Happy 50th, “Sesame Street”! Wellesley Researcher Finds Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch Prepare Children for School and Jobs

The cast of Sesame Street celebrates on a street corner.
Photo provided by Richard Termine
November 7, 2019

Since its debut on November 10, 1969, Sesame Street’s now-classic characters like Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch and its quirky, inventive plots have sought to improve early childhood education and development. That approach to children’s television was radical 50 years ago: At the time, it was a mainstream belief that cognitive ability was completely hereditary.

Now, recent research by Phillip B. Levine, Katharine Coman and A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Economics at Wellesley College, and Melissa S. Kearney, professor of economics at the University of Maryland, has shown that children who watched the program before age 7 did better in school and had greater success obtaining jobs and earning higher wages as adults.

In Levine and Kearney’s paper on the iconic program, published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, they write that children who watched Sesame Street in their early years were “14 percent more likely to be attending the grade that is appropriate for their age in middle and high school years.” Their data, collected from the U.S. census in 1980, 1990, and 2000 and compared with the educational and employment outcomes of those who had access to viewing the series with those who did not, indicated positive results for both girls and boys, with even more positive results for boys.

For blacks, Hispanics, and white non-Hispanics, the data showed positive indications, with a larger positive impact for blacks and Hispanics along with those children who grew up in economically disadvantaged counties. “In that regard, Sesame Street satisfied its goal of preparing children for school entry, especially for black and disadvantaged children,” Levine and Kearney write.

In a recent Quartz article, Levine and Kearney acknowledged the show’s long-term impact. “Sesame Street was the product of a group of dedicated social scientists who set out to accomplish an important social goal (improving school-readiness for children from disadvantaged backgrounds) and were successful,” Levine said in an email. “It is an impressive feat, and we are all thankful they did so.”

Additionally, he and Kearney found the show to be “perhaps the biggest, yet least costly, early childhood intervention,” with a typical episode reaching over 5 million children, at a cost of about five dollars per child per year.

“There’s no question that the introduction of Sesame Street was a good thing,” Levine told the Associated Press earlier this month. “Early childhood intervention does have the ability to improve lifelong learning among children.”