A little-known program in the U.S. Department of Education has helped transform children’s educational television over the past decade by partially financing a slate of shows designed to prepare more young viewers to embrace learning, the program’s proponents say.
The Ready to Learn program attracted unusual attention last month when one of the shows it helped get on the air, “Postcards from Buster,” drew criticism from Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings over its production of an episode featuring two Vermont families headed by lesbian couples.
The flap comes just as a five-year Ready to Learn grant is nearing its end, and the Education Department and the participants in the grant program are weighing its effectiveness and how the next five-year grant might be restructured.
The Ready to Learn program, which was started in 1995 under the Clinton administration, grew out of a recommendation by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching that a block of educational TV aimed at young children could help the nation achieve the goal of ensuring that all children reach school “ready to learn.”
Since its inception, the program has been administered, in turn, by one of two major entities in public TV: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service. But the Education Department is considering splitting the next grant into one for TV programming and another for outreach efforts, such as workshops and Web sites for parents, built around the shows.
While the Ready to Learn program has only a modest federal budget—about $23 million a year—and only partially subsidizes a handful of children’s shows, supporters say it has played a crucial role in maintaining commercial-free, “pro-social” TV programming for children.
“We need programs with stories that connect to children’s developmental needs, and capture their creative, imaginative sense,” said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an associate professor of early-childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.
John Lawson, the president of the Association of America’s Public Television Stations, a Washington-based lobby for local PBS outlets, said that while public television has historically been able to produce children’s programming through a variety of funding sources, “federal programs like Ready to Learn are crucial to help us raise other money. Without it, the quantity and quality of the programming we can offer children would greatly diminish.”
There has been no serious discussion of eliminating the federal Ready to Learn funding, although the dispute over “Postcards from Buster” brought to mind the battles in the early 1990s over federal aid for public television. Some conservatives sought to cut or eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—a quasi-governmental organization that distributes federal funding to public TV and radio organizations—because of a variety of perceived sins, such as a liberal bias in public-broadcasting news programs.
In her letter to PBS, Secretary Spellings asked that the network return money used for the episode of “Postcards from Buster” that included the two families that were each headed by a female couple. Ms. Spellings said many parents would not want their young children exposed to the “lifestyles” portrayed in the episode. PBS said that it had decided on its own not to distribute the episode.
The show about an animated bunny who visits real communities is produced by WGBH, the Boston PBS affiliate. The station received $5 million in Ready to Learn funds to make 40 episodes of “Postcards from Buster.”
Lea Sloan, a PBS spokeswoman, said last week that another episode of “Postcards from Buster” would be produced to replace the controversial episode, and that no Department of Education money would be used for the episode at issue. Meanwhile, WGBH aired the episode, which was primarily about collecting maple syrup in Vermont, as scheduled last week and was making it available to other public TV stations.
Some observers expressed concern about the federal criticism of “Postcards from Buster.”
“I find it very distressing if the government is going to try to micromanage the content of the Ready to Learn program or other television programs that they think are not appropriate,” said Daniel Anderson, a Ready to Learn advisory board member and a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Peggy Charren, a veteran advocate for children’s television and a board member of WGBH, said she was worried that the controversy signaled that the Education Department would want to keep families and children from viewing shows that make children feel good about themselves, saying, “the ‘Buster’ episode was doing what it was mandated to do.”
Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said that Ms. Spellings’ chief concern was about “what’s educationally appropriate for preschool-age children” and whether taxpayers should be funding it.
The attention to the Ready to Learn program comes just as a five-year grant period is coming to a close. The current $99 million grant to PBS has helped pay for production and outreach for several educational shows, from stalwarts like “Sesame Street” to newer efforts such as “Maya and Miguel.”
Ms. Aspey said the Education Department will split the Ready to Learn grant into one for TV programming and another for outreach efforts, a change intended “to provide a more intense focus on literacy for preschoolers and early school-age kids,” she said.
PBS officials said they would submit a proposal before the March 10 deadline for both the outreach and programming grants.
“At this point, no one has ruled out that one recipient may get more than one, or all of the grants,” said Ms. Sloan, the PBS spokeswoman.
The 140 PBS member stations that participate in the Ready to Learn program broadcast at least 6½ hours of educational programming each weekday, conduct at least 20 workshops annually for parents and early-childhood professionals, and distribute free books to children, according to Mr. Lawson’s group.
In 2003, the Education Department introduced new performance measures, asking PBS to adopt outcome-related indicators and track the progress of the Ready to Learn program each year. Proponents claim success: Ms. Sloan of PBS said the program has helped nearly 1 million parents and teachers prepare 8 million children for success in school.
A 2000 evaluation of the show “Between the Lions,” which focuses on reading, found that children who watched it outperformed those who didn’t by nearly 4-to-1 on measures such as phonemic awareness and concepts of print.
Studies on the outreach efforts have reached differing results.
A 2003 study by Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research Inc. found that the workshops did not appear to have a significant impact on parents or children. But a study by WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization, found that children who attended workshops improved their ability to associate simple and complex drawings, as well as their recognition of increasingly difficult words.
Michael J. Petrilli, the associate assistant deputy secretary for the Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement, which oversees the Ready to Learn program, said the decision to split the next grant was not a criticism of how PBS has conducted the outreach program.
“We also want to be more open to new ideas of media and technology that have exploded in the past few years,” he said, adding there was a chance that both the programming and outreach grants could go to the same organization.
At a conference in Baltimore last week on the Ready to Learn program, officials from public television and the Education Department spoke about the need for the latest technology to meet students’ needs.
Charlotte Brantley, the senior director of Ready to Learn at PBS, said that the broadcasting service was exploring new methods for outreach to parents and children, “realizing that the families that we’re intending to reach may not have the latest and greatest technologies.”
For example, PBS is exploring putting certain materials from its Ready to Learn Web sites on DVDs because DVD players are now considered affordable even for families that don’t have home access to the Internet.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Federal Grant Boosts Educational Television, Faces Fresh Scrutiny