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Commercial Influence in Schools

by Dr. Kathie F. Nunley

Recently, while visiting a school district in New Jersey, I struggled getting my bags into the back of an administrator's car due to a large box of supplies from an acne cream company. He apologized for the obstacle and explained he needed to get the box shipped back to the company as their school district had a policy of no commercial advertising in school. Coming from my own district in Utah which is over run with (or perhaps I should say actually run with) commercial advertising and profit sharing, this New Jersey district policy was quite refreshing. It reminded me of the responsibility we all share to monitor the ethics of the increasing commercial presence in our schools.

The debate surfaces periodically around the nation, especially when large scale endeavors, such as Channel One, begin to request district contracts. Most communities appear to take an extreme stand one way or the other. In one corner you have districts such as the one in New Jersey which have firm policies against such things. They are adamant - no book covers, no concession machines in the hall, no Channel One.

In the other corner you have the communities who apparently do not notice, or truly don't care that their children are bombarded with corporate sponsorship and advertising in all areas of their school day- from television commercials in the classroom to billboards in the hall and lunchrooms and ads on their school buses.

Communities in the later group tend to rationalize the situation with the fact that the kids see so many commercials out of school, on road billboards and television, that a few more hours during the day can't hurt - and besides, it is a substantial asset to the school coffers. Communities who have banned such activity campaign that it is exploitation and a use of undue influence on a population so open to suggestion and peer pressure.

Certainly the problem is not one with a simple solution. General policies established by districts may be dismissing legitimately beneficial educational tools or conflicting with community standards by allowing the situation to go unchecked. Each issue needs to be considered on an individual basis which is not always practical. Let's consider some of the common events.

Are soda pop machines and other snack vending machines an attractive nuisance which robs captive children of their money and their appetite for taxpayer subsidized lunch? Or are they simply providing a service for children and extra money to help lessen the burden on school budgets? It may help to consider that the school accounts are by far the most profitable accounts for soft drink companies in those markets which allow them.

Also consider that the majority of products sold in these machines are laden with sugar which is associated with a large assortment of physical and mental problems. In addition, there is big concern in the neuropsych field on regular use of artificial neurotransmitters (i.e., caffeine) in the developing nervous system.

Most teachers report that concession machines are the number one cause of tardy students and students needing to leave during class time. If students fill up on concessions before lunch, much of the taxpayer money spent to subsidize a balanced school lunch program goes wasted.

Of greater concern may be that due to the low tax-base, students in low socioeconomic neighborhoods are even more likely to be asked to pay for such basic supplies as photocopy paper and textbooks through school wide concession machines Basic supplies such as these should be a taxpayer responsibility. What about other sources of advertising? Do parents know of and have a voice in who advertises on book covers, hall way billboards, corporate sponsorships, and companies who have exclusive contracts with schools for such things as graduation rings and announcements?

Communities are vocal about the use of Channel One because of its commercial messages, but are they aware of those same commercial messages in the newspapers used in "Newspaper-in-Education" programs run in many major cities? Apparently we are not as threatened by the presence of newspapers as we are by television. If one is a valid source of news, shouldn't the other be?

I believe we may have lost site of the objectives of our public school. We have become numb to the commercial influence of advertising. We need to rethink whether or not to allow private companies to advertise on instruction school time Graduation supply companies often use large chunks of school time holding seniors in an auditorium in order to sell their products to this captive audience. Elementary school fund raisers often include an afternoon assembly hosted by the fundraising company to basically rally young children to be their field salespeople.

Where are the ethics in this? Why would a school board ever approve such flagrant exploitation of our youth for the profits of corporations, which often are not even members of their own community? Are all these programs and products evil? I think not. Some have a valid contribution to the education process. (Personally, there are many days when Channel One is the only news I have time to view). Students can build pride and self-esteem in taking part in activities which directly affect them and over which they have control.

A class working to earn money for a special trip or community project will benefit from the value this type of fundraising teaches. But when fundraising for the general school fund is driven by the immediate benefit of the extrinsic rewards offered by the fundraising corporation, the children are being manipulated and exploited.

Examine your schools policies and programs. Schools which offer students several company offers for graduation material are teaching critical thinking skills. Students who take an active role in the process, decision making and work for individual class project learn problem solving skills and team work. News programs which are incorporated into the instructional curriculum bring the real world into the classroom and build on previous knowledge as well as allow students an opportunity to apply theory to their everyday life.

Educators, parents and communities need to reevaluate their priorities and the purpose of their schools. Each commercial offering needs to be carefully examined to make sure it is in alignment with school and community goals and offers an opportunity to benefit the children, not simply provide taxpayer relief at the expense of the children.

Kathie F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has authored several books and articles on teaching in mixed-ability classrooms and other problems facing today's teachers. Full references and additional teaching and parental tips are available at: http://Help4Teachers.com Email her:
Kathie (at) brains.org
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