Children's Publisher Backing Off Its Corporate Ties
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Two months after Scholastic, the world's largest publisher of children's books, was hit with a barrage of criticism for distributing an unbalanced curriculum sponsored by the coal industry, the company is cutting back its InSchool marketing division's corporate-sponsored projects, and creating a new review board to vet its materials.
"We have to improve our standards, and make sure there's not a scintilla of anything that could be suggested to be biased," said Richard Robinson, the president and chief executive of Scholastic. "The vast majority of our programs are not controversial, but once in a while there was a slip-up in editorial judgment."
The company said last week that it would make a partial retreat from corporate and industry-sponsored programs and lesson plans it distributes free to teachers. It has already withdrawn some of its most controversial programs. But others, including a lesson plan sponsored by the American Egg Board recommending the health benefits of eggs, are continuing.
Scholastic InSchool, part of the company's marketing division, distributes the materials, which are paid for by dozens of corporations and agencies like the Census Bureau. The InSchool unit accounts for less than 1 percent of Scholastic's $2 billion in revenues, and fewer than two dozen of its 10,000 employees. The bulk of Scholastic revenues come from publishing books, like the Harry Potter and Hunger Games fiction series, and literacy programs like Read 180.
But since May, when the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston advocacy group, criticized the coal curriculum, the InSchool unit has taken on a disproportionate visibility. The lesson packet, paid for by the American Coal Foundation, talked about the benefits of coal without mentioning controversial topics like toxic waste, mining or greenhouse gases.
At the time, Scholastic withdrew the coal materials and said it would review all InSchool programs. Since then, the campaign, together with Change.org, has collected more than 56,000 signatures for a petition urging Mr. Robinson to stop distributing corporate-sponsored classroom material.
This month, the campaign sent Mr. Robinson a letter, signed by dozens of educators and children's health experts, urging Scholastic not to produce any teaching materials paid for by a for-profit corporation or a trade group that promotes business interests.
In addition to the coal curriculum, Scholastic distributed a program stressing the environmental wrongs of plastic water bottles, sponsored by Brita, which sells water filters. It also had a $3 million Microsoft campaign in which schools could earn points toward prizes for each Microsoft search, as well as a program featuring Playmobil's small plastic figures.
Those programs have ended, according to Kyle Good, a Scholastic spokeswoman -- and last week, after a reporter inquired about them, all traces of them were removed from the Scholastic Web site, as other programs, sponsored by Disney, Nestlé and Shell, already had been.
However, Ms. Good said, the Egg Board-sponsored program will continue, subject to review by Scholastic's new vetting process. "All About Eggs" gives teachers a poster showing how eggs journey from farm to table, lesson plans revolving around eggs, and promotes the Good Egg Project, through which farmers contribute one egg to feed the hungry for each student who takes the pledge to "Eat Good. Do Good Every Day."
In the 2010-11 school year, the program included a Back to Breakfast contest in which 12 teachers each won $5,000 for short essays describing how they would use that grant, with the winners creating videos to post on YouTube. In one video, "Eggucation Week Back to Breakfast Challenge," a Chicago fourth-grade teacher tells of teaching her students about the benefits of eating eggs, and asking them to create egg recipes. Susan Linn, director of the Boston advocacy group, said the egg program raised many of the same issues that the discontinued ones had.
"It's important for children to learn about healthy eating, but not from people who have a vested interest in a particular food," she said.
Ms. Good said she did not see the Scholastic materials as commercializing classrooms, since teachers have discretion about whether to use them. Ms. Good also said she saw little distinction between Scholastic's InSchool program and a New York Times program in which copies of the newspaper, complete with advertisements, are distributed to schools for classroom use.
Mr. Robinson, the son of Scholastic's founder, said the company had decided not to end all corporate sponsorships because "there are corporate programs that have some value, that spread information that otherwise might not be heard."
He said Scholastic was forming a partner review board, made up of a curriculum editor, a teacher, a school administrator, a child psychologist and a parenting expert, to vet the InSchool partnerships. Going forward, Mr. Robinson said, most InSchool sponsors would be entities like the Census Bureau, the National Fire Protection Association and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The InSchool marketing division is to be cut by about 40 percent, with corporate programs shrinking much more.
Scholastic's Web site describes the InSchool programs as "curriculum connected, free educational programs, including behavioral change, pro-social, cause marketing, brand awareness, and consumer loyalty programs, with support from corporations, organizations, and government agencies."
First Published August 1, 2011 12:00 am