Corporate Commercialism Running Wild in America’s Schools

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November, 2011; Source: National Education Policy Center | Few would be surprised in the findings from The Educational Cost of Schoolhouse Commercialism, the fourteenth annual report on commercializing trends in K–12 education. The opening of the summary of the report says it all: “Over the past several decades, schools have faced increasing pressure to partner with businesses, both to be seen as responsive to the business community and out of the hope that partnerships would help make up budget shortfalls as states reduced public funding for education. Often, school-business partnerships are little more than marketing arrangements with little if any educational benefit and the potential to harm children in a variety of ways.”

This report, like its thirteen predecessors, contains some devastating conclusions:

It is relatively easy to understand how corporate commercializing activities harm children educationally by undermining curricular messages (as when candy and soft drink ads contradict nutrition lessons) or by displacing educational activities (as when students spend time focused on a corporate contest rather than the curriculum). A less obvious, though perhaps more serious, educational harm associated with school commercialism is the threat it poses to critical thinking . . . It is not in the interest of corporate sponsors to promote critical thinking. Far from it: their interest is in selling their products or services or telling their story. Encouraging children to learn to identify and critically evaluate a sponsor’s point of view and biases, to consider alternative points of view or products and services, or to generate and consider solutions to problems other than the ones sponsors offer would, from a corporate point of view, be self-defeating. For this reason, sponsored messages will necessarily avoid touching on anything that might lead to thinking inconsistent with the intended message . . . Moreover, since marketing is often framed as a partnership with schools, even when teachers might want to engage students in thinking critically about the message being marketed, doing so would mean biting the hand that feeds the school.

If you haven’t been around schools and schoolchildren recently, get ready for some stomach-wrenching corporate curricula:

  • Shell‘s “Energize your Future” curriculum, which reimagines the oil industry behemoth as a leader in alternative energy technologies.
  • American Coal Foundation’s “The United States of Energy” fourth-grade curriculum, which is quite favorable, not surprisingly, to coal mining and use.
  • Coal Education Development and Resource’s (CEDAR) curriculum, which encourages coal use and students’ participation in regional “coal fairs.”
  • Kohl’s department stores’ “Kohl’s Cares for Schools” campaign promoted awarding $500,000 to the 20 schools that got the most votes on Facebook—and everyone who voted found themselves on Kohl’s mailing lists for promotions and advertisements.
  • Education Funding Partners (EFP) is marketing to schools to sell the naming rights to school cafeterias and auditoriums to corporations such as Apple and Adidas.

Here’s the kicker for all of us in the nonprofit world. Some of the corporate marketing is cloaked in the garb of corporate charitable partnerships (for example, the Kohl’s competition). Some of the marketing is carried out by nonprofit affiliates of the corporate interests (for example, the American Coal Foundation and CEDAR, both 501(c)(3)s). And some of the corporate marketers are corporations whose partnerships for schools and other causes are often lauded as standout examples of corporate philanthropy—Microsoft, Disney, Nike, Google, etc.

When it comes to the public-spirited partnerships offered by corporations and their frequently nonprofit affiliates and promoters, charities and public sector organizations have to remember to consider how much are they giving away of themselves and the communities they serve when they sign on to these partnerships. There are probably NPQ Newswire readers who have a different take on the value of these partnerships. Let’s hear from you.—Rick Cohen

  • M Freeman

    Thank you for raising an important topic about a growing trend.

    The specter of corporate interference in public education is daunting when positioned in dire language that speaks to the downsides without addressing the upsides and process that led to thoughtful cultivation of appropriate corporate sponsorships. No one wants their kids inundated with a “Times Square” advertising affect every day in school.

    School districts are government bureaucracies that–as they should–take months to years to evaluate new programs and insure the voice of all stakeholders are heard in their processes. Done well (with collaboration, transparency, and clear objectives), Corporate America can play a valuable, appropriate role in public education, which is the basis of America’s future economic security and its future workforce.

    Education Funding Partners (EFP) provides corporate sponsorships (not “advertising”) for Fortune 500 companies that want to use the power of business to help solve social problems. As a certified “B Corporation” social enterprise, EFP is held to a high third-party standard for social and environmental impact. EFP’s Social Pledge

  • Gail Bower

    You raise many excellent points about nonprofit-corporate partnerships. Sponsorship can be not only an excellent way for schools, nonprofit organizations, associations, events & festivals, along with a host of other entities to generate unrestricted income, but also if structured properly, they can generate a windfall of marketing exposure for the nonprofit itself. All too often, however, these partnerships are not structured properly. Rather than being excellent leverage points, they take nonprofits into scary territory.

    Two of the most important steps you can take as a nonprofit leader are to (1) determine first if corporate sponsorship is appropriate for your organization strategically, and (2) if it is, part of defining what your program is means articulating policies and parameters so that your organization or school or association partners with appropriate partners. This step not only helps you avoid the conflicts described above, but it also helps ensure success for your sponsors.

    Corporations do not want negative publicity, damage to their reputations, and they do want results. Poor partnerships means poor or no results.

    Partnership is just that: an exchange of value that meets both parties’ best interests. No one is forcing organizations or schools to accept a partnership from corporations that are not aligned with the mission of an organization.

    Gail Bower
    Author of “How to Jump-start Your Sponsorship Strategy in Tough Times”

  • Peter Hudson

    It’s not surprising that the early responses to this article should come from two self-interested respondents – one which brokers sponsorships (not advertising? Really?)and another whose book is concerned solely with ways and means rather than the principle of corporate funding of public education. Neither dealt with the data presented by the National Education Policy Center,and the only upside they could present was that corporate sponsorships present a revenue stream. However, the “lets face it. The ‘public’ can no longer afford to fund public education” assertion of the CEO of Education Funding Partners is disingenuous. S/He neglects to mention that if Corporate America had not led, and continues to lead, the charge for a low-tax regime at all levels of government, especially in regard to them and their wealthy allies, perhaps the public school system would be adequately funded, and wouldn’t need to be begging for extra cash. It’s interesting that the huge success of Corporate America’s anti-tax campaign has led to opportunities to increase market share for itself.

    Sincerely, Pete Hudson – whose sole vested interest is a grandchild in the public school system in Canada which is facing the same issue.