Critics target Pizza
Hut reading program
NEW YORK -- 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's organization, hoping to capitalize on a
surge of concern about child obesity and junk food,
this week called on parents and educators to end
their schools' participation in the long-standing
program. Linn noted that many schools are trying to
reduce students' access to soda, and said Book It
should face similar scrutiny.
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
"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 Oct. 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.
Teachers find the program an enjoyable way to
build interest in reading, Tubbs said. "We're
helping them to do their jobs," she said.
At Strafford Elementary School in Strafford, Mo.,
the roughly 500 students collectively read 30,000
books a year with Book It's help, said principal
"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, Fla., also is a Book It
fan, saying it encourages family togetherness and
provides a tool for persuading children to try books
instead of video games.
"I don't want to see kids gorging pizzas," he
said. "But the positive effects outweigh other
Among those campaigning against Book It is Alfie
Kohn, an author whose 11 books on education and
parenting include "Punished By Rewards, which
questions the value of incentive programs.
"The more kids see books as a way to get pizza or
some other prize, the less interest they'll have in
reading itself," Kohn, a former teacher, said in a
telephone interview. "They tend to choose easier
books to get through faster."
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. "It's very hard for children whose
parents who don't want to engage in this to not feel
Molnar acknowledged that Book It is well-regarded
by many educators and politicians, but said it might
be reevaluated in light of rising concerns about
"To the extent that this program is correctly
identified as part of the problem, then there's a
chance of reducing its scope," he said.
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