Lessons from Sesame Street about preschool education

An issue that's likely to arise in the debates leading up to the next presidential election is preschool education. Among the questions involved: Should preschool programs be available to all children no matter their socioeconomic status? Should America invest in programs such as Head Start or Perry Preschool so that all children can attend? Does any evidence show these programs work?

Another issue, which may at first appear unrelated to universal preschool initiatives, is the rising cost of higher education and the problem of educational access for low-income students. As educational costs climb, how do we ensure that people growing up in less affluent households have access to first-rate higher-ed programs? Are massive open online courses -- MOOCS -- the answer?

Interestingly, one of the first MOOCs that attempted to address the educational needs of preschoolers has hardly been studied. As economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine noted in recent research at the National Bureau of Economic Research: "In essence, Sesame Street was the first MOOC. Although MOOCs differ in what they entail, Sesame Street satisfies the basic feature of electronic transmission of online educational material. Both Sesame Street and MOOCs provide educational interventions at a fraction of the cost of more traditional classroom settings."

Their research attempts to do two things: examine whether MOOCs can improve educational outcomes, and assess the degree to which early intervention programs can promote student success later in life.

When Sesame Street was first introduced more than 40 years ago, it was broadcast on PBS stations using UHF technology. This type of transmission doesn't produce a very strong signal. As a result, reception was poor for some households, and about a third of them couldn't get the signal at all.

Thus, how far a household was from a transmission tower (this was pre-cable) determined how good the reception was. The hypothesis is that children who grew up further from transmission towers and unable to watch Sesame Street wouldn't do as well in subsequent grades, and would do worse in the job market once they finally graduated.

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The results are encouraging. The researchers found a significant impact of the Sesame Street MOOC on educational attainment in the early school years. "This effect is particularly pronounced for boys and black, non-Hispanic children and those living in economically disadvantaged areas."

However, when the analysis is extended to labor market outcomes (children were tracked to see what types of jobs, etc. they eventually obtained), the researchers couldn't find evidence of "substantive improvements in ultimate educational attainment or labor market outcomes."

Although the improvements brought about by Sesame Street appear limited to the elementary school years -- eventually the effect wears off -- this research still has two important messages.

First, early childhood intervention and the availability of universal prekindergarten programs do help prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for elementary school education. That's a key finding.

Second, MOOCs appear to work. The cost of providing Sesame Street was "around $5 per child per year (in today's dollars)," the researchers found, far less than other means of providing the same education.

And although the Sesame Street effect appears to wane after the initial treatment, the authors provide several suggestions for how to make the improvements more permanent. One is to provide follow-up treatments -- educational booster shots -- throughout the elementary school years instead of a single prekindergarten exposure.

In any case, this research provides important new evidence that both preschool education and cheap, online education can be effective tools in attempts to ensure that every child has an equal chance of success.