This week, researchers from the University of Maryland and Wellesley College released a report that finds that the learning gains young children experience from watching Sesame Street are on par with what students learn in preschool.
From The Washington Post:
The researchers also say those effects probably come from Sesame Street’s focus on presenting viewers with an academic curriculum, heavy on reading and math, that would appear to have helped prepare children for school.
While it might seem implausible that a TV show could have such effects, the results build on Nixon-era government studies that found big short-term benefits in watching the show, along with years of focus-group studies by the team of academic researchers who help write “Sesame Street” scripts. Several outside researchers have reviewed the study, and none are known to have questioned its results.
As my toddler channels the Count when totaling the number of grapes he has in his bowl each day (ha, ha, haaaa, as the Count would say), it’s easy to see the impact of Sesame Street’s strong educational components.
But is Elmo enough?
The study’s authors do point out that preschool—Head Start, in particular, which is targeted toward low-income children— is designed to deliver more than just academics. It also comes with access to medical and dental services, family supports and opportunities for socialization that you can’t get from your television set.
That message, however, got a little buried in the Washington Post story titled, “Study: Kids can learn as much from ‘Sesame Street’ as from preschool.”
“There’s a lot of development that happens in an early education setting,” said Rob Thompson, executive director of the children’s advocacy group NC Child. “Children develop important social and emotional skills in pre-kindergarten that help success in school and in all aspects of life.”
North Carolina has been a beacon that other states look toward for how to do preschool right. The return on investing in NC pre-kindergarten is estimated to be $9 for every dollar spent, according to the N.C. Justice Center.*
High- quality preschool can increase a child’s performance in the early school grades and boost high school graduation rates, improve chances of landing a job later in life, and reduce criminal behavior, among other benefits, according to researchers at the Carolina Institute for Public Policy.
But over the past several years, the state has steadily decreased its support for pre-kindergarten programs that target at-risk youth by reducing the number of pre-K slots available to at-risk children.
“Reduced access to early learning for at-risk youth means that many of these children are likely to begin their primary education lagging their peers,” according the Justice Center report.
Wellesley College’s Phil Levine, co-author of the Sesame Street study, emphasized to NC Policy Watch that the children’s show is a great way to augment a high quality preschool program — not a replacement.
“It’s a mistake to think of these things as one or the other,” said Levine, when comparing Sesame Street to preschool. “What you get in terms of the long term effects from pre-K are partly academic and partly nonacademic—and those nonacademic effects are really important.”
Levine says when it comes to fighting poverty and inequality, there’s no magic bullet.
“The more tools in our arsenal, the better—and Sesame Street is just another good one.”
*NC Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.