The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, March 05, 2007

Who gets to support education?

Interesting article on CNN today titled "Critics Denounce Pizza Hut Reading Program." It's a reminder that education outreach programs can be controversial - while most schools want business support, there are others in the community who would prefer that they not get involved.

The case for Book It, Pizza Hut's reading incentive program:

...the program -- which has given away more than 200 million pizzas -- has deep roots and many admirers at the highest levels of politics and education. It won a citation in 1988 from President Reagan, and its advisory board includes representatives of prominent education groups, including teachers unions and the American Library Association.

"We're really proud of the program," said Leslie Tubbs, its director for the past five years. "We get hundreds of e-mails from alumni who praise it and say it helped them get started with reading."

Dallas-based Pizza Hut says Book It is the nation's largest reading motivation program -- conducted annually in about 925,000 elementary school classrooms from October 1 through March 31. A two-month program is offered for preschoolers.

Teachers find the program an enjoyable way to build interest in reading, Tubbs said. "We're helping them to do their jobs," she said.

Additional (tempered) support from principals:

At Strafford Elementary School in Strafford, Missouri, the roughly 500 students collectively read 30,000 books a year with Book It's help, said principal Lucille Cogdill.

"I don't have any negative things at all to say about it," Cogdill said. "I know there's concern about obesity, but Book It is not causing it, and the schools aren't causing it."

Chris Carney, principal at Bennett Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, also is a Book It fan, saying it encourages family togetherness and provides a tool for persuading children to try books instead of video games.

"I don't want to see kids gorging pizzas," he said. "But the positive effects outweigh other effects."

The case against:

Book It, which reaches about 22 million children a year, "epitomizes everything that's wrong with corporate-sponsored programs in school," said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

"In the name of education, it promotes junk food consumption to a captive audience ... and undermines parents by positioning family visits to Pizza Hut as an integral component of raising literate children," Linn said.


Among those campaigning against Book It is Alfie Kohn, an author whose 11 books on education and parenting include "Punished By Rewards, which questions the value of incentive programs.

"The more kids see books as a way to get pizza or some other prize, the less interest they'll have in reading itself," Kohn, a former teacher, said in a telephone interview. "They tend to choose easier books to get through faster."

Another critic of Book It and the broader phenomenon of corporate incursions into schools is Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at Arizona State University.

He described Book It as a "dreadful program" that puts pressure on parents to celebrate with their reward-winning children at Pizza Huts.

"This is corporate America using the schools as a crow bar to get inside the front doors of students' homes," he said. "It's very hard for children whose parents who don't want to engage in this to not feel ostracized."

Personally, I think programs like this are great - it gives principals and teachers an incentive at no cost to encourage academic performance. It's not mandatory - if schools or communities feel it's not appropriate for kids, they're perfectly free not to participate as individuals or as a group. And remember that obesity is a lifestyle issue - one piece of pizza (or one birthday cake, or one christmas cookie, etc...) won't make you fat. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the occasional reward to mark an occasion or an accomplishment.

Moreover, I'm always wary of "experts" like Linn, Kohn, and Molnar deciding what is and isn't right for other people. Their opinions certainly don't start and end with pizzas: rest assured they have other thoughts on how we should all live our lives. And that's not a responsibility I'm willing to give up.

But I'd love to hear other thoughts. Should businesses only contribute to education if they're "pure"? Should they only provide financial contributions? Should they be required to work anonymously?

And what do you think would happen to the already limited amount of investment businesses make in public education if we follow that path?

Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs for highlighting the article.


  • "Should businesses only contribute to education if they're "pure"? Should they only provide financial contributions? Should they be required to work anonymously? "

    To answer in order: NO. NO. and NO.

    First and foremost, businesses have a duty to their owners, whether it be the sole owner, the partners or the shareholders. That duty is important. We as a nation should be encouraging businesses to look beyond that basic duty to the community at large. If they do something, like encourage reading, and that something can improve the bottom line, like improving pizza sales, why then is it a bad idea. When experts like Linn, Kohn, et al say that corporate citizenship is bad because there might be a profit motive, you cut out the very groups who stand to offer the most resources to schools--for profit businesses.

    Second, while cash is good and is always useful, various budgeting rules often make using cash very difficult for many uses. While the money can be used for expanding libraries or more computers, other in-kind contributions probably go much farther. Think about how much cheaper actual computers are when they are donated (at cost to the manufacturer) versus bought, even at bulk education discounts. Incentives and discounts can help even more. If a donor gives $1 million dollars, there might be strings attached to the money. But if a "donor" gives out $1 million in coupons that are exercisable at the holder's decision, the company can encourage a behavior and might makes some money and might not. Isn't that altrustic in itself.

    Finally, anonymity is the choice of the giver, not the community. If I gave a significant sum of money or a corporate did, they can choose on their own to be anonymous. Companies worry about branding, they worry about community relations, if you take away the probably acknowledgement factor, what, besides altruism will drive corporate citizenship? Altruism may be enough, but sometimes recognition of good deeds inspires other good deeds.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12:43 PM  

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