Scholastic Gets Heat for Materials Backed by Coal Group

By Erik W. Robelen — May 18, 2011 4 min read
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Amid sharp criticism from several advocacy groups and the editorial board of The New York Times, educational publisher Scholastic has indicated that it will no longer distribute a package of curricular materials on energy issues developed with financial support from the American Coal Foundation. Scholastic also says it will conduct a “thorough review” of its policies and procedures for such sponsored content.

The Times first reported last week that several groups, including Rethinking Schools, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and Friends of the Earth, have been raising concerns that the curricular materials give children a one-sided view of coal that doesn’t mention its negative effects on the environment and public health. The groups launched a letter-writing campaign last week demanding that Scholastic immediately stop distributing a curriculum they suggested was little more than good PR for the coal industry.

A day after the Times story ran, the newspaper’s editorial board came back with a sharply worded commentary: "[T]he lessons talked about the benefits of coal and the pervasiveness of power plants fueled by it—and omitted mention of minor things like toxic waste, mountain-top removal, and greenhouse gases,” the May 13 editorial declared. “A Scholastic representative said that the company had no intention of repeating the energy project but noted that it was never meant to serve as a comprehensive curriculum. That’s beside the point, given that the lessons carried the company’s imprimatur and were misleadingly touted as complying with national fourth-grade learning standards.”

And yesterday, both Scholastic and the American Coal Foundation had their say in letters to the editor printed in The New York Times.

“Your editorial criticizes a lesson packet called ‘The United States of Energy’ about different sources of energy—coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind, and natural gas, primarily for its sponsorship by the American Coal Foundation,” wrote Scholastic CEO Richard Robinson. “We acknowledge that the mere fact of sponsorship may call into question the authenticity of the information, and therefore conclude that we were not vigilant enough as to the effect of sponsorship in this instance. We have no plans to further distribute this particular program.”

Further, he said: "[W]e are undertaking a thorough review of our policy and editorial procedures on sponsored content to ensure that we publish only those materials that are worthy of our reputation as ‘the most trusted name in learning.’ ”

For his part, John Nils Hanson, the chairman of the American Coal Foundation, offered no signs of regret in his letter to the paper: “Contrary to the claim in your editorial, ‘The United States of Energy’ educational program is not ‘a treatise on coal’ but offers instructional materials on all forms of energy that generate electricity—wind and solar energy as well as coal and nuclear power. Steps have been taken to ensure the review and acceptance of the program by the education community.”

He continued: “Children who are informed about the types of coal used to generate their electricity, where in the country coal is mined, and the men and women who mine it, are more likely to make informed decisions about coal’s use and question the occasional criticism of it.”

There was one other letter on the issue printed by the Times, this from Janet Keefer of Pittsboro, N.C. Her main message? That there is at least one valuable takeway in this episode: “Big Coal’s lesson plan teaches us always to consider the source of our information.”

Speaking of energy sources, Utah’s legislature recently approved a measure, since signed into law, that would allow some money from the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Account to finance the development of new curricular materials to teach students about Utah’s mineral and petroleum resources. The measure does not impose any mandates on schools, though Utah did pass another curricular requirement this year: Schools must teach that the United States’ form of government is a, yes, “compound constitutional republic.” For more on that and other recent curricular mandates handed down by state lawmakers, check out this EdWeek story.

In discussing what was dubbed by some the “petro-literacy” bill, Utah state Rep. Jack Draxler, a Republican, explained: “It provides an opportunity for schoolchildren in our state to be taught a little more thoroughly about our natural resources and their responsible development. ... Currently in the schools, the students are being taught a great deal about recycling and conservation, and that is fine. That’s desirable. But many don’t understand that their iPod, their toothbrush, the road they rode to school on that morning, those are materials that came out of the ground.”

But Charles Tripp, a professor of political science at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, suggests the legislation is simply an attempt by conservative lawmakers to give some good PR to the oil and gas industries.

“They think of course that environmental groups strike a chord with people in this state, just by talking about protection of the environment,” he said. “They don’t want people talking like that. They want people to believe all mining is good.”

The legislation also took some heat from the Salt Lake Tribune in an editorial.

“It’s just irresistible. Republicans in the Utah legislature can’t help themselves when it comes to promoting energy development in Utah,” the editorial declared. “Rep. Jack Draxler ... has convinced his colleagues in the House that Utah schoolchildren are learning too much about energy conservation and recycling and not enough about the benefits of drilling for gas and oil.”

It concluded: “If balance is needed, we’d like to also see an explanation of how burning carbon fuels and drilling for them are contributing to the air that’s so bad these same children can’t go outside at recess.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.