, though its use there is substantially different.

Therefore, if Commercial Alert or any other advocacy group believes the practice of exposing students to advertising is harmful in some way, they are obligated to not only assert, but provide a body of evidence that shows how what they claim could be true.

It is incumbent on them to do so, because they propose such advertising be eradicated by statute, and in doing so they eliminate a potentially effective resource for overcoming budget problems in a way that doesn’t require compulsion.

Because unlike individual taxpayers, sponsors have the choice as to whether or not they will participate.

The standard of proof has to rise above the level of indignation – feigned or otherwise. Commercial Alert may have a point. But they may be blowhards. It’s up to them to convince the public which category they fall under.

Likewise, Mr. Farber and his school shouldn’t get a free pass, either. We shouldn’t take on faith that his approach is necessarily better than one requiring fewer tests. But in this case, there should be a mountain of statistical studies already that suggest one thing or another.

All they need to do is cite them. – Cam Beck