For 46 years now, “Sesame Street” has created television programming aimed at preparing young children for school both academically and socially.
According to a new study, it worked.
Children who lived in areas where “Sesame Street” was easy to view when it premiered were less likely to have been held back in school by 9th grade than children who lived in areas where reception was spotty or non-existent. Boys, black children, and children living in economically disadvantaged areas saw particularly strong effects.
How this carried over into educational attainment and the job market is unclear, according to the researchers. But, “for a television show that kids watch for an hour a day to have an impact that persists for 10 years or so, that’s remarkable,” said Phillip B. Levine, a professor of economics at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. He co-authored the paper with Melissa S. Kearney, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland in College Park. (Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, was a Maryland graduate.)
The researchers consider “Sesame Street” to be the first “massive open online course,” an education course made available for free to a large group of people. Of course, in the early days of “Sesame Street,” people were not receiving the program over the Internet. But the basic tenet of transmitting educational material outside of the traditional classroom remains is the same, the researchers said. Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street was published Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
This is not Kearney and Levine’s first foray into examining the effects of television programming on youth. Last year, they published a study, also for NBER, that found the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” was bringing down teen pregnancy rates.
To compare two sets of children—one group that was exposed to “Sesame Street” and one group that was not—the researchers took advantage of a unique natural division that in these days of cable television would be impossible to replicate.
When “Sesame Street” premiered in 1969, just as today, it was carried primarily by public broadcasting stations. The vast majority of those stations were broadcast in ultra-high frequency, or UHF. (For our younger readers, UHF television stations are higher than 13, and are picked up by an antenna that typically looks like a loop. VHF, or very high frequency, antennas are often referred to as “rabbit ears.”) Of the 192 stations carrying “Sesame Street,” 101 used UHF signals. The remainder broadcast on channels 2-13, which are VHF stations.
UHF antennas can be maddeningly difficult to tune properly, as pre-cable television watchers can attest. And until 1964, television manufacturers were not even required to include UHF tuners in their products. So the researchers assumed children in the UHF markets were getting less exposure to “Sesame Street” than children who lived in VHF broadcast markets—either because reception was poor, or they lived in houses with older televisions that couldn’t pick up the signal. (Census data from 1970 shows that 95 percent of households had a television, but only 54 percent of those televisions had a UHF tuner.)
This split represents what researchers call a natural experiment. Children were randomly “assigned” to certain broadcast markets not by purposeful design, but by the circumstances of their birth.
The UHF markets accounted for a lot of children. For example, Southern California and all of Ohio received PBS through harder-to-tune UHF stations. New York and Boston are examples of cities that received PBS on VHF stations.
Despite the technological constraints, “Sesame Street” achieved Super Bowl-levels of popularity among the younger set from the moment it went on the air, the study notes. Between 28 percent and 35 percent of children ages 2 to 5 watched “Sesame Street” in 1970; between 33 and 42 percent did so in 1971. (The study notes that the Super Bowl is watched by about a third of the American viewing public when it airs.) “Sesame Street” is now one of many educational television options for children, but at the time, there was no other nationally broadcast television show for children that had an explicit education focus.
Implications for Policymakers
Kearney and Levine used 1980 U.S. Census data, among other measures, to evaluate educational outcomes in the different viewing areas. The paper notes that 9th graders in strong reception areas are were 3 percentage points more likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age relative to those in weak reception areas. “Sesame Street” viewing does not appear to have had an effect on academic achievement by the end of high school, however.
The study does suggest that educational interventions have to be continuous and sustained. The researchers also note that academic preparation has to be mixed with socio-emotional development as well. “A blended learning environment incorporating both electronic communication of educational content and the human element to affect the ‘soft skills’ may be preferable, and cost-effective,” the study says.
Jennifer Kotler Clarke, the vice president of evaluation and research for the New York-based Sesame Workshop, said the paper was an “incredibly creative” way to examine the impact of “Sesame Street.” The workshop was not involved in the development of this research. Other studies have also shown positive benefits of the program, Clarke said, but those studies measured the achievement and test scores of individual children, as opposed to the long-lens approach of the NBER paper.
But “Sesame Street” can never take the place of high-quality preschool, Clarke said, even if the large-scale effects are positive. “To me, it’s all part of an educational diet—a healthy array of choices you make for your child.”
Photo: Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover, Abby Cadabby and Big Bird visit Central Park as part of Sesame Street’s 45th season. (Richard Termine)
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.