Children’s TV—Left Behind

A 1969 article in The Atlantic is a reminder of how Sesame Street started a revolution—and how it failed to change America’s educational status quo.


Something huge is about to happen to kids’ programming—something so huge that it “may well turn out to be the most ambitious experiment in children’s television.” So reports the one-time CBS News writer Norman S. Morris for The Atlantic in an August 1969 article titled “What’s Good About Children’s TV.” His excitement about the potential of the forthcoming “experiment” is palpable.

A production company called the Children’s Television Workshop “is trying to develop concepts that will literally channel children’s avid interest in television into preparation for the educational journey so vital to their lives,” writes Morris, then the father of two young boys. It will promote the “intellectual and cultural growth” of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged ones, teaching them not only specific academic skills but also the capacity “to think for themselves.” The show is also slated to feature a diverse cast, Morris adds, including a pair of adult “Negro or Puerto Rican” hosts.

Morris is, of course, talking about Sesame Street, whose first episode ended up airing several months later. Starring in its premiere were characters ranging from Kermit the Frog to Cookie Monster, along with two African American adult hosts. (A couple of years later, Sonia Manzano, a Puerto Rican New Yorker, would begin her 44-year run playing the character Maria.) It was also the first time the country heard “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Other).” The show, which now boasts 4,300-plus episodes, has since “educated the educators,” inspiring kindergarten classrooms across the country to abandon the daycare model in favor of academic instruction, according to a 2009 Newsweek article by the early-education expert Lisa Guernsey. The Sesame Street co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney also told Guernsey that the show fundamentally changed race relations in America, suggesting it may have even “had something to do with Obama’s election.” Sesame Street would indeed prove revolutionary; as Guernsey contended, it “changed our society, and many others, for the better.”

So why was I—a Millennial whose parents were only going through puberty at the time of Sesame Street’s premiere—struck with deja vu when reading Morris’s descriptions of educational inequity and the shortcomings of schools? Why did I feel ashamed of the world that Cooney and Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch had supposedly changed? Why did I feel like someone, at the very least, owed Morris and other early-education advocates of his time an apology?

The author Rob Kirkpatrick describes 1969 as “the year everything changed.” It was the year of Apollo 11, Woodstock, and Nixon’s “silent majority”; it marked the rise of Led Zeppelin and the demise of The Beatles. It was, according to Kirkpatrick, “a year of extremes.” Maybe Sesame Street was in part responsible for that remarkable shift. There’s little doubt that it spearheaded an evolution in the realm of children’s TV. Unlike other educational children’s series at the time, Sesame Street made education its centerpiece, delivering its entertainment through a research-based curriculum. Sesame Street was also probably the first endeavor of its kind to deliberately celebrate racial and socioeconomic diversity—to focus on enhancing opportunity for what the late Robert Keesham (i.e., Captain Kangaroo) described to Morris as “the ghetto child.”

This social objective made a lot of sense to Morris. He interviewed Phyllis Harris, a New York psychiatrist who argued that TV had “a special appeal and a particular benefit to the disadvantaged child.” Citing her experience working with kids at Head Start, Harris said such children have a hard time staying still and looking “at picture books for long periods of time.” “It’s not a disease,” she clarified. “It’s simply a part of their makeup. They haven’t learned to sit and concentrate.” Harris reasoned that TV programming could offset the learning challenges faced by low-income youth because they don’t need to stay still when they’re watching the screen: “In fact, they can even stand on their heads and watch and hear what’s being said. And they’ll come away with something.”

If Harris were interviewed today, chances are she’d use different terms to describe those behavioral challenges. In many ways, though, her perspective—that external factors can greatly hinder the development of disadvantaged children—was quite progressive at the time. Up until the second half of the 20th century, mainstream child psychology subscribed to the notion that cognitive ability is entirely inherited. It wasn’t until the publication of the influential 1961 book Intelligence and Experience, among other scholarship, that Washington policymakers started paying serious attention to and investing in educational opportunities for young, poor children. Hence, Head Start: one of a suite of federal programs established in the mid-1960s as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, including the law that has since been reauthorized as No Child Left Behind.

The key takeaway of Harris’s argument still holds true today. Research suggests that Sesame Street has boosted early learning for thousands, if not millions, of kids. After all, only 19 percent 4-year-olds were in preschool in 1970—a reality that Morris points out in the first sentence of his 4,000-word essay. (Meanwhile, as many as 36 percent of preschool-aged children in the United States were watching Sesame Street at the time.) Evidence demonstrating the show’s impact on children’s achievement started circulating as early as the 1970s, when one study showed correlations between viewing the show and higher test scores. More than 1,000 studies, many of them with similar findings, have been published since—to the point that talking about Sesame Street’s educational value is almost cliche. They include a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research just last month, whose findings clinch conclusions about the show as an effective early-education intervention.

Still, taken together, the recent study and Morris’s 1969 article are also a reminder of how almost nothing outside of the Sesame Street vacuum has changed since some of these grand ideas first took shape—at least with regard to the state of education.

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Sesame Street is “the largest and least-costly [early childhood] intervention that’s ever been implemented” in the United States, Phillip Levine, one of the new study’s authors, told me a few weeks ago when I first reported on the research. It’s had such a significant impact on the cognitive skills of disadvantaged young children that Levine and his co-author likened it to Head Start. Similar to their peers in Head Start in the 1970s, children who watched the show in its first few years on the air were more likely to be academically prepared for school and advance through their educational paths at rates “appropriate for their age”; Sesame Street was just a lot more cost-effective than the government’s program. “Sesame Street,” the paper concludes, “was the first MOOC.”

Massive open online course, indeed. Preschoolers in the late 1960s actually watched much more TV than their counterparts today, according to Morris and Nielsen data: 54 hours a week versus 32. In other words, youngsters back then were watching—or, to borrow Morris’s language, “looking at” —the tube for close to eight hours daily on average. (For what it’s worth, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends limiting children’s screen time to two hours a day.)

His tone solemn and (perhaps amusingly) ominous, Morris at first warns parents against promoting their kids’ addiction to screens: “Parents have turned more and more to the electronic baby-sitter. The risk is that the practice can easily be carried to extremes at the expense of helping the child develop other human contacts or an interest in reading.” He then, however, presents an argument that sounds a lot like it came out of Levine’s recent study, which concludes that “TV and electronic media more generally can be leveraged for real social good.” Morris intended to convince readers of the positive potential of TV for “tiny people,” reasoning that shows like Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers Neighborhood helped children “deal with their emotions,” in part by acknowledging that kids are, in fact, “intelligent human beings with potentially good taste.” Emphasizing the importance and feasibility of making education entertaining, Morris anticipated that Sesame Street would be able to both achieve that fusion and help to elevate lower-income children along the way.

But Sesame Street didn’t stop the rise of educational inequality; it only helped stymie it. It certainly hasn’t ensured that all kids start their K-12 trajectories on equal footing. Access to early education today, nearly half a century after the show’s debut, remains extremely limited: About 40 percent of the country’s 4-year-olds are in publicly funded preschools, a seeming improvement over 1969’s 19 percent, but many of these programs are considered to be low-quality and the evolving economy means that benefits of a preschool education have likely increased over time. It’s easy to dismiss pre-k as nonessential or overblown, but the array of skills integral to success—from creative problem-solving to effective communication—depends largely on how a kid performs in school from day one, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute.

“Unfortunately, the weak early starts that many of our children are getting make it hard to attain these societal goals,” the institute wrote. “Since key foundations for learning are established beginning at birth, starting school behind makes it likely that early disadvantages will persist as children progress through school, and last into their adult lives.” And given that disadvantaged, minority students are often raised in households where cognitive stimulation (vocabulary building, for example) is limited, they’re the kids who benefit most from pre-k opportunities. “As is true of odds of school and life success among Americans today, social class is the single factor with the most influence on how ready to learn a child is when she first walks through the school’s kindergarten door,” the institute continued. “Low social class puts children far behind from the start. Race and ethnicity compound that disadvantage, largely due to factors also related to social class.”

Still, Morris didn’t just remind me that the country has largely failed to expand access to early-learning opportunities. In fact, one of his most staggering references draws parallels with what economists at the University of California, San Diego, a few years ago described as “The Rug Rat Race”: the intensified parental focus since the mid-1990s on getting kids ahead by spending more on childcare and extracurricular activities. The researchers attributed the phenomenon to increased competition for college admissions, as slots at top institutions have become more and more scarce, driving up requirements and incentivizing parents with means to spend more money on their children.

That race often becomes institutionalized in schools, too, through strategies such as tracking (in which students are sorted based on their achievement levels) and public-school systems in which some campuses are selective in their admissions, typically offering specialized curricula. Six of New York City’s nine elite high schools, for example, are focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

If Morris’s critique is any indication, it looks like the (STEM-driven) race started heating up well before the 1990s:

In the umbrage of Sputnik I, many children are being more and more ensnarled in the octopus—like tentacles of technology. The gravitational pull of science is being aided and abetted by parental influence. Scarcely are children able to walk than parents have outlined a complete program designed to get them into the “right schools” and eventually Harvard or Radcliffe. This presumably necessitates any number of assorted intellectual pursuits beginning with the choice of the “correct nursery.”

Indeed, Morris’s concerns could have been taken verbatim from almost any tirade these days against American education, especially amid ever-growing resistance to standardized testing and de-personalized learning. “The prevailing view [in today’s schools] is that if teachers focus too much on students’ pleasure they will somehow be encouraging wanton self-indulgence and dangerous hedonism,” wrote the developmental psychologist and author Susan Engel in an essay earlier this year for The Atlantic. According to Engel, who directs the Program in Teaching at Williams College, this “prevailing view” traces back to top-down directives that children are to be taught standards and skills and self-control, that structure and consistency are paramount:

I have visited some of the newer supposedly “effective” schools, where children chant slogans in order to learn self-control, are given a jelly bean when they do their worksheet, or must stand behind their desk when they can’t sit still. When I go to these schools, all I can think of is Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, in which Wackford Squeers, the headmaster of a school, says with great certainty, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them” ...

Many of the assignments and rules teachers come up with, often because they are pressured by their administrators, treat pleasure and joy as the enemies of competence and responsibility. The assumption is that children shouldn’t chat in the classroom because it disrupts hard work; instead, they should learn to delay gratification so that they can pursue abstract goals, like going to college. They should keep their hands to themselves and tolerate boredom so that they become good at being bored later on.

It was around Morris’s time, writes Engel in her new book The End of the Rainbow, that it became clear schools “were no longer a path to cultivation and a life of the mind; they were a path to a job.” The Cold War-era pursuit of scientific prowess has stuck in the nation’s mindset, continuing to shape educational priorities: Learning became a mechanism for advancing national interests and, eventually, a process of assimilating standards-based knowledge and engaging in rote memorization. The “race to the top” to which Morris alluded has only become more institutionalized—particularly since the passage of the beleaguered No Child Left Behind law.

What bothers Morris the most is the widespread notion among adults that education and imagination are mutually exclusive. Robert Homme, the star of Friendly Giant, another popular children’s TV program during Morris’s era, tells Morris that he’s skeptical of a new, experimental show like Sesame Street joining the ranks of children’s TV; kids, he argues, prefer repetition and like to “have things seep down slowly.” “I think the world is preoccupied with the whole notion of change,” Homme says. “But there are lots of things that had better not change.”

Morris has a different view. He juxtaposes Sesame Street to Romper Room, a long-running, arguably frivolous children’s TV series that he abhors. “The philosophy seems to be that kids are little creatures who must be taught their ABC’s,” Morris writes. “Everything takes place in a formal classroom setting, and creativity is hiding somewhere under the teacher’s desk or perhaps in a broom closet. The prevailing attitude is one of condescension, and humor is hiding somewhere, too, perhaps keeping creativity company.” He argues that human beings should be able to enjoy the assimilation of knowledge, to feel engaged in their learning, to revel in imagination. “Youthful fantasy is also an essential ingredient in the development of problem-solving techniques.”

Citing Mister Rogers as an example, Morris speaks of the value of kids’ playtime. The late writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim fleshed these same ideas out in a March 1987 article for The Atlantic, “The Importance of Play,” writing: “From a child's play we can gain understanding of how he sees and construes the world—what he would like it to be, what his concerns and problems are” and that “Besides being a means of coping with past and present concerns, play is the child's most useful tool for preparing himself for the future and its tasks.”

But it looks like their arguments have largely failed to prompt much change in American education. As the teacher Tim Walker lamented last year, free play is hard to find in schools. “What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work,” Walker wrote, comparing U.S. schools to those in Finland, which prioritize playtime. “It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge—they also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.”

All in all, Engel would probably agree with Morris: What sets children apart from adults, she wrote, isn’t that they’re less intelligent, but rather that they have an “enormous capacity for joy.” And inserting joy into learning, she said, could have an incredibly positive impact on their academic achievement; research shows that kids need to be engaged and willing to learn in order for them to actually do so. “‘Pleasure’ is not a dirty word,” Engel argued. “And it’s not antithetical to the goals of K-12 public education.”