Curriculum

Role of Classroom Materials Debated After 9/11 TV Flap

By Catherine Gewertz — September 19, 2006 5 min read
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A flap over classroom materials tied to a controversial TV drama marking the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has renewed discussion about the obligations of educational publishers when they partner with entertainment companies to produce teaching aids.

In response to claims of inaccuracy, Scholastic Inc. this month withdrew classroom discussion guides that it had developed for use with “The Path to 9/11,” a five-hour ABC miniseries.

The Path to Controversy

ABC’s miniseries “The Path to 9/11,” as well as classroom materials developed by Scholastic Inc., drew criticism on accuracy and fairness. When it aired, ABC included a disclaimer that the series was not a documentary. Scholastic, meanwhile, pulled its original material and replaced them with a teaching guide on media literacy.

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Source: Education Week

“What this says to all educators is that we need to be wary of who is creating ‘curriculum’ for the classroom and what the purpose is,” said Frank W. Baker, a media-literacy consultant based in Columbia, S.C.

On Sept. 6, four days before ABC aired the first part of its two-night docudrama, New York City-based Scholastic pulled from its Web site the five classroom guides it had developed at the television network’s request. The materials gave background information about regions and organizations affected by or involved in the 2001 attacks, and suggested activities for classes after they watched the miniseries.

In complaints that echoed those made against the TV show itself, critics attacked the classroom materials for what they said were a host of omissions and inaccuracies.

A prebroadcast version of the “The Path to 9/11” came under attack from former President Bill Clinton and members of his administration, who said that inaccuracies and fictionalized scenes put their handling of terrorism issues in an undeservedly critical light. An ABC spokeswoman, Susan Sewell, said last week that the network did late edits to the show before it aired Sept. 10-11, but she declined to elaborate or to discuss Scholastic’s classroom materials.

Media Matters, a progressive watchdog group in Washington, faulted the Scholastic study guides for, among other reasons, stating that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 because it believed the country possessed weapons of mass destruction, without mentioning the subsequent failure to turn up any significant evidence of such weapons. Also troubling, the group said, was the listing of Iraq as having “played a central role” in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when no such role has been established.

Scholastic replaced the disputed materials with an online discussion guide that took a much different approach to the ABC movie—one that aims to help students dissect the ways the news media convey various messages.

In an e-mail to the same 25,000 teachers who had been alerted electronically to the original materials, Scholastic’s chief executive officer, Richard Robinson, said the company had decided that the first set “was not in keeping with our high standards.”

Supplementary education materials tied to television miniseries and other shows go back decades, and have highlighted such fare as ABC’s highly successful “Roots,” which first aired in 1977. Scholastic has been a leading developer of such materials for years.

Scholastic spokeswoman Kyle Good declined to specify how much ABC had agreed to pay Scholastic for the discussion guides, saying only that it was a “nominal sum” and would not be paid now because the materials were withdrawn. She said Scholastic has never before had to retract classroom materials developed for a client.

Company’s Role Debated

Jamison Foser, the managing director of Media Matters, said Scholastic “appeared to be propaganizing a captive audience.”

Diane Ravitch, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who has written about interest groups’ influence on textbook content, said TV-network partnerships with educational publishers do not inherently pose a problem, but basing classroom materials on partially fictional accounts of history does.

“I would have advised them against it,” Ms. Ravitch, an assistant U.S. education secretary in the first Bush administration, said of Scholastic. “I would have said, ‘Partner with someone doing a documentary.’ ”

Robert W. Kubey, the director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., agreed that Scholastic’s problem lay in basing classroom materials on a partially fictionalized program. But he said the publisher’s second try resulted in an “excellent” media-literacy guide.

“They did exactly the right thing,” Mr. Kubey said. “The first set [of materials] lent a strong sense of credibility to the docudrama that made it seem like a documentary. Someone was wise to recognize there was a teachable moment there. [The newer guide] goes to the heart of how we know what we think we know.”

But Cliff Kincaid, the editor of the Accuracy In Media Report, produced by the conservative Washington group of the same name, said the controversy raises questions about the way Scholastic does business.

“The material wasn’t up to their high standards? They should look at whether their standards are high enough to begin with, and what kind of review took place before all the criticism,” he said.

Ms. Good of Scholastic said the publisher had a “diligent and conscientious review process,” but the original guides had “an insufficient focus on the question of how a docudrama differs from a documentary.”

Laura S. Fisher, a board member of the National Council for History Education, based in Westlake, Ohio, said the incident makes her worry that political pressure can narrow valuable classroom discourse.

“We need to make room for debate about things and not pull back because some people object,” she said.

Alex Molnar, who studies commercialism in schools as the director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University, called the classroom guides “a marketing campaign, pure and simple.”

Each of the original guides ended with the phrase “generously sponsored by ABC,” and a note to “be sure to watch” the miniseries.

It wasn’t clear how many teachers knew about or have used either set of Scholastic materials.

Jill Haffley, who teaches U.S. history at Coronado High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., said she wouldn’t have used a TV network’s docudrama in a classroom discussion.

“I’m a history teacher. I like to look at things from a factual standpoint,” she said. “A docudrama takes literary license with events, and I think that would be misleading our students.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Role of Classroom Materials Debated After 9/11 TV Flap


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