"Anyone who doesn’t recognize this show as the first limping troops, the vanguard of the mighty host is just
out of touch. Technological breakthroughs like Sesame Street are the only hope for a radical upgrading of
quality education on a massive scale."
--John Gardner, Former Secretary of Health Education and Welfare
LOOK! JANE! LOOK! WHAT’S HAPPENING TO EDUCATION!
Consider what Dr. Harvey B. Scribner, New York City’s distinguished Chancellor of Education perceives
to be the condition of American public education. In his speech before the Public Education Association,
Dr. Scribner states:
“Despite all the financial investment; despite all the positive statistics of growth, expansion and
improvement; despite all the data which indicates that our teachers are better and our graduates brighter;
despite all the good intentions, the unassailable fact is our schools are failing large numbers.
“For every youngster who gains intellectually and psychologically as he passes through our schools, there
is another who is pushed out, turned off or scarred as a result of his school experience. For a whole variety
of reasons and for a variety of people, our schools are unequal and unfair. And nowhere is this more true
than in the schools of our biggest cities.
“Our public schools are too impersonal, too inflexible to be responsive, too authoritarian to allow
independence, too single-minded to tolerate nonconformity, too convinced of all the rightness of their
course to permit radical experimentation with unorthodox ways.
To turn our schools around, we can begin, first, to concern ourselves more with learning and less with
schooling. Schools should allow children to learn the way they learn best, whether in a formal school
setting or outside, and from a variety of people—other students, artists, writers, carpenters, politicians, and
Today, the most prominent alternative in preschool education is Sesame Street. It is, of course, impossible
at this time to evaluate how much impact Sesame Street is having on our educational system. Obviously its
ultimate effect on American education will not be known for years. But already certain results have
occurred. A week before school opened in one suburban community, a mother tore into the principal’s
office and announced: “Sesame Street taught my Richard his numbers and alphabet. Either you start
teaching reading in kindergarten or I demand that you skip my son to first grade.” And she was dead
It is evident from the above tragi-comic scene played out in that principal’s office—and in hundreds of
variations enacted in other principal’s offices and at PTA’s around the country—the innovations of Sesame
Street are still being felt. For better or for worse, Sesame Street is prodding our educators.
“But it’s not what Sesame Street is teaching that’s so important. What’s relevant is that we learn from
what they’ve done. The immediate effect of Sesame Street is on television rather than on education itself,”
says Dr. Herbert R. Andlauer, director of curriculum and instruction for the Livingston, New Jersey,
school system. “I don’t think the content of the show is its most noteworthy aspect. I place its value in the
fact that, at least, the media has devised a way to really teach. This is an important first. Sesame has made a
difference in the children more than any other television program they have watched. By leveling itself at
preschoolers, it has helped all children learn.
“It’s eventual effect on our education system really varies with the socio-economic conditions of each
school. Aimed at the inner-city child, this is where Sesame Street should have its most telling influence on
curriculum,” Dr. Andlaur observes. “The inner-city child is now coming to school equipped with
knowledge that, before Sesame Street, had first to be acquired in the early grades.
“I am particularly interested in the show’s use of audio and perceptional skills. Kindergarten curriculum
used to be heavily weighted on the side of teaching. Now we are theorizing, based on behaviorial skills
may have an even greater correlation to learning potential. Therefore educators are reevaluating the
kindergarten curriculum. Sesame Street’s extensive use of the audio and perceptional skills tends to
reinforce this new direction.
“Since many people equate education with the acquiring of specific skills, there is some concern that
because youngsters are coming to school knowing the alphabet and numbers they will be pushed into
mastering more difficult tasks earlier. But we must help children get way beyond the point of mastery of
skills. Only then can we truly educate. I would like to hope that Sesame will ultimately shift its emphasis
from skills to experience. Looking back in years hence, perhaps the greatest change Sesame Street will
have wrought will be this altering of educational values in our schools.”
Some educators predict that what Sesame Street will actually do is widen, rather than narrow, the gap
between the middle-class and the disadvantaged children because the more privileged viewers are better
prepared to put all its fresh information into use.
“We could be widening gap,” admits Mrs. Cooney, “But we are still raising the lower group above the
literacy level and that’s significant.” Mrs. Cooney is sure that Sesame Street has the clout to make a
significant contribution toward new directions in education. And if that sounds like revolution in the
classrooms, so be it. In fact, Mrs. Cooney hopes for it. “The 200,000 disadvantaged children in Head Start
weren’t enough to turn the school situation around,” she affirms. “You can’t turn the American education
system around unless you go for the millions. But we’ve got troops going in. We’ve got divisions going in!
Our four-year-olds are going to create havoc when they reach the first grade,” Mrs. Cooney forecasts. “And
we want it that way.”
Specifically what Mrs. Cooney hopes Sesame Street will do is “make kindergarten and first-grade teachers
take a harder look at their curriculums” and possibly decide to “start teaching reading right away.”
Characteristic of what many nursery school teachers have reported, Jeanne Ginsberg, Director of
Playhouse Co-operative in West Orange, New Jersey, isn’t so certain that the youngsters are going to wait
to be taught reading in public school. “Some 3- and 4-year-olds are already moving in that direction on
their own. Many little incidents indicate the children’s reading readiness like never before. For example,
the first day of nursery, more than half the children were reading their own names over their cubbies with
no hint from their teachers. Those who weren’t able to recognize the whole word, pieced it together
because they were able to pick out individual letters they had learned on Sesame Street. Zest, enthusiasm, a
sense of humor about learning are also Sesame Street contributions. With these tools, the show has
captivated millions. Now it is the school’s responsibility to work with the individual child, using the
classroom as a workshop, to build on what Sesame has begun.”
One of the most measurable changes in the educational process is the extraordinary “feedback” that has
taken place in the school libraries. Librarians from all over the nation, from ghetto slums to gilded suburbs,
are aware of Sesame’s educational influences more than any other group except teachers and parents of
pre-schoolers. Elga Cace, supervising children’s librarian on Staten Island, says, “The comments have been
very enthusiastic from mothers and children. There is tremendous interest in the books read on Sesame
Street and those recommended in the bibliographies circulated by CTW.” Ellen Laughran, children’s
librarian in Bedford-Stuyvesant, confirms, “We’ve definitely had feedback, but also from the second-,
third-, and fourth-graders.” How’s that for irony. The McLuhan heir, Sesame Street, is renewing children’s
interest in reading.
“Parents associate books with achievement,” CTW Research Director Edward Palmer explains, “and a lot
of parents are watching the show. The kids are coming up to them and they’re spouting letters and
numbers. I think some parents are going out for the first time and buying a book for their kids because they
begin thinking about them as potential achievers and they’re impressed by the kid’s performance.”
Even with this plus in its favor, Carl Bereiter, specialist in preschool learning in Ontario, Canada’s
Institute for Studies in Education, argues, “I would doubt very much that Sesame Street will alter school
curriculum or make a large difference in children’s abilities. What it can do is make a small difference for a
large number of children.”
Staten Webster, associate professor at Berkeley’s School of Secondary Education warns that the
difference will not be beneficial to our educational system. “Children who watch quick cuts and intense
variety will find conventional classrooms extremely boring. There is going to be a tremendous rumbling in
the first and second grades in a year or two. Unless they change, schools will have an even greater problem
of children tuning out than they have now.”
Visions of Mrs. Kullpepper being pounced upon by her first graders because of her teaching routine lacks
fast pace, jokes, and clowning puppets is frankly very remote. Because it comes to the children via a cold,
impersonal media, Sesame Street must make up for this lack of personal communication with pyrotechnics
to rivet the young viewer’s attention. A teacher doesn’t need a jazzy format to get her teaching message
across. Her beat equipment is warmth, sincerity and knowledge. This is the one educational keystone not
even Sesame Street wishes to change.