If you’ve listened closely to the dialogue on “Sesame Street” in recent years, you might have thought to yourself, “Man, this is on point. Here’s a show that really gets it.”
As it turns out, it does: The creators of “Sesame Street” truly made a difference in children’s lives, for those who had access to the show growing up. A new study -- which was first written in 2015 but just recently published in the American Economic Journal, called “Early Childhood Education by Television: Lessons from Sesame Street” -- is comparing the educational and professional achievements of kids who were around the show, to the achievements of children who weren’t.
So if you’re thinking to yourself, “I got good grades!” or “I have a really good job! I watched the show!” then “Sesame Street” might have had a hand in that -- really.
Looking at the numbers
The study, by researchers Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, specifically looked into whether a child’s access to “Sesame Street” before turning age 7 affected performance in elementary school and long-term outcomes in education and the job market. The popular TV show debuted Nov. 10, 1969. And yes, Kearney and Levine found that kids with access to the show had improved school performance.
Kearney and Levine examined many factors in their research: who had access to high- or low-quality TV signals, who was around the show, then assessed kids based on things like what grade level they operated at, and later on, whether they went on to graduate college. It’s a fascinating idea that you should read in full if you’re curious, because the study gets into all sorts of details that we’d never have time to explain.
Like many other studies and findings, it shows correlation but not causation -- meaning, you might have done better in school and in life, thanks to “Sesame Street,” but it’s not 100 percent because of the show.
Early childhood education: Then and now
These days, it seems as though early childhood education is a hot topic among parents. Programs exist such as Head Start, and it seems to be common knowledge that otherwise-disadvantaged children are benefited by early intervention.
Back when Sesame Street debuted, it was a different time, the study points out. The whole purpose of the show was “to foster intellectual and cultural development in preschoolers.”
“Its fundamental goal was to reduce the educational deficits experienced by disadvantaged youth based on differences in their preschool environment,” the study said. “It was a smash hit immediately upon its introduction, receiving tremendous critical acclaim and huge ratings. It cost pennies on the dollar relative to other early childhood interventions.”
So again, the fact that “Sesame Street” benefited so many? That was no accident.
Why did Levine and Kearney dive into all this in the first place?
“First, the impact of the introduction of this novel program in the United States is of interest in its own right," the study said. "Second, local adaptations of this program are now broadcast in some 140 countries around the world, making the question of 'Sesame Street’s' impact a question of current and global interest, as well. Third, additional evidence on the impact of Sesame Street can also inform a discussion regarding the potential ability of television to have a positive impact on society.”
It’s true, we don’t often hear about the positive effects of TV.
As for more on those results, the data indicated positive effects for boys and girls, with larger point estimates for boys.
And again, you have to consider the time period. The researchers were looking at when the show first came out, saying that by January of 1970, more than 5 million households tuned in to a typical episode.
“Among those between ages 2 and 5 ... (it's estimated that) between 28 and 36 percent watched 'Sesame Street' in 1970; between 33 and 42 percent did so in 1971. To put its popularity in perspective, roughly one-third of the entire U.S. population watches the Super Bowl today. These numbers are even more remarkable within the context of the technological limitations that prevented around one-third of the population from watching it.”
That idea goes back to what we mentioned earlier about high- or low-quality TV signals.
Kearney and Levine went on to study three groups of children and used census data from 1980, 1990 and 2000. Across all those time periods, it's believed that "Sesame Street" made a positive difference.
Were there other shows or programs that had a similar effect?
“Some shows, like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, did focus on teaching social skills, such as getting along with others, but none focused on academic content in the way that Sesame Street did,” the study reads.
It’s worth mentioning that “Sesame Street” celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
“Sesame Street had a profound impact on children’s media, setting a template that the industry has followed for generations,” co-founder Lloyd Morrisett said in a news release. “Fifty years later, Sesame Workshop continues to deliver on its mission every day, across multiple platforms, on six continents. We started as an experiment -- and it worked.”
Graham Media Group 2019