Big Bird Can Close the Achievement Gap? Not So Fast . . .

Don’t get me wrong: I love Big Bird as much as the next guy. But when people start talking about how Sesame Street is just as effective at closing the achievement gap as preschool, I start to worry that we’re becoming enamored with a seductively simple characterization of a deeply complex problem.

To wit: this article, in which we are told the “new findings offer comforting news for parents who put their children in front of public TV every day.” Or this radio story, in which the reporter claims that the show’s heavy dosage of reading and math can yield long-term academic benefits that “close the achievement gap.”

The lure of a set of findings like this is pretty clear: plug your kids into an educational TV show, help them learn their letters and numbers, and voila! No more class inequality. And actually, when one considers how we measure the achievement gap — via the reading and math test scores of schoolchildren — the opportunity to draw a linear line of cause and effect is available to us.

The problem, of course, is that school is about a lot more than literacy and numeracy — and the problems that beset poor children run a lot deeper than the 30 million word gap.

Consider the research around ACE Scores — or the number of adverse childhood experiences young people have — and how much those scores shape a child’s readiness to learn and develop (you can take a short quiz to get your own score here).

Dr. Pamela Cantor has spent a lot of time thinking about ACE Scores. She founded Turnaround for Children to help schools become more attuned to the cognitive, social and emotional needs of kids, and she’s one of many out there who are urging us to understand what the latest research in child development is telling us about what we need to be doing in schools. As she puts it, “The profound impact of extreme stress on a child’s developing brain can have huge implications for the way children learn, the design of classrooms, the preparation of teachers and school leaders, and what is measured as part of the school improvement effort as a whole.”

Consequently, whereas reduced exposure to the building blocks of reading and math is a problem (and one that Sesame Street can clearly help address), the biggest problem for at-risk children — the root cause — has to do with their social and emotional health.

The good news is that although these deficits are profound, they are also predictable, since they stem directly from the effects that stress and trauma have on young people’s brains and bodies. “These stresses impact the development of the brain centers involved in learning,” Cantor explains. “It is because these challenges are knowable and predictable that it is possible to design an intervention to address them. Collectively, they represent a pattern of risk—risk to student development, risk to classroom instruction, and risk to school-wide culture—each of which is capable of derailing academic achievement.”

That means the best way to help poor and at-risk children become prepared for school is by ensuring that high-poverty schools have universal practices and supports that specifically address the impact of adverse childhood experiences. So while I love and appreciate the benefits of Sesame StreetI’d feel better if instead of suggesting that every child needs more time with Grover in the morning, we suggested that every child’s ACE Score needs more weight in determining how schools allocate resources to support their students’ holistic development.  

I hope that doesn’t make me seem like Oscar the Grouch.

Categories: Equity, Learning

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  1. Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    You say, “the best way to help poor and at-risk children become prepared for school is by ensuring that high-poverty schools have universal practices and supports that specifically address the impact of adverse childhood experiences.”


    The best way to help poor and at-risk children become prepared for school is to make sure their parents receive a living wage. Don’t look to schoolteachers to erase the terrible damage our rotten, selfish culture of greed has has created.

    At age 22 months Freddie Gray, born prematurely to a heroin-addicted mother, had a lead level four times as great as the dangerous level associated with serious loss of cognitive ability. No super teacher can erase that.

    Please don’t sing the popular theme song that it’s the job of schoolteachers to fix our social and economic woes.

  2. Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, Susan. I agree that there are lots of things that could happen outside the school that would make a bigger impact on the well-being of children. A living wage is a great example, and one we tried to highlight in depth in a recent PBS documentary I co-produced called “180 Days: Hartsville.” I hope you’ll check it out. In this piece, I was solely referring to things that need to happen inside the school. I don’t think these things require super teachers, nor do they require us to denigrate what teachers have done previously. But I do think we can get better.

  3. Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Spot on, Sam. How about designing the day for preschoolers so each evening they come home feeling that they mattered, that they did something of value for someone else, that they felt more of a somebody. What if the curriculum were built around maximizing connecting, communicating, creating and contributing.

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