Early childhood education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street

Melissa Kearney, Phillip Levine 16 July 2015

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There has been much focus in recent years on the importance of investing in early childhood education to improve the academic readiness and, more broadly, the life chances of children from lower-income and lower-educated households (Duncan and Magnuson 2013, Cascio and Schanzenbach 2014). For all of this attention, it is surprising that perhaps the largest and least costly early childhood intervention in the US – Sesame Street – has gone largely undiscussed in the context of this policy and research focus.

First broadcast

Sesame Street was first broadcast in the United States in 1969 with the explicit goal of helping young children, especially those from economically disadvantaged homes, to prepare for school. Our research examines how exposure to Sesame Street affected the educational performance of the first generation of preschool-age children to have access to the show (Kearney and Levine 2015). These are children who entered first grade just after the show’s 1969 introduction. We find that Sesame Street accomplished its goal of improving school readiness for these children.

Immediately after its introduction, Sesame Street became a huge television success. Estimates suggest that by January of 1970, over five million households tuned in to a typical episode and roughly one-third of children between the ages of two and five regularly watched the show (Cook et al 1975).  Well-designed research studies conducted at the time of Sesame Street’s creation indicate that low-income children who were randomly assigned access to the show experienced a substantial and immediate increase in measures of literacy and numeracy at ages three and four (Bogatz and Ball 1971). We build on this early targeted evidence by looking broadly at the cohort of US children who were potentially exposed to the show during their preschool years and by considering longer-term outcomes, starting with a measure of elementary school performance.

Technological divide

When the show began, only around two-thirds of the US population could receive the Sesame Street broadcast on their televisions (Davis 2008). Of the 192 stations airing the show when it was introduced, 101 broadcast on UHF (ultra-high frequency) channels and the rest on VHF (very-high frequency) channels. UHF signals were inferior and many households did not own a TV that could even receive those signals. This created a technological divide in who could watch the show. Our empirical approach makes use of the technological features of this divide to investigate whether children living in places with better access to the show saw relative increases in their educational performance, as compared to children living in places where access to the show was limited by broadcast technology. More specifically, we exploit county-level variation in distance to the nearest TV tower transmitting the show, and crucially, whether that tower broadcast on a UHF channel or VHF channels. In locations where the nearest tower was not close or where that tower broadcast over UHF, reception was weaker.

Figure 1 displays the geographic variation in broadcast exposure. For example, Southern California, Ohio, and the District of Columbia­­ have very limited Sesame Street coverage; this is driven by the fact that for these areas, the nearest tower broadcasting the show did so via a UHF signal. Distance from the tower also clearly matters. Rural locations are not included in our analysis, so our comparisons are only among those living in metropolitan areas. For simplicity, we can think about strong and weak reception locations as being above or below average reception rates. Using this dichotomy, we note that on average, 85% of households in strong reception counties had the ability to view Sesame Street as compared to only 55% of households in weak location counties.

Figure 1. Sesame Street coverage rates by county, 1969

Primary school outcomes

We combine this geographic variation in potential broadcast exposure with differences across birth cohorts in terms of their age at the time of the show’s introduction. Sesame Street’s content focused on first-grade readiness; those children who had advanced beyond that point would not have been exposed during early childhood and hence would generally not have been affected by its introduction. The essence of our research strategy is to investigate whether children in the birth cohorts under age six in 1969 living in locations with high Sesame Street broadcast coverage saw improved outcomes as compared to the cohort born just before them, and to compare this improvement to the relative change for the same cohorts living in locations with more limited Sesame Street coverage. This approach controls for fixed differences across counties and focuses on relative changes happening exactly at the time of the show’s introduction.

The results of our analysis provide evidence that Sesame Street’s introduction generated a positive impact on educational outcomes through the early school years. Specifically, using individual-level data from the 1980 Census, we find that the cohort of children who were preschool age when the show first aired who lived in places with better reception capabilities were more likely to be attending the appropriate grade for their age. This can be seen in Figure 2. Among birth cohorts that were older than preschool age when Sesame Street began, we observe little difference in grade for age status between children in locations where reception was strong versus weak. But, among children who were preschool age when the show began, the data show a noticeable gap – children in strong reception locations increased their likelihood of remaining at the appropriate grade level by 1.5 to 2 percentage points. Overall, moving from a weak to strong reception county reduces the likelihood of falling behind appropriate grade level by approximately 14%.

Figure 2. Impact of the introduction of Sesame Street on grade-for-age status in 1980

Note: Strong reception areas are defined as those where the closest TV tower broadcasting Sesame Street is VHF and within a 60 mile radius. Poor reception areas are all others. Differences are normalized to equal zero when the year of anticipated first grade enrollment is 1968.
Source: Authors' calculations based on analysis of 1980 Census Data.

The positive effect on grade-for-age status is particularly pronounced for boys and black, non-Hispanic children, and those living in economically disadvantaged areas. Figure 3 plots the same comparisons between children in strong and weak reception areas by birth cohort separately for those from more or less economically disadvantaged areas. As can be seen in the figure, the impact of the show’s introduction was greater among children from economically disadvantages areas (defined here as places with large high school dropout rates) – the increase in the likelihood of remaining at the appropriate grade level is approximately three percentage points.

Figure 3. Impact of the introduction of Sesame Street on grade-for-age status in 1980, by level of economic disadvantage in county

Note: See notes to preceding figure.
Source: Authors' calculations based on analysis of 1980 Census Data.

Long-term outcomes

We also use data from the 1990 and 2000 Censuses to examine longer run outcomes for these birth cohorts from the late 1960s and early 1970s. In particular, we examine ultimate educational attainment and earnings. The evidence for an effect on these outcomes is weaker, suggesting only small effects. However, the small estimated impact on wages in adulthood is consistent with forecasts based on the estimated improvements in test scores and grade-for-age status brought about by the show’s introduction.

Concluding remarks

In summary, our research finds that Sesame Street had a sizable effect on the rate at which students stayed on track through elementary school. This is impressive, but perhaps even more so given the extremely low per-child costs of airing the program – by one estimate, $5 per year per child. In light of all the emphasis on the importance of early childhood interventions, the fact that a television show can have this type of an effect should be taken as very good news.

References

Bogatz, G A and S Ball (1971), The second year of Sesame Street: A continuing evaluation, Princeton, NJ, Educational Testing Service.

Cascio, E U and D W Schanzenbach (2014) “Expanding preschool access for disadvantaged children” in M S Kearney and B H Harris (eds.), Policies to address poverty in America, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Cook, T D, H Appleton, R F Conner, A Shaffer, G Tamkin and S J Weber (1975), “Sesame Street” Revisited, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.

Davis, M (2008) Street gang: The complete history of Sesame Street, New York, Penguin Books.

Duncan, G J and K Magnuson (2013) “Investing in preschool programs”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27(2): 109-132.

Kearney, M S and P B Levine (2015) “Early childhood education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street”, NBER Working Paper, No. 21229.

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Topics:  Education Poverty and income inequality

Tags:  education, Early childhood, seasame street, media, television, schooling, academic performance, Inequality, economic disadvantage, Poverty, US

Professor at the Department of Economics, University of Maryland

A. Barton Hepburn and Katherine Coman Professor of Economics, Wellesley College

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