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Coal Mining Pays Scholastic to Write Lessons on Energy

By Madeline Holler |

scholastic books, coal mine

A truckload of commericals and false or missing information.

This is wildly outrageous: Scholastic, the company that sells books to kids through their preschools and grade school classrooms, is distributing reading material to 4th-grade classrooms that highlights the advantages of coal.

Of course there are some advantages to using coal for energy — it’s abundant, we’ve used it forever. So what’s the problem?

The problem is what’s missing from the teaching materials.

This information about coal is a part of a fully developed curriculum called The United States of Energy, which discusses the advantages and disadvantages other forms of energy, like solar and fossil fuels. But according the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, The United States of Energy doesn’t list any disadvantages of coal, a notoriously dirty energy both in extracting it from the earth and burning it for fuel.

The fact that disadvantages of coal weren’t listed isn’t a mere oversight, either. It’s an editorial decision. You see, The United States of Energy was commissioned by the coal industry, through the American Coal Foundation. They paid Scholastic to produce and distribute these materials.

I’m a bit Obama on my opinion of coal. I wish we didn’t need it, but we do. Until we come up with some alternatives, we need to figure out a better way to get it and use it. Morally and intellectually, it’s wrong to discuss it with kids (or grown-ups) without acknowledging its faults — particularly if you’re giving it to solar, wind and petroleum with both barrels.

Moreover, I don’t care if you’ve got a Dick Cheney-level of love for the coal industry, passing off PR materials as K-12 educational resources is outrageous. But the American Coal Foundation is delighted at their investment in outreach:

According to the Executive Director of the American Coal Foundation, hiring Scholastic allowed ACF to dramatically increase its presence in schools—from about 7,000 to 70,000 classrooms.  “Four out of five parents know and trust the Scholastic brand,” she explained.

This isn’t the first time Scholastic has allowed business interests to influence what’s available through book orders or what shows up as a classroom lesson. In fact, Scholastic has an entire division dedicated to selling access to our kids for profit. According to the CCFC:

For years, Scholastic has exploited its reputation as an educational publisher to serve as a Trojan horse for all sorts of inappropriate marketing in schools—from the highly commercialized content of its Book Clubs, to marketing over-the-counter drug Claritin in elementary school classes, to urging teachers to throw sugar-laden beverage SunnyD parties in their classrooms.  Scholastic’s InSchool Marketing division offers its services as curriculum producer for hire. The program is designed “to promote client objectives” and “make a difference by influencing attitudes and behaviors.”

CCFC has a petition you can sign. But I think it’s also worth taking a close look at the next round of book orders and also speaking to schools about this conflicting interest. For many classrooms, kids’ orders go to support new books for their own classrooms. I’m all for teaching my kids about energy, but I don’t want the American Coal Foundation deciding what my kids need to know.

I loved book orders as a kid and my kids like them now. I’ve always been generous with our orders. But I’m starting to rethink that. The Scholastic books are cheap, but I’d rather spend more than support this kind of crass exploitation of teachers and students. I’d rather buy new books outright for the school then think that a bunch of kids in coal country are drinking dirty water at home but reading that there’s no reason to complain about coal.

Justin Bieber inhalers can’t solve everything!

What about you? Do you just accept that book orders are filled with commercialized stuff? Did you have any idea they developed classroom material alongside groups with a financial stake in what’s printed on the page?

Photo: Daisy Sue via flickr

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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11 thoughts on “Coal Mining Pays Scholastic to Write Lessons on Energy

  1. Paul says:

    So, Ms. Holler thinks that only anti-coal people should be allowed to tell the story from their point of view? If anything is “outrageous”, that is. How has America come to the point that the people who work, the people who produce something, the people who do the dirty jobs have no voice?

  2. bettywu says:

    That’s totally outrageous.

  3. Amanda says:

    I have a feeling you wouldn’t be as outraged if the Sierra Club or someone on their side was using Scholastic to distribute materials on the wonders of wind and solar energy.

  4. Paul, two sides, three sides, all sides. But not just one side. If you’re going to give the pros and cons of, say, solar energy. Isn’t it a glaring omission to have only the pros of coal? No cons?
    I’d love to hear from the people who work in the coal industry — who do the dirty job. No, honestly, I’d love that.

  5. Amanda, you (and Paul) are saying it’s us against them. I’m saying its facts vs. vested interests! The coal industry has written EDUCATIONAL CURRICULUM which is being distributed to schools as a way of teaching fourth-graders about energy in the U.S. If the Sierra Club wrote educational curriculum that listed the pros and cons of all types of energy and then only pros of solar energy (not cons) I’d consider that an unacceptable resource as well. It’s not ideological to want your kid to develop critical thinking skills and, in the practice of that, an unbiased collection of facts rather than cherry-picked ones.

  6. Paul says:

    Are “vested interests” evil automatically? If true, then anybody who does anything or has anything is automatically evil. We are participating in the electronic media, powered mostly by electricity generated from coal. I personally don’t want to go back to my great grandfathers time. I have a vested interest in the continued availability of electrical power.

    I’m not sure that there is such a thing as “an unbiased collection of facts.”

    I have observed that when somebody has expressed an opinion, they immediately have a vested interest in having their opinion accepted. Thats one of the reasons jurors are instructed not to discuss the case, even amongst themselves, untill all the evidence has been heard.

  7. Paul, cons of coal: are there none? They weren’t in the text. Why?

  8. Alex | Perfecting Dad says:

    So were there cons of everything else but coal? Maybe they just explained how coal works and where it’s found. I really don’t like some teachers or educational material explaining the pros and cons to young kids. My niece, for example, learned how “bad” it was to produce clothes in India. She learned that they’re taking our jobs and money. But she didn’t get it, and I have the feeling that all she learned in the end was that Indians are bad people.

    Kids in grade 4 can’t understand why coal is good or bad, and I think this is likely because adults don’t understand either. Most people have a very superficial view of the environment, or any modern issue, and don’t get how it’s a tough thing to change the economy and eliminate jobs. Again, they’ll just end up thinking that coal miners are bad people.

    Perfecting Parenthood

  9. Bunnytwenty says:

    “Are “vested interests” evil automatically?”
    “Evil” is a pretty strong word, but when people who have tons of money and power use said money and power to manipulate the opinions of schoolchildren, that does seem somewhat… unethical. And the people who live in coal country and live with the environmental damage it causes, and the people who work in mines – when do we get to hear their point of view? We don’t, because they’re poor.

  10. goddess says:

    Here you go Madeline:
    My step-father died of black lung after decades of work in the cola mines.
    We live close to a coal burning plant, whose smokes tacks regularly do these power blast to clean the insides of the stacks and leaves black sticky crap all over the homes, yards and automobiles for about a half mile around it. Our county has much higher than normal lung cancer rates than the surrounding counties.

  11. Scholastic says:

    Scholastic’s children’s books, magazines, reading programs and website content are used in most American classrooms – a responsibility and trust that we built through painstaking work through 90 years of service to teachers and schools. A tiny percentage of this material is produced with sponsors, including government agencies, non-profit associations and some corporations. This week, Scholastic came under criticism for an 11” x 16” poster map which displays different sources of energy –coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind and natural gas – not so much for the content of the poster but primarily its sponsorship by the American Coal Foundation. 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. Because we have always been guided by our belief that we can do better, we are undertaking a thorough review of our policy and editorial procedures on sponsored content, and we will publish only those materials which are worthy of our reputation as “the most trusted name in learning.”

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