October 8, 2012

Can You Tell Me Where We’ll Go…

…Where we’ll go when there’s no Sesame Street?

An argument was made this previous week in the Presidential Debate. In a brave assertion, before a moderator employed by PBS, Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, in his only specific example of a governmental cut for the evening, vowed to cut off funding to the Public Broadcasting Service, a not-for-profit network available to each citizen with a television, regardless of whether or not they can afford cable. Since the governor pointed out Big Bird by name, we’ll view PBS through the prism of its benefit to the future advancement of children as they progress through their education.

Experts have, through a number of studies (example here and here) over several decades, come to a consensus on the benefits offered to younger viewers of regular exposure to educational programming. From Sesame Street to Dora the Explorer and Arthur, there is evidence that regular viewing by toddlers provided them with a greater advantage upon entering formal schooling. A seminal favorite of one-time PBS viewers, Mr. Rogers offered his defense of the benefits of public broadcasting’s contribution to younger viewers all the way back in 1969.

Add to that an ongoing tete-a-tete between the governor’s public pronouncements and the chief of PBS, Paula Kerger. Dating back to January of this year, the governor has said that while he had no intention to “kill Big Bird” he asserted that public television will have to become ad-supported.

Kerger, after pointing out that federal regulations exist that act to prohibit commercials on public television, goes on to juxtapose a commercial network that portrays itself as educational, the History Channel, and their production of “American Pickers”, to PBS’s several productions of Ken Burns’ documentaries.

And then just this past Thursday, Kerger, in a very scathing response to Governor Romney’s comments in the debate the night before, said, “We are very disappointed that PBS became a political target in the Presidential debate last night. Governor Romney does not understand the value the American people place on public broadcasting and the outstanding return on investment the system delivers to our nation. We think it is important to set the record straight and let the facts speak for themselves. The federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. Elimination of funding would have virtually no impact on the nation’s debt. Yet the loss to the American public would be devastating.”

Kerger’s “one one-hundredth of one percent” assertion equals approximately $2.00 per person. But how would the loss of PBS to the American public be devastating, as she says?

But let’s get back to education. The studies referenced above, in regard to the benefit of educational programming, have shown it helps younger viewers learn about numbers and letters, preparing them for their introduction to formal education. For example, in 1995, a study that focused on low-income areas around Kansas City who viewed educational programming, like “Sesame Street”, found that weren’t only those viewers better prepared to enter kindergarten, but that they outperformed peers who hadn’t watched educational programming on verbal and math tests through age 7.

“This study shows that terrific television causes kids to be more receptive to learning, more receptive to reading, more receptive in school,” said Peggy Charren, founder of the now-inactive advocacy group Action for Children’s Television and now a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s School of Education, who has read the new study.

While I have focused on the benefits of educational programming, it would be intellectually dishonest of me to not also present information from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) relating to the use of visual media and its effect on the developing mind. Cited in ‘The Effects of Electronic Media on Children Ages Zero to Six: A History of Research’, prepared for the Kaiser Family Foundation, experts strongly discourage the use of ‘screen media’ on any child from zero to age 2. They recommend also that children over two should be very limited on their exposure to screen media. Excessive exposure, they contend, can lead to obesity, aggressive behavior and other assorted health risks. Despite their findings, researchers believe most parents are unaware of these risks and continue to present screen media to their young children who are still in a critical stage of their neural development.

Image Credit: PBS / Sesame Workshop

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