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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Scholastic Helps Coal Industry Teach School Kids

Published: August 11, 2012


By Jeff Young

Scholastic, Inc., the world's largest publisher of children's books, has partnered with the coal industry to teach elementary kids about coal. The coal industry calls it progress. Some academic critics call it propaganda. (Photo: Heather Dowd Flickr Creative Commons)

By Jeff Young

If you went to a public school in the U.S. you probably remember the Scholastic company's book clubs. Scholastic, Inc., is the world's largest children's book publisher. Its partnerships with authors and artists brought children Clifford the Big Red Dog, the Magic School Bus series, and the wildly popular Harry Potter books.

But now Scholastic is drawing attention for another partnership: with the coal industry. The American Coal Foundation is paying Scholastic to provide a package of maps, worksheets and other materials called "United States of Energy" to tens of thousands of elementary classrooms.

The materials encourage fourth grade students to explore how electricity is generated.

Much of the information in the maps and worksheets comes from the industry's lobbying group, the National Mining Association.

Children are told, "Coal is the source of half of the electricity produced in the United States."

An illustrated energy map highlights the 15 top coal- producing states. Solar energy is noted in only one spot on the map.

A flow chart showing how coal produces electricity does not mention any negative effects of coal. The photo of a power plant does not even show a smokestack.

A bonus worksheet asks children: "What are the benefits of this kind of energy?" There is no question asking children about potential drawbacks.

These materials strike some education watchdogs, environmental educators and academics as one-sided and not in keeping with criteria for fairness or balance.

"They're not really education, they're propaganda," said Faith Boninger, a researcher with Arizona State University's Commercialism in Education Research Unit.

"It intentionally portrays only positive aspects of the coal industry," Boninger said. "It's not meeting the standard of being unbiased and letting kids reach opinions in an unbiased way."

Boninger is also concerned about the role that Scholastic's reputation plays in affecting teacher decisions on whether and how to use the material.

I'm really bothered by Scholastic because they're abusing their in to schools," she said. "Scholastic has a reputation in schools as a company they could trust."

That reputation was clearly a selling point for the American Coal Foundation. In a post on the
Foundation's Coal Blog, Foundation director Alma Paty wrote, "Four out of five parents know and trust the Scholastic brand."

The Foundation had been distributing materials on its own, but managed to get only about 7,000 packages to teachers. Since the partnership with Scholastic, Paty wrote, "In total, 66,000 4th grade teachers received the print program"to build into their classroom lesson plans." he concluded, "This is tremendous progress."

The advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is pressing Scholastic to end its partnership with the American Coal Foundation.

We'd like them to immediately take down the materials from their website, said Campaign Associate Director Josh Golin.
And, more broadly, they shouldn't be producing curriculum based on who's paying them. If we get to the point that kids are learning lessons from the highest bidder, we're in real trouble.

A spokesperson for Scholastic, Inc., declined to comment for this story.

On the next Living on Earth broadcast we'll take a closer look at this and other examples of the coal industry's inroads into classrooms.

UPDATE May 12, 2011
Scholastic spokesperson Kyle Good declined to be interviewed. Instead she emailed Thursday afternoon the following statement:

"Scholastic works with non-profits, government agencies and corporations to provide free supplemental materials to schools. For example, we created the Census in Schools program, which helped teachers engage students in an important civics lesson during the 2010 Census; a program with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to inform teens about the science of drug addiction, and a media literacy program with the Federal Trade Commission. All of these supplemental classroom materials are reviewed by teachers with careful attention to age- and grade-appropriateness and are aligned to national standards.

The United States of Energy, designed for students in grade 4, is a 4-page program and poster that simply shows which energy sources -- nuclear, coal, solar, hydroelectric, etc. -- are available and in use throughout the U.S. Since the program is designed for elementary schoolchildren, the materials do not attempt to cover all of the complex issues around the sourcing and consumption of energy. Rather, they focus on grade-appropriate information about the geography of energy sources in the U.S. and provide links to additional resources, including those provided by the federal government, for teachers who want to pursue a deeper, more complex discussion about energy."

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