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What Are They Thinking?

New report on corporate commercialism in schools finds sponsorships and corporate marketing threaten students’ critical thinking skills.


Jamie Horwitz

Alex Molnar

Faith Boninger

BOULDER, CO (November 7, 2011) – Partnerships between schools and for-profit companies are a growing trend in cash-strapped school districts but may cause harm to schoolchildren, according to new research by an international team of scholars.

The potential damage goes beyond the immediate health threat posed by the school-based marketing to children of soft drinks and other junk foods. Corporate commercializing activities in schools undermine the teaching of critical thinking skills essential to a good education, according to Alex Molnar and co-authors Faith Boninger and Joseph Fogarty.

The report, The Educational Cost of Schoolhouse Commercialism: The Fourteenth Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercializing Trends: 2010-2011, was released today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Lead author Molnar, a research professor at CU Boulder and publishing director at the NEPC, has studied and written about commercialism in U.S. schools for nearly two decades and is one of the nation’s top experts on the subject. Faith Boninger is an NEPC research associate with an academic background in psychology, and has researched this topic over the past five years. Joseph Fogarty, a school principal in County Sligo, Ireland, also has written extensively on commercialization trends.

The new report on schoolhouse commercializing trends considers how commercializing activities in schools directly and indirectly undermine the quality of the education children receive. Molnar, Boninger, and Fogarty observe that corporate commercialism in schools directly harms children by, for example, marketing candy and soft drinks on school premises and thus effectively undermining the schools’ nutrition curriculum and children’s learning about healthy eating.

Another harm is due to the shifting of school time toward activities promoted by commercial sponsors. Such business-sponsored activities in recent years include product demonstrations and contests like the “ASA School Tour.” The pretext for the tour is to show children that it’s cool to be tobacco-free, but when the Tour arrives at a local high school, classes are suspended for a mandatory assembly that includes an action sports show and exposure to sponsors’ branding, with on-site promotions and sampling.  When Microsoft sponsored the tour, for example, new Xbox games were a featured attraction.

Finally, a less obvious but significant educational harm associated with school commercialism involves the threat posed to critical thinking. Research shows, Molnar and colleagues write, that critical thinking skills are best fostered in an environment where students are encouraged “to ask questions, to think about their thought processes and thus develop habits of mind that enable them to transfer the critical thinking skills they learn in class to other, unrelated, situations.” Yet, as they point out, “…it is never in a sponsor’s interest for children to learn to identify and evaluate its points of view and biases, to consider alternative points of view, or to generate and consider alternative solutions to problems.” 

“Corporate sponsors want their story to be accepted uncritically,” Molnar says.

The report references the coal industry’s collaboration with children’s book publisher Scholastic Inc.. Scholastic produced materials for the American Coal Foundation’s “The United States of Energy” 4th grade curriculum. Classroom materials in this program were written to emphasize many states’ use and production of coal.

This coal curriculum caught the attention of a coalition of advocacy groups in the spring of 2011 and led to a campaign that culminated in Scholastic’s July decision to halt distribution of the coal-related materials and to reduce its production and promotion of other sponsored content. Yet Scholastic Inschool, the publisher’s marketing arm for corporate clients, has launched numerous in-school marketing campaigns in recent years for companies such as Brita water filters, Disney and Nestlé.

Similarly, energy companies such as Chevron and Shell Oil (another Scholastic Inschool client) have spent heavily on classroom materials. Shell’s sponsored school curriculum describes the multi-national corporation as a leader in alternative energy rather than as chiefly a petroleum company.

“These materials are designed to place a halo over the sponsoring company, not to promote a critical understanding of complex issues,” said Molnar.

After reviewing these and other corporate-sponsored materials, the authors conclude that “Instead of promoting … higher-level thinking, sponsors promote their message and encourage activities” that may appear to forward children’s education, but never risk “touching on anything that might lead to thinking inconsistent with that message.”

Molnar, Boninger, and Fogarty point out: “This is the natural, unsurprising course of action for a corporation. It does not, however, promote the intellectual development of students or serve the broader interests of society.”

The authors argue that corporations’ interest is the profit motive, not educating children or promoting the general welfare. They conclude:

 “Corporate involvement with schools necessarily bends what students learn, how they learn, and the nature of the school and classroom environment in a direction that favors the corporate bottom line. These corporations attempt to shape the habits of mind that children internalize and carry with them, to the detriment of us all.”

The Educational Cost of Schoolhouse Commercialism: The Fourteenth Annual report on Schoolhouse Commercializing Trends: 2010-2011, by Alex Molnar, Faith Boninger, and Joseph Fogarty, on the web at:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit