“It’s not easy bein’ green,” a despondent Kermit the Frog explains as he meanders through some foliage, lamenting the color of his skin.* The year is 1970, and it’s one of the famous Muppet’s many cameos on Sesame Street. At first, Kermit doesn’t like that green blends in with so many other things—he’d prefer to be red, for example, or gold. But he soon cheers up, realizing there are lots of cool things about being green, too: It’s the color of spring and tall like a tree. “I think it’s what I want to be.”
If Sesame Street’s origins are any indication, that song had much more to do with showcasing self-esteem and diversity than it did a puppet who was uncomfortable with the hue of his felt. The public-broadcast children’s show first aired in 1969—the civil-rights movement was making its mark, and solving socioeconomic inequality had become a central mission. Education reform was at the forefront of that national agenda: For the first time, federal funding was earmarked for poor kids, and Head Start was founded so those children could attend preschool.
But it turns out that what ain’t so easy, even today, is ensuring that every child has access to preschool. Only 40 percent of 4-year-olds nationwide are enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs, a good chunk of which are considered to be low-quality. According to a growing body of research, this contributes to great inequality in academic achievement. And although comprehensive data on the long-term benefits of preschool is hard to come by, experts tend to agree that having a quality early-education experience can have a significant impact on the first chapter of a kid’s life. The payoff appears to be especially strong for disadvantaged children, who might not otherwise have exposure to the stuff emphasized in quality preschools, such as vocabulary and good nutrition.