‘Sesame Street’: An Education Anchor, Not a Political Football

Campaign ads and candidate comments aside, experts speak out on why Big Bird’s legacy in education remains unparalleled.

By Suzi Parker – October 10, 2012

Sesame Street has unwillingly become a player in this year’s race for the White House.

In the first presidential debate last week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he planned to cut funding to public broadcasting and singled out Big Bird as an example. In turn, on Tuesday, the Obama campaign unveiled a 30-second ad that uses a montage of Big Bird along with greedy white-collar criminals like Bernie Madoff.

“Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about; it’s Sesame Street,” the narrator says.

The Sesame Street Workshop isn’t happy and wants the ad taken down. In a statement, the workshop said, “Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns. We have approved no campaign ads, and as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down.”

Indeed, Sesame Street Workshop has never been in the business of politicking. Its mission for the last 43 years has been simple: “to use the educational power of media to help children everywhere reach their highest potential.”

Its legacy to education, especially in pre-school children, is unparalleled, say educational experts.

“Sesame Street provides early literacy training, and more importantly, has become a model for educational television programming to the preschool age,” says Emory Woodard, a professor of communication at Villanova University. “The preschool child audience is a captive one, and they can suspend disbelief. They love the characters that Sesame Street started and are eager to learn and master some of the basic skills that once the child turns 5, 6 or 7 they take for granted.”

A spokesman for Sesame Street Workshop declined an interview for this story.

But its website explains in great detail the impact of the show that began in 1969 as the brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney, a television professional, and Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist, who wondered, can television teach children?

The answer was yes. A blue monster puppet named Grover debuted on the first show teaching letters and numbers, and introucing the show’s characters. By the end of the show’s first season, one million children had watched Sesame Street, according to the website.

Sesame Street Workshop statistics show that 90 percent of parents in the United States report a change in their children’s counting and sorting skills using workshop materials. Sixteen percent of American children who watch the show frequently as preschoolers achieve higher grade point averages than their peers who don’t. The site states, “Using the Word on the Street materials increases the number of words children know by 78%.”

Because of its success, Sesame Street has become financially independent. A Wall Street Journal storypoints out, “At the end of fiscal 2011, Sesame Workshop and its subsidiaries had total assets of $289 million.” They receive about “$8 million a year in direct government grants and more indirectly via PBS subsidies.”

Sherrie Westin, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Sesame Workshop, told CNN last week that the show will remain regardless of who wins the presidency. “Sesame Workshop receives very, very little funding from PBS,” she said. “So, we are able to raise our funding through philanthropic, through our licensed product, which goes back into the educational programming, through corporate underwriting and sponsorship. So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. But when they always try to tout out Big Bird, and say we’re going to kill Big Bird-that is actually misleading, because Sesame Street will be here.”

Regardless of politics, it should remain an imaginative staple of childhood, says Ida Zarrabizadeh, a professor at Touro University Worldwide, a nonprofit institution of higher and professional education.

“There’s a comfort [for children] of knowing the same characters every time they tune in,” Zarrabizadeh. “They are their friends and they receive a sense of consistency.”

The value of Sesame Street is also vital for families with a busy household who may not be able to spend as much time as they want with their children, she says.

The Sesame Street model simply works.

“It was an interesting experiment, taking education to television in the late 1960s,” Woodard says. “The original interest was to figure out how to use mass media in a relatively low cost way to reach huge audiences. It was meant to level the playing field for people who didn’t have supplemental educational resources and for their children to get exposed to early literacy training that was on par with folks with greater privilege. The program has realized its initial goals and has exceeded them enormously.”

What Others Are Saying

“TUW’s online master’s degree made it possible for me to consistently meet the study commitments of a high caliber and challenging graduate student program around my work and international travel comments.” said Lorraine Palmer, Director of Corporate Communications for PennyMac and recipient of a Masters in Media and Communications Psychology.

“The individual accomplishments of the class of 2012 are extraordinary. We at TUW are all very proud of their success,” said Dr. Michael Hamlin, Director of Academic Affairs and Institutional Research for Touro University Worldwide.

“Touro University’s on-line Master’s Degree Program has been my inspiration and best friend for two years. The social media explosion has increased life’s pace for everyone and Touro University’s on-line program is just what the doctor ordered to maintain work/life balance while allowing me to explore the future of effective communications,” said Kay Baldwin, graduate of the Media and Communications Psychology program.

“Being a student at TUW has helped me tremendously in the public relations field. The program allowed me to confirm my views on new media in that it narrows the gap between the one communicating the message and the one receiving it. Now I understand the theories and have the education to back it up,”added Doug Fleischli, Media and Communications Psychology graduate.

“Media and Communications Psychology is a master’s degree program that emphasizes 21st century literacy and is a field of study that is growing significantly. Media Psychology is now an accepted subspecialty in psychology. The Media Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association is now leading the way in pioneering this growing field,” said Dr. Bernard Luskin, CEO and Senior Provost.

Touro University Worldwide is enrolling new students every day. To discuss a program or find out how you can apply or participate, please contact:

Ryan Hoselton

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Touro University Worldwide (TUW)

TUW offers online Masters’ Degree Programs in Business (MBA), Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Media and Communications Psychology, and Marriage and Family Therapy. For program and enrollment information, visit: www.TUW.edu.

About the Touro College and University System

Touro is a system of non-profit institutions of higher and professional education that welcomes students of all cultures and backgrounds. Touro College was chartered in 1970 primarily to enrich the Jewish heritage, and to serve the larger American and global community. Approximately 19,000 students are currently enrolled in its various schools and divisions. Touro College has branch campuses, locations and instructional sites in the New York area, as well as branch campuses and programs in Berlin, Jerusalem, Moscow, Paris, and Florida. Touro University California and Nevada as well as Touro University Los Angeles and Touro University Worldwide are members of the Touro College and University System.

For further information on Touro College, please go to: https://www.touro.edu/media/

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