Some Educators Cast Wary Eye On Corporate Curriculum Materials
When Sherry Doughman, a 5th-grade teacher at Marshall Elementary School in Fort Campbell, Ky., wanted to make her geography lessons more exotic, she turned to free teaching materials she had received from Holiday Inn Worldwide Inc.
With the help of an education-marketing firm, the hostelry firm had distributed a geography unit based on "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?,'' the popular public-television game show and computer software.
The unit, called "Where in the World Did My Family Come From?,'' teaches geographic principles by encouraging students to explore their family heritage, using the gumshoe tactics employed in the computer and television versions. Meanwhile, the student worksheets and a classroom wall poster promote Holiday Inn as "The Official Hotel for Family Fun.''
"I wish more corporations would get involved in education like this and sponsor things that get kids excited about learning,'' Ms. Doughman said. "My kids have looked at geography differently ever since that program.''
Such sentiments no doubt are pleasing to the large number of corporations and interest groups that provide free curriculum materials to schools. While the practice is not new, some observers suggest that teachers and schools are receiving a growing supply of free supplementary materials developed with the assistance of specialists in both curriculum and marketing.
"It seems to be on the increase,'' said Alex Molnar, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee who is finishing a book about commercialism in the schools. "I have teachers bringing in new examples to me every week.''
Among the recent entries:
Discover Card Services Inc. is the sole sponsor for a classroom consumer magazine for teenagers, Extra Credit, developed by Scholastic Inc., which publishes dozens of other classroom magazines.
The National Potato Board and the Snack Food Association sponsor the "Count Your Chips'' program, which promotes the use of potato chips to teach mathematics concepts and other subjects in the 2nd through 4th grades.
Ameritech Mobile Communications Inc. has developed a cellular-phone safety-education program for use in school driver-education courses. The program includes the free use of cellular phones, so "students become familiar with and comfortable using'' the devices, according to a company press release.
'Giving Something Back'
The firms that sponsor and develop the free teaching kits contend that what they are doing is another legitimate form of business support for public education and that the materials are welcomed by financially strapped schools.
"We truly wanted to give something back'' to schools, Louise Burke, the manager of leisure-travel marketing programs at Holiday Inn, said of the geography package.
"Obviously, it helps us from a brand-image standpoint, but we have high recognition anyway,'' Ms. Burke added. "We want to be very careful that what we are producing is not marketing to kids.''
But critics of the practice argue that most of the free materials are just that--targeted marketing to a group of young consumers with hefty buying power.
Children ages 4 to 12 alone spent $8.6 billion on goods and services in 1991, and they had a direct influence over another $147.1 billion in purchases, according to James McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University who has studied youth spending. Teenagers spend an estimated $57 billion annually, marketing firms estimate.
Many teaching kits are filled with corporate logos or outright promotions and product samples, the critics say, while others feature broader political, social, or environmental messages. And while the kits may contain accurate and useful information, the materials seldom undergo the scrutiny required for textbooks and other official curriculum materials, the critics add.
"We think all curriculum materials should go through a very rigorous review process,'' said Karen Brown, the research director at the Center for the Study of Commercialism, a public-interest group in Washington. "School systems are strapped for money and time. But making our teachers into corporate shills is not an answer.''
Mr. Molnar argued that the free materials contain nothing of value that schools could not come up with on their own "without the advertising.''
"The question is whether this stuff makes any sense at all in terms of the overall purpose of education in this country,'' he said. "The answer is no.''
While the free materials have been around for years, in such forms as classroom films and posters, they did not attract widespread scrutiny until about four years ago, when the media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle first tested his Channel One classroom news show. (See related story, page 5.)
The inclusion of two minutes of advertising in the televised current-events show sparked protests and help prompt a broader debate over commercialism in schools. Educators looked around and noticed a lot of other advertising in their classrooms, hallways, and athletic arenas.
A 1990 report by Consumers Union, an independent research group, concluded that corporate-sponsored teaching materials were reaching 20 million elementary and secondary school students each year. It concluded that schools were "selling the kids entrusted to them to any bidder.''
The same year, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development adopted a policy urging school districts to make sure corporate-sponsored materials meet several criteria. Such materials must respond to identified educational needs, support the existing curriculum, be assessed critically from opposing viewpoints, and not promote brand-named products, the association said.
Few districts have developed policies meeting all the guidelines, Diane Berreth, the deputy executive director of the A.S.C.D., acknowledged.
"We are concerned,'' she said. "There are a lot of well-intentioned materials out there. Sometimes well-intentioned businesses, in their attempts to assist schools, may be engaged in product promotion.''
Teaching With 'Gushers'
General Mills, for example, sponsors an educational kit for its Gushers fruit snacks that promotes the product as useful during discussions of volcanoes. The package includes samples of the snack, which has a liquid center, and urges teachers to ask the class, "How does this process differ from that which produces erupting geothermic phenomena?''
The Procter & Gamble Company's Downy Refill brand of fabric softener sponsors the "Waste Not'' curriculum package on solid waste, which includes a take-home "family bulletin'' for parents featuring a 50-cent coupon for the brand, which "gives you softness with 74 percent less packaging.''
The "Count Your Chips'' package does not specifically call for using real potato chips, but the suggested activities, such as finding out a class's favorite chip flavors, seem likely to make young mouths water for the snack.
One teacher who returned a response card accompanying the kit wrote: "We had a lot of fun with this activity. It was a fun way to end our week. The children especially enjoyed the taste test.''
Al Rickard, the vice president for communications at the Snack Food Association, was frank in explaining the goals of the program: "To do something proactive to help educate children and to reinforce awareness of the products our two associations [the S.F.A. and the National Potato Board] represent.''
The Curriculum Developers
The Count Your Chips package was developed by Lifetime Learning Systems Inc. of Fairfield, Conn., one of a handful of firms with expertise in both curriculum and marketing that are helping companies reach students with messages in the classroom. Other big players in this specialized field include Scholastic Inc. and Modern Talking Picture Service Inc., both based in New York City.
Executives of the three firms all say that presenting useful educational materials to schools is their top consideration and that they work with their corporate clients to achieve that goal.
"We have never had somebody come to us and say they didn't want to produce something good for education,'' said Bruce Crowley, the senior vice president for marketing at Modern Talking Picture Service. "They don't want to get a black eye.''
The company developed the geography program for Holiday Inn, and has developed a peace curriculum for the jeans maker MarithÀe & FranÈcois Girbaud Company and a Bill of Rights package for the Phillip Morris Companies Inc.
An official at Scholastic said that corporate-sponsored materials, which are written by the same editors who develop such student magazines as Scholastic Update and Junior Scholastic, are only a small part of its educational-publishing business.
"They are very similar to other education materials,'' said Ernest Fleishman, Scholastic's senior vice president and director of education. "I think the issue remains the same, which is making sure you are getting quality.''
Besides Count Your Chips, Lifetime Learning Systems has developed the Gushers kit for General Mills and a "Quality Comes in Writing'' package for the Bic Corporation--a writing program for elementary grades in which the pen maker's logo is prominently featured on worksheets and a classroom poster.
Dominic Kinsley, the editor in chief at Lifetime Learning, said that all of the educational materials are reviewed by panels of educators before they go out. The charge that school classrooms are becoming too commercialized, he said, "seems to be a general criticism of American culture.''
'Reach Him at the Office'
But while in interviews the developers of corporate-sponsored materials emphasize their interest in education, their trade pitches to marketing and advertising decisionmakers take another tack.
"Kids spend 40 percent of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can't reach them,'' reads an ad run by Lifetime Learning in the trade magazine Advertising Age. "Now, you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind.''
An ad run by Modern Talking Picture in the same publication shows a young child dressed as an executive under the headline "Reach him at the office.''
The ad continues: "His first day job is kindergarten. Modern can put your sponsored educational materials in the lesson plan.''
A Question of Bias
There is also the question of potential bias in the materials, critics say. Many companies that have produced curriculum materials appear to have an obvious corporate interest in the issues addressed by the kits.
For instance, Procter & Gamble, which makes Pampers disposable diapers, sponsors "Decision: Earth,'' an environmental unit for 7th- through 9th-grade students that examines the life cycle of consumer goods. One lesson compares the environmental merits of disposable versus cloth diapers, with an emphasis on the idea that disposables reduce health risks and give working parents "the value of extra time.''
The "What's It Made Of?'' kit from the Dow Plastics unit of Dow North America Inc. features a fanciful children's story about "pippindotz''--tiny building blocks of plastics that can be combined to make better car bumpers, recyclable drink containers, and wrapping to keep lunches fresh.
"We do think there is a perception problem on plastic,'' said Tony Kingsbury, an environmental adviser for Dow. "Only through education can we overcome that.''
"We are trying to avoid being preachy,'' he added. "We want children and teachers to come to their own conclusion that plastics are O.K.''
Corporations largely bypass state or school district approval of their materials by sending them directly to schools and teachers.
Both Modern and Scholastic say they first send informational brochures to teachers, who must respond to receive a full kit. That generally means that, at most, the building principal might see the materials and pass judgment on whether teachers can use them.
Fred Crouch, a social-studies curriculum specialist at Forestville High School in Prince George's County, Md., said he tries to review the many teaching kits that are sent to his school before passing them on to classroom teachers.
"Companies are testing the limits of what will be used in the classroom,'' he said, citing an American Telephone & Telegraph Company kit aimed at high school seniors that discusses ways to "Ease Into College Life.'' The kit includes applications for a calling card along with advice to call home often.
"I had never seen anything quite as blatantly commercial as that,'' Mr. Crouch said. However, "most of the materials we are getting are very useful.''
In California, educators, consumer advocates, and corporations have begun working together to develop guidelines for consumer- and environmental-curriculum materials. A joint panel on the topic was announced last week by David Horowitz, the president of the Fight Back! Foundation and the host of a syndicated television show on consumer topics, and State Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, the chairwoman of the Assembly education committee.
The effort is designed to develop "a creative and interesting curriculum for basic life-survival skills,'' Mr. Horowitz said in announcing the project. The corporate participants include Visa U.S.A. Inc. and the Aetna Life and Casualty Company.
Not All Preach
Analysts of the curriculum trend note that some corporate-sponsored learning kits do not appear to pitch the sponsor's products. Some--like Visa's "Choices and Decisions'' program, a lavish multimedia kit that teaches financial management, budgeting, and other life skills--make only a modest mention of the provider. Although the package also teaches about credit cards and other banking services, it does not promote Visa cards by name.
"Our members are very concerned about the wise use of credit,'' said Susan Murdy, the vice president of public affairs for Visa. Today's high school students "don't get a good grounding in money management,'' she said.
Similarly, the McDonald's Corporation offers educators a catalogue of free classroom materials on subjects that include nutrition, space, ecology, and black history.
The restaurant giant's nutrition curriculum for kindergarten through 3rd grades, "Healthy Growing Up,'' offers an extensive collection of diet and exercise advice without urging children to include a Big Mac and french fries in their diets.
Despite the admonitions from critics, many classroom teachers appear to welcome the free materials, since they give them the chance to act as "gatekeepers'' for what will be used in their classrooms.
"I like to get freebies,'' said Joyce Steffenson, a 3rd-grade teacher in Waterville, Iowa, who has used materials from the National Live Stock and Meat Board to teach her students such environmental concepts as water erosion and soil conservation.
The Chicago-based marketing association for the beef industry developed the "Caretakers All'' package to "teach 3rd- and 4th-grade students the principles of good 'caretaking''' of the earth's resources, according to a teachers' guide.
The colorful package also presents a positive image of livestock producers as concerned environmentalists and points out the many products that come from cows, including hamburgers, soccer balls, and leather shoes.
"I think they put a lot of educational background into this material,'' said Ms. Steffenson, who also runs a farm with her husband. "They definitely promoted beef in a good way, yet it was a big plus for education.''
"We spend enough of our own money'' on school supplies, Ms.
Steffenson added. "Whatever comes my way I usually try to use, as long
as I can tie it into my curriculum.''