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Pizza, Reading, And Corporate-School Partnering: What’s The Big Deal?

March 7, 2007

A few days back CNN posted an AP story titled “Critics denounce Pizza Hut reading program.” Here are some excerpts:

– “You’ve read the book, now eat the pizza. Since 1985, that’s been the gist of Pizza Hut’s Book It, an incentive program used by 50,000 schools nationwide to reward young readers with free pizzas. The program is now under attack by child-development experts who say it promotes bad eating habits and turns teachers into corporate promoters.”
– “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.”
– “Though some activists have previously questioned Book It, Linn said Friday that only after the recent upsurge of concern over child obesity and junk food did her group feel it could make headway with a formal protest campaign.”
– “But 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. Participating teachers set a monthly reading goal for each student; those who meet the goal get a certificate they can redeem at Pizza Hut for a free Personal Pan Pizza. Families often accompany the winners, turning the event into a celebration that can boost business for the restaurant.”
– “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. . . . ‘I don’t want to see kids gorging pizzas,’ he said. ‘But the positive effects outweigh other effects.’ “
– “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.”

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I had no idea this program had been around for over twenty years. That’s amazing.

Health issues are certainly a concern, both symbolically and in situ. I sympathize completely with that aspect of the article. But are we going to get children to read more books by giving them bananas and oranges? I’m no health expert but I’d argue, moreover, that pizza in moderation is likely better than sweets.

In the case of Book It, is corporate-school partnering really so bad? A lot of books have been read, and the program is long running. Pizza is better than candy, and the kids participate. Apparently so do the kid’s families. Are all of those kids and their families obese? Has anyone studied this? Are we going to ban all fatty foods for children so that people don’t eventually overeat themselves to death? I know I’m sounding libertarian here. The libertarian impulse, however, is being driven by the success of a reading program – by literacy, in a word. It’s hard enough to get youth away from video games without removing another incentive for improving their reading skills.

Of course I understand some of the opposition’s points. I’m no fan of the steady infiltration of the profit-motive into education institutions. For instance, what of Scholastic Books selling their own versions of children’s works, through their “book fairs,” with products and marketing targeted specifically for children? Is this not insidious? What of other publishers of children’s books?

I can testify to the cultural power of Scholastic’s program. When buying Harry Potter books for my wife, I specifically obtained Scholastic’s paperback versions. Why? Sentiment, in a word. As a kid I loved Scholastic’s paperback versions of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book series: I related that joy to Rowling’s series. We’re kidding ourselves if we think other children’s book publishers wouldn’t want that kind of sentiment in their corner through the book fair racket.

With these reservations about the profit-motive and corporate-school partnering in mind, I would still tentatively recommend that we keep the Book It program in place. Even if the tension between ‘Reading It’ and ‘Eating It’ seems temporarily swayed toward gluttony, in the final analysis increased literacy matters more than the increased waistlines of our youth. – TL

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