And Now, A Word From Our Sponsor

By Mark Walsh — August 01, 1993 8 min read

Sherry Doughman, a 5th grade teacher at Marshall Elementary School in Fort Campbell, Ky., wanted to make her geography lessons more exotic, so she turned to free teaching materials she had received from Holiday Inn Worldwide Inc. The geography unit distributed by the company is based on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, the popular public television game show and computer software program. Called Where in the World Did My Family Come From?, the materials teach geographic principles by encouraging students to explore their family heritage via the gumshoe tactics employed in the computer and television versions. Meanwhile, student work sheets 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,” Doughman says. “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,” says Alex Molnar, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who is finishing a book about commercialism in the schools. “I have teachers bringing in new examples to me every week.”

Recent entries include:

Extra Credit, a classroom consumer magazine for teenagers solely sponsored by Discover Card Services Inc. and developed by Scholastic Inc.

• “Count Your Chips,” a program sponsored by the National Potato Board and the Snack Food Association that promotes the use of potato chips to teach math and other subjects in grades 2-4.

• A cellular phone safety-education program developed for driver education courses by Ameritech Mobile Communications Inc. The program includes the free use of cellular phones, so that—as a company press release puts it—”students become familiar with and comfortable using” the devices.

The firms that sponsor and develop the free teaching kits contend that what they are doing is just 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,” says Holiday Inn marketing official Louise Burke of the geography package. “Obviously, it helps us from a brand-image standpoint, but we have high recognition anyway. 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 corporate materials are just that—targeted marketing to a group of young consumers with hefty buying power. Many teaching kits are filled with corporate logos or outright promotions and product samples, while others feature political, social, or environmental messages favored by the sponsoring company. The kits may contain accurate and useful information, but the materials seldom undergo the scrutiny required for textbooks and other official curriculum materials.

“We think all curriculum materials should go through a very rigorous review process,” says Karen Brown, research director at the Center for the Study of Commercialism, a public-interest group in Washington, D.C. “School systems are strapped for money and time. But making our teachers into corporate shills is not an answer.”

Molnar is even more direct: “The question is whether this stuff makes any sense at all in terms of the overall purpose of education; the answer is no.”

While free corporate materials have been around for years, they did not attract widespread scrutiny until several years ago, when media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle introduced Channel One, a classroom news show that includes two minutes of advertising. The show sparked protests and triggered a broad debate over commercialism in schools. As a result, educators began to look around and noticed a lot of other advertising in 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 statement to guide schools in their use of corporate-sponsored materials. According to the guidelines, schools should make sure the materials are assessed critically from opposing viewpoints and that they respond to identified educational needs, support the existing curriculum, and not promote brand-name products.

Few school districts, however, have developed policies that meet all the guidelines, acknowledges Diane Berreth of the ASCD. “We are concerned,” she says. “Sometimes, well-intentioned businesses, in their attempt to assist schools, may be engaged in product promotion.”

General Mills, for example, sponsors an educational kit for its Gushers fruit snacks that promotes the product for use during discussions of volcanoes. The package includes samples of the snack, which has a liquid center, and urges teachers to ask their students, “How does this process differ from that which produces erupting geothermic phenomena?”

The Count Your Chips program does not specifically call for using real potato chips, but the suggested activities, such as finding out a class’s favorite chip flavors, are likely to make young mouths water. When asked to explain the goals of the program, Al Rickard, vice president for communications at the Snack Food Association, said: “To do something proactive to help educate children and to reinforce awareness of the products [we] represent.”

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 is helping companies reach students 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,” says Bruce Crowley, 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 come up with a peace curriculum for the jeans maker Marithe & Francois Girbaud Co. and a Bill of Rights package for the Phillip Morris Companies Inc.

Besides Count Your Chips, Lifetime Learning Systems has developed the Gushers kit for General Mills and, for the Bic Corp., an elementary writing program that features the pen maker’s logo on work sheets and a poster. Dominic Kinsley, editor in chief at Lifetime, says all of the materials are reviewed by panels of educators before they go out. The charge that school classrooms are becoming too commercialized, he says, “seems to be a general criticism of American culture.”

But while the developers of corporate-sponsored materials like to emphasize their interest in education, their pitches to potential clients betray an additional motive. An ad placed by Lifetime Learning in the trade magazine Advertising Age reads: “Kids spend 40 percent of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can’t reach them. 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 states: “His first day job is kindergarten. Modern can put your sponsored educational materials in the lesson plan.”

Product promotion is but one concern of the critics of corporate-sponsored learning aids. Another is the potential for bias in the materials, since many of the companies 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 grades 7-9 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.”

“Companies are testing the limits of what will be used in the classroom,” says Fred Crouch, a social studies curriculum specialist at Forestville High School in Prince George’s County, Md., who tries to review the many teaching kits that are sent to his school. He cites an American Telephone & Telegraph Co. 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,” Crouch says. He notes, however, that “most of the materials we are getting are very useful.”

Analysts of the trend note that there are corporate-sponsored kits that do not appear to pitch the sponsor’s products. Some, such as Visa’s “Choices and Decisions” program, a lavish multimedia kit that teaches financial management skills, make only a modest mention of the provider. Although the Visa package teaches about credit cards and other banking services, it does not promote Visa cards by name.

Despite the admonitions from critics, many classroom teachers 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,” says 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 about water erosion and soil conservation.

“We spend enough of our own money [on supplies],” Steffenson adds. “Whatever comes my way, I usually try to use, as long as I can tie it into my curriculum.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as And Now, A Word From Our Sponsors