Did you grow up watching “Sesame Street” and also score straight As in school? As it turns out, there may be a correlation there. According to a study recently published in the American Economic Journal, kids with access to the classic children’s show before the age of 7 had improved elementary school performance.
“Early Childhood Education by Television: Lessons from ‘Sesame Street,” first written in 2015, studied American counties that had access to the show in 1969. It used census data to identify children from those counties. Their access to the show was determined by the strength of the television signal in their county.
Researchers Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine made the assumption that kids who had access to “Sesame Street” watched it at some point. They studied three cohorts of kids by using the census data from 1980, 1990 and 2000.
“You can think about this as kids potentially having access as opposed to watching the show,” Kearney explained to the American Economic Association. “We don’t know who actually watched the show. We know that you probably could get it in your house or you probably couldn’t. And we also know that at the time, most of the kids who probably could get it were probably watching it.”
They then assessed their academic and career success based on the following factors: what proportion of children were enrolled in the appropriate grade for their age; whether they attended college, dropped out or graduated; and their employment, wage and poverty status.
The greatest effects happened among younger, school-aged children and waned as they entered their teenage years and beyond. Kids who had access to the show were more likely to be in the right grade for their age, for example. However, there was little to no effect on college attendance, graduation rates or long-term career prospects.
In addition to finding an overall correlation between access to the show and improved performance in elementary school, it seems the link was particularly pronounced among black children and boys who grew up in poor counties.
These days, it would be tough to find a single program that has the influence that “Sesame Street” once had, as entertainment options for kids are so varied and plentiful.
“It’s still a possibility that these sorts of interventions can have an impact,” Levine told Quartz. “I think it’s harder, because there is more stimulus for children these days than in the 1960s. But it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible and that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be effective.”
Kearney explained that “Sesame Street” was a product of its time when it debuted in 1969.
“‘Sesame Street’ came into existence at the same time as the Head Start program and the Perry Preschool program, and that was not an accident,” she told the American Economic Association. “These programs all were born out of that same new movement in the ’60s recognizing that early childhood was actually an opportunity to help kids grow and learn.”
In 2019, “Sesame Street” is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Its primary goal remains largely the same though: to “use television to level the playing field and help prepare less advantaged children for school.”
“Our mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder knows no geographic boundaries,” Jeffrey D. Dunn, Sesame Workshop’s chief executive officer, said in a press release. “We’re everywhere families are and we never stop innovating and growing. That’s what keeps us timeless.”