‘National Schoolhouse’ Rings In Its 2nd Generation

By Mark Walsh — October 04, 1989 15 min read
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When “Sesame Street” debuted on public television in 1969, its goals were relatively modest: to teach preschoolers the alphabet and numbers up to 10.

Next month, the show will launch its 21st season with a “statement of instructional goals” that runs to 90 pages--and includes such topics as ecology, geography, and computer terms.

Planners for the trend-setting experiment in televised learning are quick to say, however, that only the show’s educational horizons are adjusted to suit the times, never its basic formula.

Conceived as a cross between the late-1960’s most popular TV show, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” and one of that era’s most ambitious social programs, Head Children’s Television: First of two parts.

Start, “Sesame Street” has become a cultural staple, gaining a viewership that far outstrips the original expectations of its creators.

“‘Sesame Street’ is the first national schoolhouse,” boasts David V.B. Britt, president of Children’s Television Workshop, the nonprofit company that produces the show. “We probably have 40 million graduates, and a lot of them are now becoming parents themselves. We’re coming into our second generation.”

The show’s 20th anniversary has provided the occasion for a public and professional reappraisal of “Sesame Street’s” impact--educationally, socially, and within the world of children’s television.

A year of hoopla and press coverage is being capped off next month with a scholarly symposium on the landmark show. And in a $1.2-million longitudinal study undertaken this year, one university research group hopes to settle, once and for all, questions about its lasting effects on learning.

But many have noted, in this season of celebration, the failure of “Sesame’s Street’s” success to generate similar undertakings by the commercial networks. Even public television, some have pointed out, has produced no subsequent cognitive-skills offering able to thrive financially the way “Sesame Street” does on its product royalties.

Few, however, would dispute the fact that this first-of-its-kind TV venture provided a visionary roadmap out of the medium’s “vast wasteland.”

“‘Sesame Street’ represents a landmark innovation in television,” says Ellen A. Wartella, a communications professor at the University of Illinois. “It came right at that juncture when we were talking about the effect of television on violence in America, and it suggested a way TV could be used as an educational medium.”

“If you spend anytime at all with commercial TV for children, you have to thank your lucky stars there is something like ‘Sesame Street,”’ says Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television, an advocacy group.

“The amazing thing,” she adds, “was that they made it work in the face of all kinds of skepticism.”

Making it work has involved blending a mixture of pure entertainment, on one hand, and research-based learning activities, on the other. And sometimes, says the show’s head writer, Norman Stiles, a veteran of network situation comedies, the two do not mix effortlessly.

“It’s not a constant battle, but we’ve had tensions,” Mr. Stiles says of the interaction between his staff and the show’s research staff.

He is convinced, Mr. Stiles says, that the appeal of “Sesame Street’’ lies largely in its success as a “good sketch-comedy show.”

The educational goals will not matter much, he believes, if children do not tune in. Says the writer: “The show can be entertaining and not teach, but I don’t believe it can be teaching and not entertaining. It works best when it does both.”

Right now, “Sesame Street” is the most-watched children’s program on public television, with an audience of 11 million households. On most Public Broadcasting Service stations, it airs once or twice in the morning and is repeated in the afternoon.

Broadcast year-round, the series’ new seasons feature 110 fresh episodes, with another 20 episodes recycled from two seasons before. It is seen worldwide in more than 70 countries. And there are 14 co-productions in countries such as Mexico, Israel, and Portugal, where ctw works with foreign broadcasters to tailor their own “Sesame Street.”

Though the program is aimed at children between the ages of 2 and 5, particularly those from low-income families, the popularity of Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and the other Muppet characters that populate its urban-neighborhood setting stretches well beyond this target group. Brothers and sisters watch with their younger siblings. And the show’s writers say that much of the humor has always been directed at adults.

Some sketches feature give-and-take between Bert and Ernie, the Muppet odd couple who learn to overlook their differences and get along. Count von Count, a monocled purple vampire, loves nothing more than to enumerate. The seven-foot canary Big Bird, a perennial 6-year-old, is ever curious about the habits and traditions of his human neighbors.

Then there are the mini-parodies designed to amuse mom and dad, such as “Monsterpiece Theater,” “Miami Mice,” and “Squeal of Fortune,’' a takeoff of the popular game show “Wheel of Fortune,” but with a spinning pig.

Making sure that the fun has a clearly defined educational purpose is the job of Valeria Lovelace, the show’s research director. She charts the instructional course of “Sesame Street” from her small office in ctw’s headquarters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“We have over 200 goals,” says Ms. Lovelace, a social psychologist whose mother was a Head Start teacher. The goals encompass not only such staples as the alphabet, letter sounds, and numbering (now up to 40), she says, but also subject areas added over the years to reflect the changing view of what preschoolers need to be familiar with.

Some of the latter have included cultural diversity (for example, Spanish language and culture), computer terms, and simple science concepts, such as air. New to the curriculum this season will be geography and ecology.

“We have great difficulty deciding which curriculum goal is no longer useful to a child,” says Ms. Lovelace. “Computers [in school] were unheard of when the show started, but, later, because of what was going on in kindergarten, it was important to expose [viewers] to words that make them more comfortable with computers.”

A cast of human characters also helps bring home behavioral and social messages, such as the value of sharing and getting along with others, and the concept of equality. Handicapped children make frequent appearances, and a deaf character was added in 1976.

The research efforts for each new season begin more than a year in advance, when Ms. Lovelace and her small group of assistants comb through books and journals, consult with experts, and write position papers on curriculum topics.

They are guided by a board of advisers that includes education professors, psychologists, and curriculum specialists and is led by Gerald S. Lesser, a professor of education and psychology at Harvard University.

“We decide what new topics will be taken on,” says Mr. Lesser, who has had an advisory role on the show since its inception.

A critical duty of the research staff is to visit New York City day-care centers to test preschoolers on what concepts they understand and can learn about from television.

Typically, they first establish a rapport with the children by playing a game. Then they move on to the game they call “reporter,” in which the preschoolers are asked to watch and remember what they see on TV.

Detailed reports on their reactions to segments of the show--whether they are attentive or quickly begin looking around the room for something else to do--are then made. Follow-up questions gauge the comprehension level and popularity of a particular segment.

For the introduction of geography, the staff had to first learn how much preschool children already know about such concepts as maps, cities, states, mountains, and lakes. They undertook three separate studies to do so, gathering mounds of information that will guide how geography sketches are developed this year.

From these studies and further discussions with producers, a list of curriculum goals is devised.

The goals for geography, for example, include teaching about land and water forms, maps, and place awareness. The goals for ecology include teaching nature appreciation, water and energy conservation, and recycling and litter control.

The instructional guidebook is full of suggestions and guidelines for the show’s writers. (“Maps used by characters should be clear and uncluttered, with few words or symbols.” “The child will know that water comes from rain into rivers, lakes, and underground and goes through pipes into their homes.”)

Starting in March of each year, writers begin to craft scripts, submitting them to Ms. Lovelace for review. Most of the writers do not have backgrounds in education.

“We read each script and try to figure out if it is teaching its educational goal,” she said. “We may want a word repeated. We look for racial or sexual stereotyping. And we look for dangerous things.”

Ms. Lovelace offers, as an example of the dangerous, a script she objected to in which Oscar the Grouch put a bucket over his head.

“That might be funny,” she says, “but a child might then put a bucket or a bag over his head, and that would be dangerous.”

In addition to this internal scrutiny, “Sesame Street” has also been subjected, over the last 20 years, to hundreds of external studies.

“It is probably the most researched show in television history,” maintains Keith Mielke, vice president for research at ctw

The first major evaluation, done in 1971 by the Educational Testing Service, gave the show high marks. Children in the target audience, it found, learned elementary numbers and letters, and those who watched more learned more. A follow-up study a year later was also positive.

More recently, a study by researchers at the University of Kansas Center for Research on the Influence of Television on Children found further gains.

“Children who were heavier viewers of ‘Sesame Street’ had an advantage of having additional words in their vocabulary,” reports Mabel L. Rice, a professor of child language at Kansas.

“It’s not a trivial accomplishment,” she adds, “because one of the predictors of children’s later reading abilities is their preschool vocabulary abilities.”

But a small chorus of critics has persistently raised doubts about the “Sesame Street” impact.

One major re-analysis of the ets data--a study completed by the Northwestern University researcher Thomas D. Cook and others in 1975--questioned those initial studies’ positive conclusions. It argued that since mothers in the experimental groups had been encouraged to have their children watch the show, their children benefited more. They watched the show more closely, the researchers theorized, and were able to have more discussion of its content with their mothers.

Most children do not watch “Sesame Street” with their parents, the researchers concluded, and thus score fewer cognitive gains.

One of the most frequent early criticisms was that “Sesame Street’s’’ quick pace was causing children to become hyperactive or develop short attention spans.

Those associated with the show say that line of argument has been lessened over the years as the show lengthened its segments and added continuing story lines. But still some have qualms.

“It hooks kids on a fast-pace approach to television that I’m not really sure is good for them,” says Jerome L. Singer, professor of psychology at Yale University and a long-time critic of the show.

“It also seems to be used by mothers with better educations,” Mr. Singer charges. “It may be separating the social classes more than pulling them together more.”

Some complaints, however, have been grounded less in empirical research than in social criticism.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman, a New York University communications professor, argues that “Sesame Street” creates the expectation among children that they will be entertained at school.

“If we are to blame ‘Sesame Street’ for anything, it is for the pretense that it is an ally of the classroom,” Mr. Postman writes, adding that the show “does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television.”

Daniel R. Anderson, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a well-known researcher of television’s impact on children, disputes Mr. Postman’s analysis.

“Implicit in that argument is that kids could be doing something better than watching TV,” he says. “But in the real world, is that true? Is there going to be a rich intellectual experience in every waking moment of a child’s life that is going to be better than watching TV or ‘Sesame Street’? I don’t think so.”

Mr. Anderson, who has done some research for ctw, believes that after 20 years, the show holds up well. “My sense is that parents of preschoolers overwhelmingly endorse the show,” he says.

Says Mr. Lesser of Harvard: “I haven’t heard anything to suggest we should stop this and do something really, really different. The fact is, I love criticism, if it helps us think more about what we are doing.”

The seven-year longitudinal study commissioned this year by Children’s Television Workshop is designed to help settle any lingering questions about the show’s educational value.

The $1.2-million project will be conducted by Aletha C. Huston and John C. Wright of the University of Kansas research center. According to Ms. Huston, ctw “decided they wanted someone from the outside who could be viewed as being more objective.”

The study will follow two groups of children between the ages of 2 and 4 for four years. It will look specifically at how children from low-income families use media, and will determine what impact watching “Sesame Street” has on their learning and school readiness.

“We have not had a major effects evaluation since the ets studies at the first and second seasons,” notes Mr. Mielke of ctw

Child-development specialists, communications researchers, and other educators will also be evaluating the show at the symposium scheduled for Nov. 4 at the ets’s headquarters in Princeton, N.J. The event is being co-sponsored by ctw and the testing service.

One of the problem areas some early-childhood educators would like to air at such forums is the public’s notion that “Sesame Street” has equipped most children entering school with a knowledge of the alphabet and numbers.

“Somehow, there is this perception that children know more than they used to,” says Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “This may be one of the unintended consequences of ‘Sesame Street': It contributes to the perception that every young child knows his numbers and letters.”

But this knowledge is “a surface learning,” Ms. Willer warns.

“Children still really learn the way they always have,” she says, ''and that is through doing rather than through rote memorization. Regardless of their ability to name or recognize colors or letters, children in kindergarten or preschool still learn best in hands-on activities.”

For those preschool teachers who use “Sesame Street” in the classroom, the 21st season promises much that will broaden the show’s classic formula, according to ctw officials.

There will be new characters: a 16-year-old boy, an older man to run Mr. Hooper’s store, and a new Muppet named Preston Rabbit, who bears a resemblance to Robert Preston’s character in “The Music Man.”

Celebrity guests scheduled include the comedian Andrea Martin, the violinist Isaac Stern, and the popular singer Tracy Chapman.

New animation pieces on the show will have a more high-tech look. “Kids are very visually sophisticated now; they are used to watching MTV,” says the show’s producer, Lisa Simon. “We want to keep their attention. We’ve gone to some animators who are very successful at pop-culture themes.”

Among the human characters on the show, much attention will be paid to tiny Gabriella, the baby daughter born to the fix-it shop owners Luis and Maria at the end of last season.

Gabriella’s birth was the culmination of a season in which “Sesame Street” taught its young viewers about pregnancy and childbirth. Preschoolers were shown that mothering begins before childbirth, and were taught about good prenatal care and the need for proper nutrition to ensure a healthy baby.

In the final episode, the “Sesame Street” gang, armed with flowers and teddy bears, trooped off to the hospital to greet the newborn.

Dealing with such real-life events has brought praise to “Sesame Street.” Especially lauded was its sensitive handling, several years ago, of the death of an original cast member, the actor playing Mr. Hooper. The segment dealing with his death was shown on Thanksgiving day, when parents and children would be home together.

This season, Luis and Maria will be faced with the challenge of finding day care for their baby. They will eventually settle on home care.

The producers have the good fortune of not having to worry about audience ratings in the way commercial-television executives do, but Joan Ganz Cooney, the “Sesame Street” founder and chairman of ctw, expresses a concern about changing demographics and lifestyles.

More preschool children are now in day care, she notes, where they tend to have less opportunity to watch the show.

“We are trying to figure out how to reach this very big assortment of day care,” Ms. Cooney says. “Television is not used very much.”

She would like to see more day-care centers incorporate the use of “Sesame Street,” even if only for a half-hour or so to calm children down.

There is nothing to suggest, however, that the show will be going off the air anytime soon, so long as funding keeps coming in from product royalties and public-television stations.

Says Edward L. Palmer, the show’s first research director and author of the 1988 book, Television and America’s Children: A Crisis of Neglect: “The need that ‘Sesame Street’ was created to address--to provide preschool experience to children from low-income homes--is just as great as it ever was.”

Ms. Cooney adds that after 20 years, “We have come to the conclusion that the show is pretty good. If you go to the studio, it really brings tears to your eyes to watch a taping. Here, these people have been at it for 20 years, and they still care deeply.”

Next week: The commercial networks--and the U.S. Congress--examine the landscape in children’s programming.


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