The Achievement Gap and Big Bird: How Sesame Street‘s move could affect lower income children

In 2012, when presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested taking government funding away from America’s favorite giant yellow Muppet, the nation revolted.

Yet, although Romney had nothing to do with it, federal budget cuts still took their toll on the beloved show. Just three years after this Bird-less premonition, Sesame Street is slated to leave public television. Fortunately, the show’s 40+ year tenure and ongoing popularity have served as a life preserver, and HBO, king of the cable television networks, has picked it up.

For Cookie Monster, Elmo, and Big Bird, this is great news. The educational show gets funding, children get to keep learning, and the beloved cast members get to keep their jobs. But some critics of the move say that for children from lower-income families who are less likely to have access to HBO, or tablets, or even high-speed internet for streaming, taking Sesame Street off PBS is tantamount to pulling it off the air altogether. For these children, who already start kindergarten 60% behind their peers, the pre-reading, early math, and other developmental lessons provided through Sesame Street could be the difference between entering k-12 ready to succeed or getting left behind. Take away those lessons, and the already massive achievement gap threatens to grow even wider.

The news has already started conversations in the edtech space, where Sesame Street‘s validity as a MOOC has previously been a topic of educational debate. Whether or not the edtech buzzword “MOOC” accurately represents the show, the research paper “Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street,” asserts that the show has contributed invaluable lessons to prepare young students for school success:

“The results indicate that Sesame Street accomplished its goal of improving school readiness; preschool-aged children in areas with better reception when it was introduced were more likely to advance through school as appropriate for their age. This effect is particularly pronounced for boys and non-Hispanic, black children, as well as children living in economically disadvantaged areas.” (Melissa Kearney and Philip Levine)

Clearly the show has contributed greatly to early childhood development—that much we can agree upon. It’s no leap to assume the transition from public television to premium broadcasting would further jeopardize the education of children already at a disadvantage in the classroom.

However, all hope is not lost—the episodes that air on HBO will still air on PBS 9 months after their initial release date. For preschoolers, who often have no concept of time and the incomprehensible desire to watch and re-watch the exact same episode over and over again, this may not make much of a difference. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to deny the icky feeling of giving lower-income children second-hand broadcasting.

What do you think? Is the move of Sesame Street from HBO a threat to the equality of early education, or a necessary move to keep the beloved program afloat?


Hannah Nyren

Hannah Nyren

Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.