SSR Article : September 1998 : The corporate infiltration of science education


"Teachers helping teachers to teach science "


School Science Review

September 1998

Volume 80 Number 290

The corporate infiltration of science education

Sharon Beder

Materials aimed at shaping environmental perceptions in young people are increasingly entering schools worldwide


Increasingly corporations and industry associations worldwide are sponsoring and producing educational materials for schools. It is argued that these materials tend to give a corporate view of environmental problems, often casting doubt on the scientific basis for environmental regulation and promoting superficial solutions that will have minimum impact on their operations. Examples from various countries are cited


One corporate strategy for dealing with the threat of increased environmental regulation has been to cast doubt on the scientific basis of those regulations. By challenging existing scientific evidence and confusing the public and the politicians about the environmental impact of their activities, corporations hope to maintain good public relations and convince governments that tougher laws are unnecessary. This strategy is now making its way into school science curricula as corporations supply 'educational' materials that promote clear-cutting of forests whilst casting doubt on phenomena such as global warming and ozone depletion.

Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer of many common household items from toothpaste to laundry detergents, has produced a variety of educational packages including Decision Earth, which was distributed to almost 75 000 schools in the US (Lapp, 1994). Decision Earth contained some highly controversial claims on waste disposal, mining and forestry issues. For example, Procter & Gamble argued in their package that disposable nappies are no worse for the environment than cloth nappies, a claim based on scientific studies funded by Procter & Gamble. The company just happens to be the world's largest manufacturer of disposable nappies, although this wasn't mentioned in the package (Fried, 1994; Karpatkin and Holmes, 1995; CUES, 1995). The package described garbage-fuelled incineration processes where energy is recovered, as 'thermal recycling' without mentioning the toxic ash or emissions that result (Kalish, 1994). In defence of its clear-cut forestry practices, the package stated:

Clear cutting removes all trees within a stand of a few species to create new habitat for wildlife. Procter & Gamble uses this economically and environmentally sound method because it most closely mimics nature's own processes... Clear cutting also opens the forest floor to sunhine, thus stimulating growth and providing food for animals. (Lapp, 1994)

Decision Earth was subject to various complaints and is no longer distributed in the US, although Procter & Gamble continue to distribute it free to Canadian schools (OSSTF, 1995).

Teachers in the US are being overwhelmed with free and unsolicited curriculum material from public relations firms, corporations and industry associations. The corporate stampede to get their messages into schools through 'educational' resources whilst their customers are very young is a recent phenomenon. In 1993 corporations spent $381 million in the US on school education which accounted for 15 per cent of all corporate donations (Anon, 1995a).

Corporations and trade associations also produce materials for schools in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In fact the Association for Science Education advertises 'Industry Related Materials' on its Web pages, including materials produced by The British Phamaceutical Industry on medicines and drugs, by British Nuclear Fuels Limited on mining and fuels and by Unilever on fats and oils (ASE, 1997).

Lifetime Learning Systems is one of the companies which compiles educational materials on behalf of corporations and trade associations. It services more than 350 corporations in the US alone, as well as associations such as the American Nuclear Society, and claims to reach almost one hundred per cent of US schools – 63 million young people every year. According to Lifetime Learning Systems' promotional literature:

Kids spend 40 per cent of each day in the classroom where traditional advertising can't reach them... now you can enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials created with your specific marketing objectives in mind. Communicate with young spenders directly and, through them, their teachers and families as well. Let Lifetime Learning Systems bring your message to the classroom, where young people are forming attitudes that will last a lifetime. Coming from school, all these materials carry an extra measure of credibility that gives your message added weight. IMAGINE millions of students discussing your product in class. IMAGINE their teachers presenting your organization's point of view.

(Jacobson and Mazur, 1995; Karpatkin and Holmes, 1995; Shenk, 1995a; Wagner, 1995)

The great advantage of corporate messages in sponsored learning materials over more direct advertising materials is that any residual scepticism with which conventional advertisements might be treated disappears altogether when it comes to advertisements and public relations material secreted within school lessons. As one writer points out: 'Imagine – your target market not only reads your ads – they get tested on them' (Shenk, 1995b). One kit put out by Teacher Support Software, which is used in many kindergartens in Texas, includes test questions such as 'Taco Bell has [blank] and burritos' (Gleick, 1996).

More often the corporate message is more subtle, sometimes so subtle that the teachers don't even notice it. If they do they may turn a blind eye so that they can use the materials, which are hard for teachers to resist, particularly those in poorly resourced schools. The materials, professionally produced with lots of colour and games, prepared homework assignments and even computers that automatically grade the students' work, are generally offered for free.

In the US, as in the UK, Australia and Canada, school education receives inadequate government funding and teachers have few teaching resources available to help them outside of what is offered by corporate and trade interests. In Canada, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation has prepared and distributed a pamphlet on the commercialisation of schools in Canada, noting that budget cuts by provincial governments in the 1990s have made the school system a major target for business interests who seek to fill the resource gap (Anon, 1996a).

Some say that corporations are 'taking advantage of schools short on funds by feeding them materials, filled with company logos, that are designed to encourage consumption' (Fried, 1994). It is almost as if underfunding of schools is part of a corporate strategy to allow advertisers better access. At the very least, corporate sponsorship of school resources enables the underfunding of schools by governments to continue:

Corporations eager to enhance their public image, increase product visibility and establish consumer lifestyles are responding to America's education crisis en masse. Just about every major company or trade association now markets flashy, bright education books, brochures, posters and videos, many of which focus on the environment. Curricula, product logos and even advertisements on subjects ranging from recycling and math to financial planning and poetry have found their way into most public school systems across the country.(Lapp, 1994)

In most cases the so-called educational materials give students a distorted picture of environmental issues and other problems, social choices and trade-offs. They present a corporate view as 'fact' and report the results of corporate-funded studies without saying who financed them. They often fail to 'acknowledge the sponsor's own financial interest, or to disclose conditions and information that affect the accuracy of what they teach' (Anon, 1995a). There is not really any competition from non-corporate views because environmental groups and others lack the funding necessary to develop and distribute such an array of professionally produced materials, and teachers lack the resources or knowledge to balance the material with differing viewpoints.

Corporate influence on what children learn does not end with ads for products and services. American students are introduced to environmental issues as they use materials supplied by corporations who pollute the soil, air, and water... And there is a good chance that they will be taught the virtues of corporate-supported economic initiatives, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, with handouts on 'critical thinking' bankrolled by Mobil Oil, a supporter of the pact (Molnar, 1995).

Sometimes teachers are trained to use these materials. Each year hundreds of thousands of teachers in the US attend workshops run by corporations in conjunction with their educational materials. These materials are sent directly to teachers, by-passing official curriculum review committees, so that they are not subject to any scrutiny apart from individual teachers who may not always be able to judge the accuracy or bias in the materials. Advertisers at a Toronto conference on 'Kid power: creative kid-targeted marketing strategies' were told how to bypass the 'gate-keepers' so that their messages could be transmitted directly to the children (Anon, 1996b).

Environmental education

Project Learning Tree is an environmental educational programme for schools sponsored by the forestry industry. It claims to be 'one of the premier environmental education programs in the world'. It is used in the US, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Sweden, Finland and Brazil and has been going for over 20 years, during which time it has reached about 20 million students. In the US alone about 60 000 teachers attend its workshops each year where they learn how to 'use the program with young people' (Anon, 1996b). The programme claims to train children from kindergarten through to 8th grade how to 'investigate environmental issues, and encourages them to make informed, responsible decisions' (Anon, 1996b). According to one of its critics, the Institute for Earth Education, Project Learning Tree promotes 'the idea that the forest's primary purpose is that of a resource for human use, not a community of life for a variety of plants and animals' (Fried, 1994).

Project Learning Tree is just one of many ways in which modern corporations seek to teach children to be consumers and to accept passively the corporate viewpoint on environmental issues. Public relations professionals have recognised that environmental education in schools can lead to children who campaign against polluters and influence decisions made by their parents. Most children are interested in the environment. Research undertaken by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which has formed a partnership with Eastman Kodak to produce educational materials on biodiversity, found that 71 per cent of children were interested in the environment and 74 per cent of those would willingly spend an hour outside school hours each week to learn more about it (Bovet, 1994).

The potential to shape environmental perceptions and improve corporate images at the same time has attracted many customers to the firms designing educational materials for corporations. For example, the American Nuclear Society has a kit that tells children about the beneficial uses of nuclear technology and attempts to describe the problem of waste disposal in fear-calming terms: 'Anything we produce results in some "leftovers" that are either recycled or disposed of – whether we're making electricity from coal or nuclear, or making scrambled eggs!' (Lapp, 1994; Shenk, 1995b.)

Curriculum materials designed by the US Beef Industry Council, Caretakers All, were developed for PR purposes to reverse a trend of declining meat consumption. The package, which won a Public Relations award at the 1993 National Agri-Marketing Association's advertising and communications competition, aimed to marry 'the concepts of agriculture and environmental stewardship in students' minds'. It set out to show how farmers and ranchers look after the environment and to counter what environmentalists were saying about how farmers and ranchers cause erosion and habitat destruction through overgrazing as well as polluting waterways above and below ground with manure from feed lots. (Anon, 1993a; 1993b.)

The kits consists of study prints depicting farming scenes such as bedding for dairy cattle made of shredded newspaper, and also a clean-up day in a park. Each print has activities associated with it such as experiments with salt water and plants and helping clean up the school. The US Consumers Union describes Caretakers All as 'pure one-sided image-building for farmers and ranchers, disguised as lessons on land conservation' (CUES, 1995).

Twenty thousand kits were distributed free to teachers and Barbara Selover, director of the Meat Board education programmes, is reported in the journal Agri Marketing as stating that for an investment of $425,000 those kits would reach about 2 million young children over the next few years: 'That comes to about 21 cents per child, which we feel is a pretty cost-effective investment' and that the kit worked well as a public relations tool for the beef industry because:

First, the subject matter – taking care of the environment is a serious issue that merits attention in schools. Next, the materials reach children at an age when they are very impressionable. It also is an in-depth learning tool that delivers a consistent message over a period of time from a trusted source – their teacher. Finally it reaches large numbers of teachers and students directly. (Anon, 1993a)

Georgia-Pacific, a US corporation with forestry interests, produces elementary school materials which claim that forestry saves forests because: 'When no one harvests, trees grow old and are more likely to be killed by disease rot, and the elements. Very old trees will not support many kinds of wildlife because the forest floor is too shaded to grow the ground plants animals need.' (Shenk, 1995b).

The American Coal Foundation's materials manage to avoid mention of global warming and acid rain when they claim, in the module on Coal and our environment, that 'To keep coal from harming our land, air and water: coal is cleaned before it's burned. "Scrubbers" take out most of the harmful gases; Soil is replaced. Grass and trees are planted after surface mining.' (Lapp, 1994). Exxon has also produced a kit that portrays fossil fuels as environmentally friendly with no practical rivals (Anon, 1995b). The US Council for Wildlife Conservation and Education, an affiliate of the National Shooting Sports Association, has produced Wildlife for tomorrow: the story of our un-endangered species.

The American chemical industry has concentrated on science education. It has expanded its role to an active one of 'helping to train teachers, encouraging employee volunteers to teach courses, and guiding school curricula' with the stated aim of improving science comprehension, giving 'kids a balanced view of how science improves our daily lives', producing 'well-rounded students, who, one day, may be decision makers affecting industry policy'. The chemical industry has also targeted university students, science and non-science, with its Responsible Care Curriculum Program. Responsible Care, a code of practice for the chemical industry, was introduced to improve the public image of the chemical industry and to promote self-regulation as an alternative to increased government regulation of the industry. The Curriculum Program aims to 'increase university faculties' awareness of Responsible Care, as well as to erode stereotypes of the industry' (Fattah and Hunter, 1996).

The chemical industry has been active in providing curriculum materials in Australia, as has the mining industry. The petroleum industry has also been active in both Australia and New Zealand, hoping to 'provide a more balanced account' of their operations (Anon, 1995c). BP Oil NZ provides various curriculum materials to New Zealand schools on issues ranging from dealing with oil spills to global warming and ozone depletion. The Australian Institute of Petroleum and the Australian Petroleum Exploration Association provide project materials, classroom speakers, and site visits amongst other activities for Australian schools (Powell, 1993). Also glass, aluminium and plastics companies and industry groupings provide materials to both Australian and New Zealand schools.

State government education departments have worked together with business groups in Australia. In Western Australia the Ministry of Education has prepared curriculum materials sponsored by Woodside Petroleum, BHP, BP, Shell, Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Cal Asiatic for all secondary schools in the state. The Employers' Education Consortium of Victoria, a coalition of nine of Victoria's largest companies, has had a major input into the state's high school curriculum, with the introduction of a compulsory Australian studies unit on the World of Work (Isles, 1989).

In their report entitled Captive kids, the US Consumers Union analysed 111 different sets of educational materials sponsored by commercial enterprises, trade organisations and corporate-backed non-profit organisations, 21 of which were on environmental topics. It found that the four sets of materials on energy issues presented 'lopsided views' and six of the eight sets of materials on solid waste issues were sponsored by companies that 'produce disposable products, make packaging or packaging materials, use a great deal of packaging, or are providers of recycling services'. As a result of the sponsors' vested interests in how solid-waste problems are resolved these learning materials tended to avoid discussion of reduced consumption or product reuse as a serious alternative, instead emphasising recycling. They presented 'a distorted picture of the problems, choices, and trade-offs'. The Consumers Union described a McDonald's package, The rain forest imperative, as 'self-serving' and one by the Polystyrene Packaging Council, The plastics and the environment sourcebook, as 'highly commercial and incomplete with strong bias toward polystyrene packaging' (CUES, 1995).

The Consumers Union found that nearly 80 per cent of the sponsored educational materials it analysed 'contained biased or incomplete information, promoting a viewpoint that favors consumption of the sponsor's product or service or a position that favors the company or its economic agenda'. It concluded that the commercialisation of education, arising from advertisements and sponsored educational material containing 'biased, self-serving and promotional information', posed a 'significant and growing threat to the integrity of education in America':

In-school commercialism is at its worst, we believe, when it masquerades as educational materials or programs and offers half-truths or misstatements that favor the sponsor of the materials. It may be difficult if not impossible for most teachers to correctly judge the objectivity and accuracy of such materials ... Unfortunately, a teacher's use of a sponsor's materials or products implies an endorsement, and any benefits of such use may come at the cost of teaching children to scrutinize marketing messages objectively.(CUES, 1995)

Clearly the infiltration of school curricula can conflict with educational objectives and also with the attainment of an undistorted understanding of environmental problems. Unfortunately children are usually not able to discriminate between genuine education and the manipulative messages of corporations. Many assume that what they are taught in the classroom must be the truth.

Commercialism in education

Burger King has established 'Burger King Academies' in 14 cities in the US and they are intending to expand into the UK. These schools are 'fully accredited quasi-private high schools'. IBM and Apple are also considering getting into the market of for-profit schools (Kozol, 1993). In Baltimore the management of nine public schools has been handed over to a private company, Educational Alternatives Inc., which is receiving $27 million of public funds over five years for the task. Similar schemes have been promoted in Australia for 'poorly-performing public schools' (Lewis, 1994) and 'partnerships' between business and schools have been growing.

The international marketing company Amway offers work experience to students of an Australian high school and gives lectures in subjects including agriculture, history and business studies (Powell, 1993). Petroleum industry personnel give lectures in Australian schools and teachers are invited to gain experience of the petroleum industry through secondment for 20 or 40 weeks with the hope that they will take back what they have learnt to the classroom (Anon, 1995c).

Jane Coulter, from the University of New South Wales' Public Sector Research Centre, notes that Australian schools 'are being actively canvassed by corporate and multinational organisations to enter into sponsorship arrangements where the distinction between pedagogy, promotion, and marketing is not clear' (Coulter, 1995). The International Organization of Consumers Unions say the corporate sector is using education to:

  • counter perceived anti-business culture (particularly in response to political pressure groups);
  • privatise public education systems by stealth;
  • promote free-market ideology;
  • use schools as a market for their commercial activities and propaganda.<END

    (Coulter, 1995)

Educators worldwide are concerned 'that corporate involvement supplants public schools' mission of preparing students for participation in civic life with that of preparing students for life as workers in the free-market enterprise system' (Knaus, 1992). Or as Marianne Manilov of UNPLUG!, a youth group that campaigns against commercialised education, says: 'Students aren't learning how to be thinkers or citizens, but rather consumers' (Manilov, 1994). Writing in New Internationalist, Jonothan Kozol (1993) says: 'When business enters education, therefore, it sells something more important than the brand names of its products. It sells a way of looking at the world and at oneself. It sells predictability instead of critical capacities. It sells a circumscribed, job-specific utility.'

In a limited curriculum, the more business/consumer-oriented material there is the less alternative material there will be. Moreover, the more dependent a school is on corporate funds the less likely they will be to teach students 'to question the means and motivations of business' (Jacobson and Mazur, 1995). Alex Molnar (1995), professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who has written a book on the commercialisation of US schools, says that unless current trends change: 'by the end of the century, the link between public education and schools' ability to deliver corporate profits may be impossible to sever. And if that happens, the substitution of market values for democratic values in public education will largely be accomplished.'

There is some evidence this is already happening. Surveys show that high school students are less interested in a meaningful life and more interested in making money, compared with those of previous generations. Alan Durning (1992) reports that 'Between 1967 and 1990, the share of Americans entering college who believed it essential to be "very well off financially" rose from 44 to 74 per cent. The share who believed it essential to develop a meaningful philosophy of life dropped from 83 to 43 per cent.'



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Sharon Beder is an associate professor in science and technology studies at the University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia and author of Global spin: the corporate assault on environmentalism (Green Books, Devon, 1997).


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