My guest today is Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine. Welcome to OpEdNews, Bill. I read in the latest issue of YES! Magazine that you have been involved in an effort to change policy at Scholastic Inc. I may be dating myself but isn't Scholastic the publisher of the fabulous Magic School Bus series that my kids enjoyed so much when they were growing up? What could a children's book publisher possibly do to get itself into hot water?
Joan, exactly. I loved Scholastic books growing up. At my elementary school in California, the bookmobile would regularly show up and we'd fill out little forms asking our parents to buy copies of books like The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. So I was stunned to learn that Scholastic had partnered with the American Coal Foundation to produce a propagandistic 4th grade curriculum singing the praises of coal, and including not one word about its problems. Let's remember that coal is the single greatest contributor to climate-wrecking carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia has destroyed 500 mountains.
Burning coal spews mercury into the environment, and on and on. And Scholastic had distributed the curriculum to tens of thousands of elementary teachers around the country. So learning all this is what made me want to alert other educators, parents, child advocates, and environmentalists to what Scholastic was up to.
It's exactly that stellar reputation which Scholastic has enjoyed over the years that must have been a major enticement for Big Coal to use them for their own purposes. Was there any disclaimer included with the material? What are the ethics of such a situation?
No. No disclaimer. Just the opposite. Scholastic's logo was prominently displayed on the curriculum. I found a blog post from Alma Paty, the director of the American Coal Foundation, saying that the reason they partnered with Scholastic was because "Four out of five parents know and trust the Scholastic brand." Are there ethical problems with hiring out your expertise and reputation to the most polluting industry in the world? I think there are.
Scholastic is invited into schools based on educators' assumption that Scholastic is trying to offer engaging, fair-minded curriculum. Instead, Scholastic was operating as a hired gun for Big Coal. And, it turns out, that through its In-School Marketing program, this is a part of what Scholastic does: hires out its curricular expertise and good name to corporations of all kinds. I found another curriculum on energy issues that Scholastic produced for the Institute for 21st Century Energy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which aggressively promotes fossil fuel production along with the removal of government regulation of the energy industry. Scholastic now claims that it is more selective about who it partners with.
Clearly, Scholastic wasn't duped into doing what it's been doing. So, armed with your discoveries, what did you do? I know you didn't just throw up your hands and say "Oh, well, I guess that's the way it is".
I wrote a critique of the Scholastic curriculum for Rethinking Schools magazine. But before it was published, I decided to contact the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to see if they wanted to partner with Rethinking Schools to reach out to environmental organizations and pressure Scholastic to withdraw its curriculum. By the time we were ready to go public with our critique and demand that Scholastic sever ties with the coal industry, we had been joined by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, and the Center for Biological Diversity. This was in May 2011. Josh Golin at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood contacted a reporter, Tamar Lewin, at the New York Times, who he'd had contact with around previous campaigns. She wrote an article that reported on what we had discovered about Scholastic's biased curriculum. In the meantime, we had generated hundreds of letters to Scholastic. The week ended with a New York Times editorial blasting Scholastic for its poor judgment in abusing the public trust by distributing such a one-sided collection of lessons.
I like that you built a viable coalition before you went after Scholastic. Was that difficult to pull off? And with all those voices behind you, how did it go?
In the long run, if we are going to create a curriculum that is alert to the enormity of the environmental crisis and that attempts to help students see themselves as people who can effect change, educators are going to need allies beyond the schools. The climate crisis is arguably the most significant challenge facing humanity, and yet the official curriculum is awful. Here in Oregon, one of the most widely used textbooks on global studies, Holt McDougal's Modern World History, includes three terrible paragraphs on the climate crisis. This is the textbook for the only required course in high school that looks at the state of the world. Educators have to reach out to people in the environmental movement so that together we can demand a curriculum that encourages students to think deeply about the economic system that has put us in the predicament that we're in -- and to imagine alternatives. To answer your question more directly: No, it was not so hard to get environmental groups to demand that Scholastic stop distributing pro-coal propaganda. But we are going to have to do a better job of having educator-activist conversations about the nature of the curriculum and what we ought to do about it.
Agreed. And we don't have endless time to bring that curriculum change about. Where do things stand with Scholastic? Have they realized the error of their ways or will they continue to prostitute their good name for money driven by a hidden corporate agenda?
The campaign alerting the world to Scholastic's pro-coal propaganda generated a wave of negative publicity for Scholastic. CNN, Time, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, countless blogs " and then, as I say, the damning editorial from the New York Times. By the end of the week, Scholastic decided to cut their losses. They publicly apologized for their lapse in judgment in teaming with Big Coal. They agreed to pull the United States of Energy curriculum off its website and to end its distribution of the curriculum. Scholastic promised a review of its In School Marketing program. I haven't monitored Scholastic closely since then, but they did comply with their promise not to distribute the coal curriculum.
Later, they pulled down the terrible and manipulative energy curriculum they had written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The encouraging thing about this whole campaign is that it shows that when educators, child advocates, and environmentalists focus attention on the curriculum, we can make a huge difference. What we need to remember, though, is that Scholastic's curricular cheerleading for coal is just the tip of the iceberg. It's not an exaggeration to say that pretty much the entire official curriculum shows contempt for the Earth. But there are also encouraging signs. Here in Portland, Sunnyside Environmental School, a public school in Southeast Portland, has sponsored week-long teach-ins on energy issues and climate change. They bring in scientists, activists, and educators from around the region, and engage students in intensive inquiry what's happening to our planet and what we can do. I participated in the last one of these and it was inspiring. Students were incredibly concerned and eager to take action. It feels to me that interest in this kind of critical, environmentally aware curriculum is growing.