By Ben Velderman

MILWAUKEE – Every year, 1.7 million college students take remedial classes to acquire basic academic skills they should have been taught in high school.

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How is that possible when Americans are “investing” record levels of money in K-12 schools and demanding greater levels of accountability?

A popular high school “geography lesson” being promoted around the nation may offer a clue. Students spend five days getting a steady stream of one-sided political propaganda with little in the way of real learning involved.

New York City high school teacher Abby Mac Phail recently used the debate over America’s energy future as the basis for a five-day lesson designed to turn students against the Keystone pipeline project.

Her lesson plan – “Dirty Oil and Shovel-Ready Jobs: A Role Play on Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline” – was included in the list of resources that the left-wing teachers group “Rethinking Schools” emailed to educators across the country.

The proposed pipeline would transport oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands to refineries in the United States. The project is a major source of political controversy. In general terms, Republicans believe the Keystone pipeline would help kick-start the sluggish economy, while Democrats argue it would only contribute to America’s oil addiction, which is a major cause of global warming.

Mac Phail explains the purpose of her lesson plan in an accompanying essay:

“As a Canadian teaching at an international school in New York City, I had long been planning to teach about the tar sands. Although many people are aware of the devastating effects of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or Shell’s human rights abuses in Nigeria, few know about the enormous environmental and social injustice caused by oil extraction just to the north.” (emphasis added)

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‘Game over for the planet’

To accomplish her goal to indoctrinate students with her left-wing views, Mac Phail created a role playing exercise for students, in which they portray “key stakeholders” who are invited to an imaginary public hearing to debate the merits of the Keystone pipeline.

Half of the class was assigned to represent a pro-pipeline group: TransCanada (the proposed constructor of the pipeline), the American Petroleum Institute, and the Republican Party.

The other half represented anti-pipeline forces: Environmental activists, the Indigenous Environmental Network and Bold Nebraska (a coalition opposed to running the pipeline through the Nebraska Sand Hills).

Mac Phail then provided each group with a one-page summary of their chosen organization’s beliefs, “based on information found on the organizations’ website and in recent media interviews given by their representatives.”

The summaries, which are included in the lesson plan materials, are mostly fair in their portrayal of each group’s position.

But there’s one key difference: While the pro-pipeline talking points emphasize the economic benefits of greater oil production – more jobs, energy independence – the dissenters’ focus heavily on how a possible oil leak would harm individuals and the environment.

It’s a crucial difference.

Consider this excerpt from the TransCanada talking points sheet:

“Pipelines are the safest and the most reliable, economical and environmentally favorable way to transport oil. The chance of a significant spill is remote, yet TransCanada is ready to respond immediately to limit volume and impacts. …

“ … (T)his pipeline project will have enormous economic benefits. The construction of the Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Pipeline project will create 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs. It will also lead to another 118,000 spin-off jobs.”

Compare those emotionless guarantees to the hot-blooded passion found in an excerpt from the environmental activists’ position paper:

“Not only are we opposed to the pipeline, we are also opposed to mining the tar sands. The tar sands industrial project is completely unsustainable and immoral. It is destroying the environment and the health of the First Nations Peoples on whose land it is located in northern Alberta Canada. …

“Twenty of the world’s top climate scientists are against this project. According to NASA climate scientist James Hansen, this pipeline would be ‘game over for the planet’ because its effects would be so extreme.”

A few thousand new jobs versus “game over for the planet.” Nothing skewed about this lesson plan.

‘The impact I wanted’

It comes as no surprise that after the students heard all the pro and con “testimony” during the role play that they overwhelmingly agreed the pipeline should not be built. Only three students voted in support of the Keystone pipeline.

Mac Phail then gave a writing assignment, asking students to explain their decision and the reasons for it.

A student named “Homer” wrote that he was initially “in favor of the pipeline.”

“But when I heard what the environmentalists and indigenous people had to say about it, I changed my mind. I saw that the oil commercials are a lie,” Homer wrote.

“Stacy” concluded that “while the Republicans might be right that (the pipeline) will help the economy, this will only be for a short period of time.”

“I believe the environmentalists when they say that this pipeline will be game over for the environment, and game over for the environment means game over for us,” Stacy concluded.

Mac Phail’s biggest accomplishment appears to have been “Allan,” who denounced the pipeline and called for “investing” in green energy projects.

“Already we see wars over oil,” Allan wrote. “Enough time and money have been spent on a doomed resource. The way forward is to rid ourselves of our dependence on oil. Investing in alternative energy would not only set us on the route to a sustainable society, but it would create thousands of jobs.”

Mac Phail didn’t realize how well she had succeeded in her indoctrination efforts until a few weeks later, when President Barack Obama made a preliminary decision to reject the Keystone pipeline.

“When my students burst into applause (upon hearing the president’s decision) and suggested that we should celebrate, I knew that the role play had had the impact I wanted,” Mac Phail writes in her essay.

While New York City parents and taxpayers should be outraged that Mac Phail used a geography lesson to shape her students’ political views, they should be equally appalled at the amount of precious class time she wasted on such a light-weight academic assignment.

Judging from details included in Mac Phail’s essay, this high school lesson plan consumed five class sessions out of a typical 180-day school year. And the lesson’s most rigorous academic component involved having students regurgitate their chosen group’s policy positions into “their own words.”

The remainder of the role play lesson required students to practice their public speaking skills – by sharing their policy arguments with the class – and their letter writing skills, by sharing their opinion on the Keystone pipeline controversy in a letter to President Obama.

Most parents and taxpayers would likely agree that Mac Phail’s lesson hardly rises to the academic level of a high school geography class.

Mac Phail’s ridiculous role play lesson is indicative of propaganda that’s passing for education in far too many of our nation’s K-12 classrooms. Could this sort of thing be part of the reason why so many kids need remedial attention when they reach college?