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CULTURE AOW

How Special Interest Groups Are Taking Over School Curriculums

Petro Pete's Big Bad Dream, produced and distributed by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. (Photo: Oklahoma Energy Resources Board website, OERB.com) Child in school (Photo: Unsplash)
Petro Pete's Big Bad Dream, produced and distributed by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. (Photo: Oklahoma Energy Resources Board website, OERB.com) Child in school (Photo: Unsplash)

In the age of standardized tests and common core state standards, today’s teachers must stick strictly to teaching the curriculum, which outside forces sometimes determine.

Local school boards and administrators normally design school curriculums, but lately there has been a nationwide trend toward adopting the curriculums endorsed by state and national government agencies. On the surface this seems harmless, but dwindling school budgets have created an easy path for special interest groups to tap into the minds of America’s impressionable school-aged children. Furthermore, a lawsuit in North Carolina is threatening to curtail parents’ right to advocate for their children and question school curriculums.

Outside Influence on School Curriculums

Technically state and national curriculums are voluntary suggestions, but as more schools struggle financially and rely heavily on government funds to continue functioning, adhering to these standards and practices is sometimes the only option schools have to receive the financial support they need.

Additionally, government agencies and local organizations aren’t the only ones who decide what to put into curriculums and what to leave out. Industries such as big oil and natural gas as well as pharmaceutical companies have begun to take an interest in education, and the clout they hold with administrators and educational policymakers is often enormous. The pairing can result in school curriculums heavily influenced by special interest groups.

The aforementioned industries and others such as the financial sector have long had an enormous degree of influence on what schools teach in higher education, but now they are attempting to influence younger students.

Oklahoma Schools

A 2017 report by The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) titled “Oil’s pipeline to America’s schools Oklahoma” details the extensive influence of big oil in Oklahoma’s schools. As the report explains, oil and gas corporations provide nearly all the funds for the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, which is technically a state agency but essentially operates solely to advocate for the interests of these industries. Board members are not state employees but rather paid consultants.

In the past 20 years the agency has begun to focus heavily on the educational sector, spending more than $40 million to design aspects of state curriculums and fund activities such as presentations by industry insiders and after-school programs clearly biased in support of the goals of the oil and natural gas industries.

The board’s influence is absolutely staggering. According to CPI’s report, statistics show that the curriculums designed by the board are used in as many as 98% of Oklahoma’s school districts.

Many of these ventures specifically target young children, such as the picture book Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream, which envisions the “nightmare” scenario of a world without petroleum products. In addition to Petro Pete, the main character of the story, the picture book features a cast of other characters with charming names related to the petroleum industry, such as Sammy Shale and Mrs. Rigwell.

The story follows Petro Pete through a day without products made from petroleum by-products – products which in the book are used daily by nearly everybody. In the end, it turns out that it was all a dream, but the message is clear from the title of the book: a world without petroleum products is a “nightmare.” The book is essentially a blatant piece of propaganda that seeks to scare easily influenced children into thinking that if actions are taken to limit the power and scope of the petroleum industry, they will be forced to live in a world without clothes, toys and even ice cream.

Similar Programs in Ohio and Elsewhere

The CPI’s report details similar programs in places like Ohio where the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program operates in a similar manner as the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. It too is industry-funded, state-sanctioned and conducts free teacher workshops. The woman who founded it, Rhonda Reda, previously worked in public affairs for Ohio’s Oil and Gas Association and, as of CPI’s 2017 report, sat on the communications committee for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

One of the Ohio Programs’ projects has been to help develop lessons for the National Energy Education Development Project, or NEED, a STEM-based curriculum development venture. NEED counts industry giants Shell and BP among its sponsors and has recommended materials that state that the existence of climate change is not scientifically proven and that even if global warming did exist “a little warming might be a good thing.”

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With dwindling school budgets nationwide, teachers are easy marks for groups like the Oklahoma Board which CPI’s report says holds free workshops that essentially teach how to incorporate a pro-oil industry curriculum. Teachers are lured with offers of reimbursements for a year’s worth of school supplies and free museum field trips – as long as the teachers promote the pro-oil industry curriculum.

In fact, Oklahoma and Ohio don’t appear to be isolated cases. CPI’s report found that the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board has pitched its programs and pro-industry ads to trade groups and legislators in Montana, Arkansas, North Dakota, Wyoming and Texas. Similar petroleum boards in Kansas, Illinois and Ohio declined to fulfill records requests filed by the Center.

Private Enterprise Tackles Parental Resistance

Now in a worrisome twist for parental rights advocate, a lawsuit in North Carolina threatens to silence parents right to challenge the curriculum and textbooks chosen for their children’s education.

In North Carolina, the public schools of Wake County use a math curriculum designed by the Mathematics Vision Project, an organization that publishes free math curriculums and resources. The curriculum is somewhat radical in its approach in that it places emphasis on group work and team problem-solving rather than teacher instruction. Some parents and educational experts think this has a detrimental impact on student’s understanding since the teacher takes a more passive facilitator role, and students must rely on their classmates for help and assistance.

According to a report by Education Week, parents in the district have been wary of the new curriculum since it was adopted three years ago, but few have been as vocal as Blain Dillard. Dillard has written multiple blog postings about the issue, some of which claim that the Mathematics Vision Project fabricated data regarding grades and student achievement to mislead parents and the public about the effects of their education program on students in Wake County.

Mathematics Vision Project has not taken kindly to Dillard’s criticism and has now sued Dillard for defamation. It claims Dillard engaged in slander, libel and “tortious interference with business relations” against the company.

This legal move is a classic example of a strategic lawsuit against public participation, commonly abbreviated as SLAPP. SLAPPs attempt to limit public debate and discourage individuals from criticizing organizations such as the Mathematics Vision Project. Evan Mascagni, who serves as the policy director of the Public Participation Project, explained to Education Week that legal actions such as the one against Dillard are intended “to silence, intimidate or harass a critic.”

The Mathematics Vision Project’s lawsuit challenges Dillard’s freedom of speech and rights as a parent and could result in a massive paradigm shift if legal action such as this becomes the norm. Tom Loveless, a former member of the Brookings Institution and an expert on educational policy told Education Week he fears that if the Mathematics Vision Project wins the lawsuit it “would certainly cast a shadow on the idea that parents have a right to participate in their own children’s education, to criticize schools for buying particular textbooks, to voice their concerns about instruction and curriculum.”

As large corporations and special interest groups gain even more financial, political and educational power, they can easily target individuals like Dillard who exercise the rights given to them by a democratic government and speak out against their usurping of power. The influence and economic means of such enterprises is truly astounding, and individual citizens such as Dillard almost don’t have a chance against such leviathans.

As business-minded conglomerates gain more economic and political power, their tentacles could reach into even more spheres of daily life, but especially in the education of future generations.

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2 Comments

  1. Larry Stout September 25, 2019

    Reminds me of the erstwhile TV ads for the chemicals industry: The booming, tunnel-echo voice declared, “Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible!”

    The school-texbook industry, centered in Texas, has for decades held sway where choices of schoolbooks are made. They make a point, of course, of planned obsolescence, which has worked so well in manufacturing businesses; thus, every year school districts are pressured to buy “updated” versions of standard texts — even where the same, unchanging mathematical principles are presented — which drives up school costs considerably. It is also true, as has been pointed out by an independent expert on education, that a thick, heavy textbook is a great discouragement to students; he also points out the very high student achievements in math in China, where the math textbook is a pocket-sized paperback, compared with the USA.

    Reply
  2. Dick Padrick September 28, 2019

    Mr. Bacha says the Mathematics Vision Project curriculum is radical. That may be true. However, it is important to recognize and acknowledge that the curriculum, and its associated pedagogy, also are ubiquitous. In modern times the concepts reflected in the MVP curriculum were adopted as standards by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989. NCTM adopted subsequent sets of related standards in the following decades. It is easy to demonstrate by outcomes, and by noting the burgeoning math tutoring industry, that the NCTM method of teaching K-12 mathematics has utterly failed. Getting the K-12 math education community – state legislators, the NCTM, teachers colleges, state education departments, and school administrators – to recognize and acknowledge that failure, and to change their ways, is the challenge we face. Teachers, and especially students, deserve better.

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