Columns » Jay Barth

'Sesame Street' A-OK

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Like most of us who've come to find a home at the front of a classroom, a series of teachers from whom we've had the joy to learn serve as ongoing inspirations and role models. Starting in first grade and continuing through my graduate studies, I can quickly identify more than a dozen individuals whose beat and lyrics I continue to sample in small and large ways in my teaching today. But I never had personal interaction with one of my most important teachers. That's because it was a television program.

A fascinating study released this week provides clear evidence that I'm not alone in receiving lasting, positive impact from "Sesame Street." Economists from the University of Maryland and Wellesley College compared those with access to "Sesame Street" in its earliest years to those without access. It began to air in late 1969 (it makes a nice cameo in the final hours of "Mad Men" as Joan's son — about the same age as me — is entranced by the program) and an average of 5 million kids a day watched the program during its height of popularity. In that era, "Sesame Street" — the first program centered on prepping kids to start school — appeared mainly on PBS stations regularly located on UHF (ultra-high frequency) channels; most television sets at that time did not have the capability to dial beyond Channel 13, where UHF stations were located. This created a natural experiment allowing comparison of kids who grew up in places where "Sesame Street" was only a UHF phenomenon and those — like me — who had ready access to the program because it was on a VHF station (KETS, Channel 2 out of Conway).

The study shows that kids with "Sesame Street" as part of their lives have had significantly more success in school across several decades than those denied interactions with Oscar, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie by the accident of geography. Kids who lived in areas where "Sesame Street" was readily available in those early years showed up ready to learn and have continued to learn across their lives. The economists focus on the measurable educational benefits of the program, emphasizing that a relatively small amount of spending (on a per-child basis) accrued dramatic positive outcomes. "It's encouraging because it means we might be able to make real progress in ways that are affordable and scalable," one of the researchers told the Washington Post. Indeed, the researchers go so far as to argue that "Sesame Street" — which they term the "first MOOC" (massive online open course, in contemporary higher education terminology) — was nearly as potent as prekindergarten education in getting those children who had access to it on a daily basis ready to perform in school. And, as with pre-K, the impact was greatest among those from more challenged economic backgrounds; boys were also significant beneficiaries from the program.

However, "Sesame Street" has other benefits that extend beyond sharpening math and literacy skills. First, through its vaguely edgy humor, jazzy music and visual style, it also spurs creativity. (One of my earliest memories is the day when KETS shifted from a black-and -white to a color transmitter and Big Bird suddenly sprung into bright yellow.) Even more important, it exemplifies the values of community and diversity. On the show, both humans and Muppets continually stressed the benefit of collaborative work. (The study is quick to point out that brick-and-mortar preschools are even better at socializing kids to work with others.) As its theme song says: "Come and play/Everything's A-OK/Friendly neighbors there/That's where we meet."

Moreover, as an only child living in a nearly totally white world, I actually had most of my daily interaction with persons of color through the show. The clear message was that communities were strengthened when folks from different backgrounds brought those perspectives to the collaboration. Thus, "Sesame Street" made kids of my mini-generation not just better learners, but better citizens.

The long-term success of "Sesame Street" reminds us that public investment in kids during their earliest years benefits them and society for decades to come. After a state legislative session in which public library spending was thwacked and many tots remain in need of pre-K slots because only minor increases in funding for the state's successful early childhood program occurred, it's a timely reminder.

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