A grinning cartoon character in a hard hat and safety goggles – shaped like the state of Illinois and also evoking a lump of coal — touts how reclaimed coal mines “let us balance our energy needs and our environmental needs.”

This image is part of a coal education program including a K-12 curriculum that the state of Illinois has distributed to hundreds of teachers, aiming to bolster the “marketability” and use of Illinois coal.

Critics have blasted the Illinois curriculum and others like it nationwide as taxpayer-funded industry propaganda that presents an unscientific and biased view of coal.

On July 30 the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) released a 400-page evaluation of the coal education program. It calls for retiring the current curriculum and revamping it to “provide high-quality scientific content, a balance of perspectives, and present coal as part of an energy portfolio in national and global contexts.”

Some environmental advocates see the coal education program evaluation as significant progress; others decry a lack of urgency in replacing the pro-coal curriculum with a robust curriculum reflecting current energy realities and real science.

‘Willfully misleading’

The coal education program is outlined by a state law, the Illinois Coal Technology Development Assistance Act, which calls for promoting a “positive image for the mining and utilization of coal in Illinois.” The curriculum was developed by Northern Illinois University in 2004, and has been distributed to roughly 125 teachers each year, according to the DCEO, including at an annual Coal Conference.

The curriculum proposes integrating coal-related lessons into math, geology, economics and other classes. The larger education program also includes an annual art, calendar and essay contest which teachers often incorporate into their lesson plans.

Jeff Biggers is a historian and author of the book Reckoning at Eagle Creek exploring coal in his southern Illinois hometown. He recently denounced the DCEO evaluation in the Huffington Post. Among other things, he complained about the fact that the evaluation was spearheaded by Sallie Greenberg, a University of Illinois professor involved with the FutureGen “clean coal” plant; and that Greenberg and evaluator Lizanne DeStefano in Biggers’ words “apparently failed to disclose they had both been participants in the same controversial coal education conference program they were hired to evaluate.”

Biggers wrote:

“After waiting for years, with Illinois in the midst of a reckless coal rush and mind-boggling coal exports during record years of drought and flood and climate disruption, where’s the sense of urgency to promote ‘public awareness and education’ about the health, human and environmental impacts of the ‘coal and the coal industry,’ as mandated by the Illinois Coal Technology Development Assistance Act? That same lack of urgency is also shared among the hired evaluators of the Coal Education Program, who recommended that the state program ‘could improve’ over the ‘next 24 months.’”

Starting in 2011, the Heartland Coalfield Alliance in central Illinois and the Chicago-based Eco-Justice Collaborative campaigned to revoke or revise the curriculum. They encouraged people to send postcards to Governor Pat Quinn, and about 1,000 people signed a petition circulated by the phone company CREDO titled “Tell DCEO: Stop Misleading Illinois Kids About Coal.”

The Eco-Justice Collaborative and the Heartland Coalfield Alliance also did their own in-depth analysis of the curriculum, called “From the Coal Mines to the Power Lines.” They cited specific sections about land reclamation, “clean coal” technology and climate change, noting that the curriculum did not take into account negative impacts and externalities from the coal industry and was “willfully misleading” regarding coal’s contribution to climate change.

Eco-Justice Collaborative co-founder Lan Richart saw the DCEO evaluation as a victory, saying: “My perspective is that, despite Dr. Greenberg’s conflict of interest, the report’s recommendations support the call for immediate reforms. The larger question is: How long will DCEO use the lack of funding as an excuse to do nothing with the recommendations?

“We shouldn’t as a state be supporting the use of a curriculum that is outdated and biased and unscientific in many ways,” Richart added. “Our fundamental concern is that while this evaluation supports our efforts, the DCEO may drag their feet in implementing changes.”

Evaluation: Curriculum ‘outdated’

The DCEO contracted Greenberg and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to review the coal education program. The reviewers looked at whether the initiative is based in science, whether it promotes “a balance of perspectives” and how it could be improved.

In comments published in the evaluation, many teachers said they found the curriculum useful for their teaching or their own understanding of the coal industry. Most said they knew little about coal before attending the Coal Conference, and learned much from the conference coal mine tour and discussions with miners. Other teachers said the conference was too political and unscientific, and criticized presenters for rushing out without leaving time for dialogue.

The DCEO evaluation concluded that: “Science content experts, teachers and stakeholders found the (curriculum’s) scientific content to be outdated, biased towards a positive image of coal, light on natural science content, and lacking discussion of potential environmental and social impacts of coal use.”

The evaluators recommended that the curriculum should be expanded to focus more on the impact and pros and cons of coal use and its context “within a U.S. and global energy portfolio which includes alternative energy sources.” The evaluators also said the curriculum used an “outdated” pedagogical approach pushing students to provide the “right” answer rather than fostering critical thinking.

Richart said that along with freezing distribution of the curriculum, the state should tell teachers who already have it to stop using it. And, he said, the annual conference should either be canceled or expanded to include tours of areas negatively impacted by coal mining.

Coal curricula has also been controversial in other states. Educator and author Mark Nowak’s 2009 book Coal Mountain Elementary juxtaposes lessons from the American Coal Foundation’s free curriculum with verbatim testimony from the 2006 Sago, West Virginia mine disaster and wrenching images of Chinese coal miners. Nowak showcases an accounting exercise where chocolate chips are “mined” from cookies and the making of “coal flowers,” a traditional Appalachian art project wherein crystals are “grown” from coal with the help of laundry detergent.

In 2011 the New York Times reported on and editorialized against the American Coal Foundation’s financing of a blatantly pro-coal curriculum for fourth graders distributed by the company Scholastic.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise coal has a great deal of influence with our legislators,” said Richart. “I see it very much as just a piece of marketing material for the coal industry, where we should be focused on students learning about a much broader range of energy options and challenges ahead of us – that there’s no easy solution, and no one energy source will be a golden ticket.”

Kari has written for the Vxartnews since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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