Scholastic Changes Course – Highlighting the Power of Grassroots Advocacy

 

Scholastic Inc. has reacted quickly to a torrent of criticism on news that it produced and was attempting to market a one-sided lesson packet on U.S. energy production sponsored by the American Coal Foundation. Responding to a NY Times editorial and a blistering Internet campaign launched by Rethinking Schools and the Campaign for a Commercial–Free Childhood, Scholastic President and CEO Richard Robinson acknowledged that “the mere fact of sponsorship may call into question the authenticity of the information.”  The quality of the information was highlighted by the Times piece, which criticized the packet’s emphasis on the benefits of coal while omitting mention of toxic waste and production of greenhouse gases.

The Scholastic coal story indeed hit a raw nerve. Within hours of launching its campaign, Rethinking Schools was joined by a host of environmental advocacy groups, commentators and bloggers; the story was covered by numerous media outlets, electronic and otherwise. The tsunami did its work.  Saying that Scholastic has concluded that “we were not vigilant enough as to the effect of sponsorship in this instance,” Robinson announced that the company will be undertaking a thorough review of its policy and editorial procedures on sponsored content, and that it “has no plans to further distribute this particular program.”

The real lesson here is for parents and educators as well as students. Though Scholastic has said that only a small percentage of the lesson material it produces is with sponsors – including government agencies, nonprofit associations and corporations – itsnon-critical acceptance of backing from the coal industry in this instance is indicative of the larger and disturbing trend of corporate underwriting of our educational system. At a time when education budgets are being cut, costs are rising and schools are being told to find their own funding, it is tempting for administrators to throw open the doors of our educational institutions to business interests. Those with a public policy agenda can begin to influence a growing crop of new voters. One commentator perhaps said it best by stating that “the relationship between public education and private companies is more than school to business partnerships – it is a manifestation of the new alignment of the American economy.”

The Scholastic story certainly underscores the importance of media literacy as a vital in the education of today’s students and highlights the power of social action on the Web.  It is imperative that students, parents and teachers continue to remain vigilant and to monitor the influence of private business in their public schools. The stakeholders in our education system must continue to insist that schools do a better job in teaching students critical thinking skills so they can question sources of information and become active participants in our democracy.