Lessons from Sesame Street

A recent study, Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, has been generating interest and, unfortunately, generalized comparisons with other early childhood programs. As noted by the authors, the study looks at the effects of access to Sesame Street, not at the value of Sesame Street versus Head Start or any other high-quality preschool program. The study measured a small set of relatively short-term outcomes that mirrored some—but by no means all—outcomes from Head Start and other preschool programs.
If you’re looking for a silver bullet, it’s not television, but rather a scaffolding of support for skills development from birth to age five. Skill begets skill over the lifecycle of human development and learning. A large body of solid research shows that better outcomes for disadvantaged children come from a combination of health, nutrition, parental education and early learning resources from birth to age five that nurture cognitive and social and emotional development, and provide the foundation for success in school and life.
The Carolina Abecedarian Study clearly made this point: it started from birth, incorporated parent education, health, nutrition, early learning and preschool. As such, Abecedarian is the only program that has produced lasting gains in IQ in addition to the better education, social and economic outcomes we see from other programs. More importantly, Abecedarian’s lasting IQ boost played a significant role in reducing chronic disease in males and obesity in females.
The solution for promoting school readiness and fostering productive skills isn’t simply planting children in front of the television or tablet. High-quality educational programming can serve as a complement to quality early childhood education, not as a replacement.