Devil in the Details


Teaching Products

"If it can't be grown, it has to be mined." This slogan is the centerpiece of a "Teacher Helper" packet on earth science produced by the Mineral Information Institute (MII), a nonprofit organization founded by several mining companies and trade groups to distribute free classroom materials to schools nationwide. Did you know that over its lifetime, a baby will need 579,655 pounds of coal? Or that "[w]hen a mine is finished, it will be reclaimed so it can be used again, either by man or by nature"? MII even offers teachers a special deal: Show your class the video Common Ground: Modern Mining and You, ask your students to write stories or draw pictures related to mining, bring those projects to a local mining center, and you'll receive $100 for your classroom. MII brags that over 27,000 teachers receive its materials.

MII is just one of the many organizations that produce corporate "sponsored educational materials," or SEMsclassroom materials designed by companies to supplement the regular curriculum. SEMs come in many forms. The simplest include, say, a poster or some black-and-white handouts; the more complex include videos, computer software, CD-ROMs, and full-color curriculum outlines. Many SEMs are specially designed to capture kids' attention: Merrill Lynch's "International Savings Month" kit includes a Savin' Dave and the Com pound ers comic book, for instance. Nearly all SEMs are available to teachers free of charge. Two valuable organizations, the Center for the Analy sis of Commercialism in Education ( and the Center for Commercial-free Public Education (, keep track of this disquieting trend.

Many teachers, especially those in underfunded public school systems, are starving for classroom resourcesand sometimes using sponsored educational material is the easiest way of getting teaching tools into the classroom. Unfortunately, SEMs care more about advertising their sponsors' products than about furthering the goals of education. In 1995, Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports) released a study of 77 SEMs, entitled "Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at School." The report judged over half the kits, packets, and posters it examined to be "commercial" or "highly commercial" in nature. Nearly 80 percent contained biased or incomplete information. This should hardly be surprising, given that SEMsunlike textbookstypically enter school without being independently reviewed and certified. Whether they plug a specific product, inject corporate logos into the curriculum, or merely cast the sponsoring company and industry in a favorable light, SEMs exist to sell products.

Bic Pens produces an "innovative educational program" called Quality Comes in Writing, which combines unexceptional writing advice with multiple repetitions of the Bic logo. The California Beef Council's "Cowboys Then and Now" paints a romantic portrait of the old West that includes, of course, ample beef consumption. The Herman Goelitz Candy Company even sponsors Mr. Jelly Belly's New Factory Tour, a video for grades K-6 in which the animated Mr. Jelly Belly leads students on a "field trip" to a jelly bean factory. A few years ago, Indonesia's corrupt Suharto regime teamed up with three oil companies to produce a high school curriculum singing Indonesia's praises and calling for closer ties with the United States.

Even seemingly tame examples can raise troubling questions. In its 1995 report, for instance, Consumers Union discusses a "sugar science" SEM produced by the Sugar Association; its commercial content was low and all the material it covered was educationally legitimate, but as the report noted, there was no "reason [to teach] the importance of sugar this way unless you happen to be a sugar manufacturer." Unless an SEM fits in with a teacher's goals, using it amounts to giving the corporate world control over part of the curriculumand do we really want oil companies and pen manu facturers making pedagogical decisions?

Teachers, to be sure, are generally not under any obligation to use SEMs; because no one is required to track their adoption, there are no hard statistics about how many of the most egregiously commercial materials are used. Alex Molnar of the Center for the Analy- sis of Commer cialism in Education describes the rise of SEMs as part of the "steady trumpeting of commercial messages" in societya movement that sees schoolchildren as a captive audience for advertisers, not as residents of a safe haven free from the onslaught of commercialism. Even when individual SEMs seem harmless, the aggregate effect of the influx of corporate "educational" materials is to compromise the integrity of the teaching process and to blur the line between education and advertising. And the result of this manipulation can hardly be described as "education."