Controversial program costs small fortune for poor and working class families... Chicago Teachers Union, CPS help create 'Hooked on Phonics' informercial

When Chicago Teachers Union officials joined the “Hooked on Phonics” tour this past summer, they apparently didn’t spend a lot of time researching the controversial — but highly marketed — Hooked on Phonics program. Nor did they research much about the HOP “Anniversary Tour” they helped promote at Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Chicago.

Instead, the union’s monthly newspaper, the Chicago Union Teacher, sounded like a division of the Hooked on Phonics public relations department. “On August 30,” the Union Teacher reported in its September issue, “representatives of Hooked on Phonics, an electronic learning toys company, stopped at Crispus Attucks Elementary school to donate $25,000 worth of educational materials to the Fresh Start Schools in Chicago.”

Had they bothered to take a closer look, the CTU might have noticed that “HOP” was a bit more controversial than the bland product placement and strategically placed public relations the union provided in exchange for educational materials that have been characterized as expensive and pedagogically unsound by many critics. Additionally, HOP was doing a lot of its tour at Wal-Mart stores, which are a big outlet for the expensive HOF materials in working class and poor communities. Instead, CTU officials simply provided additional smiling faces — and some important black children playing with the materials — as the HOP tour drove across the USA promoting the product.

What had happened?

On August 30, 2007, the Chicago Board of Education, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (through Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn), and leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union brought the Hooked on Phonics national anniversary tour to Crispus Attucks Elementary School. Attucks is an all-black elementary school in what used to be the “State Street Corridor” of public housing projects (until the projects were demolished). Attucks is also a CTU “Fresh Start” school. The Fresh Start schools are jointly run by CTU and CPS.

Although no top officials of the Chicago Public Schools showed up for the Hooked on Phonics media event August 30, three officials of the Chicago Teachers Union were on hand, as well as Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn. The event was part of “HOP across America”, a Hooked on Phonics marketing event celebrating the HOP’s 20th anniversary.

The brief stop at Attucks Elementary school was part of the “anniversary tour” arranged by the HOP public relations staff. The largest number of stops on the tour, though, we not at union sites, but at Wal-Mart stores. On August 31, the day after the visit to Chicago’s south side with the CTU, “HOP Across America” was scheduled to stop at the Wal-Mart on Kirkman Road in Waukeegan.

The Chicago area wasn’t unique for its Wal-Mart stop. HOP was at the Wal Mart in Orlando Florida on September 9, at the Wal-Mart in Alpharetta, Georgia, on September 16, at the Wal Mart in Sidel, Louisiana on September 23, and at the Wal Mart in Brea, California on September 30. Whether Wal-Mart is the largest retail seller of HOP materials had not been established at Substance press time.

Chicago, however, was the stop at which HOP Across America the most publicity shots its marketing department is using to sell the expensive and controversial program to black children. Six of the 12 photographs from the Chicago portion of the tour are from the Attucks stop. Not only did the Union miss the fact that Hooked on Phonics finds its main outlet in the controversial Wal-Mart empire, but CTU must also have missed the fact that few of Wal-Mart’s non-union workers can afford HOP anyway. Like the children who attend Attucks Elementary School, the Wal-Mart workers are a target audience for HOP. Unlike children’s books, the HOP materials cost between $50 and $400.

CTU spokesman Rosemarie Genova told Substance that the only consideration HOP gave to the union was the “$25,000 in educational materials” that were donated to the Fresh Start schools.

Genova said that she was unaware of the Wal-Mart connection. She was unable to answer Substance questions about the pedagogical soundness of HOP itself. The union did not even know the unusual recent corporate history of HOP. HOP is not a separate corporation at all, but part of the large Educate!, Inc. 


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