The XX Factor

Scholastic’s Big Coal Promo Is a Fabulous Lesson. But Not About Energy.

Scholastic’s InSchool Marketing division has a new client: the American Coal Foundation. What? You didn’t know Scholastic had an InSchool Marketing division? You thought (in spite of a recent flare-up of complaints that Scholastic has turned away from books and toward selling lip gloss rings and Wii games ) that Scholastic was a book publisher?

But Scholastic’s left hand needs to pay for what its right hand is doing, and the InSchool Marketing division is certainly one of its least savory ventures, and one it doesn’t promote. According to the watchdog group Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Scholastic’s clients (you thought those were reading kids, didn’t you?) have included Claritin and SunnyD, and now Big Coal. The medium for the marketing is a full-color free curriculum for teachers called The United States of Energy , which promises to teach children that “different types of energy (e.g., solar, fossil fuels) have different advantages and disadvantages.” But what’s most notable about the materials, according to Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools magazine (courtesy of the CCFC and downloadable here ), is that coal apparently has no disadvantages at all. There’s nothing about the disadvantages of mountaintop mining, or the toxins released when coal is burned, or the creation of greenhouse gasses. Appalling, right? The CCFC, Rethinking Schools , and Friends of the Earth have all started a letter-writing campaign to oppose the distribution of the fourth-grade curriculum.

But what’s notable about the CCFC’s complaints is that they’re no more complete than the Big Coal curriculum. I was inclined to be horrified. Harry Potter and the Big Clean-Coal-Making Machine isn’t a book I want on my fourth grader’s reading list. But underneath the CCFC’s breathless press release is a fairly innocuous three-lesson plan. It asks teachers to have kids themselves research different kinds of energy production, and directs them to the U.S. Department of Energy’s website for more information. It maps our country’s energy production, and the emphasis is on, yes, coal. But coal is the most abundant fossil fuel produced in the U.S. Finally, the curriculum covers how coal, and only coal, is converted into electricity-and no, none of those disadvantages are mentioned. Nor are any of the advantages or disadvantages of natural gas, uranium, wind, petroleum, or any other form of energy production. The United States of Energy is a whitewash. But if it’s a whitewash of coal, it’s a whitewash of the entire energy industry. You won’t find a single suggestion of negative impact, environmental or otherwise, in the entire thing.

I’m no fan of Scholastic’s marketing endeavors (or, for that matter, of Big Coal), and I agree that Scholastic’s materials failed to meet the promise that they would teach the advantages and disadvantages of different energy sources. But perhaps instead of attacking Scholastic for partnering with Big Coal, the CCFC should attack Scholastic for producing crap. And, better yet, try to figure out if that crap is in use, and where and how. If this went to 9,000 fourth-grade teachers in 2009, what, if anything, happened next?

What I see in this entire controvery is a fantastic opportunity for teachers to remind students that perhaps the most important thing they need to do with any piece of information-even in science class-is to consider the source. Scholastic’s materials come from a particular point of view. So do the CCFC’s (and it’s worth noting that even the NYT apparently accepted the CCFC’s accusations about the material without question ). Both of those groups left out the information that didn’t support their argument. In the right hands, The United States of Energy could be a pretty powerful teaching tool.