Nearly five decades since “Sesame Street” went on the air in 1969, the show has amassed more than 1,000 scientific studies, all making the case that television could improve how kids thought and behaved.
Now we have one more, and it makes a compelling argument that preschool teachers have some competition with the likes of Big Bird.
In the new study, economists Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney argue kids who watched “Sesame Street” as toddlers went on to do better in elementary school.
The benefits were especially strong for boys and non-Hispanic black students. After being exposed to Sesame Street, they were more likely to have peers closer to their age – a sign they weren’t getting held back.
Kearney and Levine used a clever strategy to collect their data: TV signals.
By looking at which households received very high frequency waves, the only kind “Sesame Street” broadcasted in, Kearney and Levine could compare how kids in those parts of the country did in school to kids who were in the dark. Though they couldn’t measure kids’ progress directly, they found strong connections between Sesame Street viewership and how well kids did.
The new study adds to a body of research about how “Sesame Street” helps kids.
Past studies have shown children who watch the show enjoy:
- up to 67% higher literacy scores by age 4
- 40% better social skills than non-viewers
- 127% increased interest in eating certain vegetables
Basically, if you grew up in a part of the country where “Sesame Street” aired, you had a better shot at making it through school healthy and happy, regardless of factors like race or class.
But part of the reason “Sesame Street” hasn’t gotten the love it deserves, at least as a point of empirical study, is that other public policies have simply overshadowed it.
Programs like Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten have tried to level the playing field with on-ramps to traditional schooling.
On the one hand, they seem to be working, says Levine, an economist at Wellesley College.
“For instance, Head Start places far greater emphasis on socio-emotional development and even child health in a way that TV shows could never do,” Levine tells Business Insider.
But few can trump the low cost and staying power of “Sesame Street.”
In fact, “Sesame Street” is so cheap and so widely distributed that it anticipated one of today’s major education trends: the so-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, such as Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseware, and other smaller outfits.
Many leaders in education suspect MOOCs are poised to transform higher learning from a luxury enjoyed by the privileged into an low-cost, come-all online experience.
But Kearney and Levine argue “Sesame Street” has been offering that service to 3-year-olds ever since we landed on the moon.
“In essence,” they wrote, “Sesame Street was the first MOOC.”