CHAPTER 15

"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 others.”

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 serious.

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.
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