Monthly Archives: August 2019

Kids can learn as much from ‘Sesame Street’ as from preschool: Study

Most people born since the mid-1960s have a favorite “Sesame Street” skit.


Jennifer Kotler Clarke watched hers on a black-and-white television set in her family’s Bronx apartment. There were two aliens: One of them had long arms that didn’t move, while the other had short, moving arms. The aliens wished to eat apples from a tree, and they succeeded, after a couple of minutes, by working together. “Let’s call this cooperation,” one of them says. “No,” the other replies, “let’s call it Shirley.”

Clarke grew up to be the show’s vice president for research and evaluation, and she has long believed that the program’s laughs and lessons stick with children. Now, landmark academic research appears to back her up.

The most authoritative study ever done on the impact of “Sesame Street,” to be released Monday, finds that the famous show on public TV has delivered lasting educational benefits to millions of American children — benefits as powerful as the ones children get from going to preschool.

The paper from the University of Maryland’s Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College’s Phillip Levine finds that the show has left children more likely to stay at the appropriate grade level for their age, an effect that is particularly pronounced among boys, African Americans and children who grow up in disadvantaged areas.


Jennifer Kotler Clarke, VP of research and evaluation at Sesame Workshop, breaks down the Biscotti Kid scene starring Cookie Monster, explaining what this skit teaches kids. (By Lee Powell/ The Washington Post)


After “Sesame Street” was introduced, children living in places where its broadcast could be more readily received saw a 14 percent drop in their likelihood of being behind in school. Levine and Kearney note in their paper that a wide body of previous research has found that Head Start, the pre-kindergarten program for low-income Americans, delivers a similar benefit.

The researchers also say those effects probably come from “Sesame Street’s” focus on presenting viewers with an academic curriculum, heavy on reading and math, that would appear to have helped prepare children for school.

While it might seem implausible that a TV show could have such effects, the results build on Nixon-era government studies that found big short-term benefits in watching the show, along with years of focus-group studies by the team of academic researchers who help write “Sesame Street” scripts. Several outside researchers have reviewed the study, and none are known to have questioned its results.

The new findings offer comforting news for parents who put their children in front of public TV every day and/or memorized entire Elmo DVDs, unwittingly.

They also raise a provocative question, at a time when many lawmakers are pushing to expand spending on early-childhood education: Do kids need preschool if a TV show works just as well?

Yes, say the economists — and the “Sesame Street” educational team. Head Start, Kearney and Levine write, was designed to provide more than an academic boost: It delivers family support, medical and dental services, and development of emotional skills that help kids in social settings.

Levine and Kearney see the study as a clear lesson in the value of a (very cheap) mass-media complement to preschool. The potentially controversial implication they embrace from the study isn’t about early-childhood education. It’s about college, and the trend toward low-cost massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

“Sesame Street,” Levine and Kearney write, was the original MOOC. “If we can do this with ‘Sesame Street’ on television, we can potentially do this with all sorts of electronic communications,” Kearney said in an interview. “It’s encouraging because it means we might be able to make real progress in ways that are affordable and scalable.”

The research can’t say whether the show continues to deliver such high benefits to children, said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, who has read drafts of the paper and given feedback to the authors.

But, she said, it clearly shows “the importance of childhood education, which is really having its moment right now.”

“Sesame Street” debuted in 1969 with a diverse cast of humans and brightly colored fuzzy Muppets, including Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, and, of course, Big Bird. It was the country’s first explicitly educational children’s program, and it was an immediate hit: In the early 1970s, one-third of all American toddlers watched it.

That’s a Super Bowl-level audience share. But it’s even more striking because another third of the nation’s toddlers couldn’t have watched the show if they wanted to — they didn’t have the right antenna to tune in to their local public television station.

This was well before the popularization of cable. TV broadcasts arrived over the air, on two different kinds of signals. The higher-quality signal was known as VHF, or Channels 1 to 13 on a standard TV set. The lower-quality signal was called UHF, and many households at that time were unable to tune it in. By a quirk of federal licensing, the public broadcasting channels in many major cities, including New York and Boston, aired on VHF channels, while others, including Los Angeles and Washington, aired on UHF.

From the start, the program rooted its scripts in an academic curriculum designed to help children — particularly low-income urban kids — prepare for school.

As a result, about two-thirds of the nation’s households were able to watch “Sesame Street.” The other third weren’t.

Levine read about that divide in early 2014. He realized it was the sort of rare natural experiment that economists live for — two groups of people, divvied up by fate and the Federal Communications Commission, who could be compared over time to see whether there was a difference in their educational outcomes.

“It’s econometrically phenomenal,” he said, “because it’s essentially random, who had UHF and who had VHF.”

Levine and Kearney pinpointed which cities had high or low levels of access to the show. Then they used census data to track children from those cities throughout school, to see whether they were staying at grade level. They couldn’t study individual people, or even determine whether people in particular areas watched the show. But they found a large and statistically meaningful effect on the educational progress of children who, because of where they lived, were much more likely to be able to watch. (The effect appears to fade out before high school graduation, they also found.)

From the start, the program rooted its scripts in an academic curriculum designed to help children — particularly low-income urban kids — prepare for school.

At first the writers focused on basics: letters, numbers, cooperation. Over the decades they expanded to incorporate research on what children needed to succeed in the classroom and in life. “We’re constantly changing the show, for good reasons,” said Rosemarie Truglio, the senior vice president of global educational content at Sesame Workshop.

“Storytelling is critical,” Clarke said. “If you organize information in storytelling, children are more likely to learn it. And adults are, too.”

When writers wanted to emphasize science learning, Truglio said in an interview in “Sesame Street” offices just off Central Park in Manhattan, they turned Super Grover into a one-Muppet embodiment of the scientific method.

When they realized that media-soaked children needed more help paying attention and controlling impulses, they decided to make an example out of Cookie Monster — the character who cannot resist sweets.

“As an educator, I was a little worried about that,” Truglio said. “Because he was going to fail, a lot.” Then she realized that was the point: Children needed to see someone struggle with the attention issues they struggle with, and try multiple techniques to overcome them. In one recent skit, modeled on the “Karate Kid” movies, Cookie Monster needs three tries to learn a special move from his sensei, but he finally masters listening with his whole body and, as a reward, he earns a cookie belt.

Which he eats.

“Sesame Street” researchers aggressively test their shows via focus groups to see what works. Their success, they said, rests on a simple formula that wraps education in entertainment, harnessing the power of human narrative. They said the approach could easily extend to college students — to MOOCs — as well as preschoolers.

“Storytelling is critical,” Clarke said. “If you organize information in storytelling, children are more likely to learn it. And adults are, too.”

Like Clarke, Kearney grew up loving “Sesame Street.” (Levine, her co-author, was of school age when the show hit the air.) Kearney remembers running through her house with her sisters, singing a Big Bird song about the alphabet. Her favorite character was the Count — the one who most resembled an economist.

© The Washington Post 2015


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Clarke confident Aussies will finish job

Australia can square the ledger on a patchy travelling Test record under captain Michael Clarke by finishing off their series against the West Indies with a win.


Australia smashed the Windies inside three days in last week’s opening Test to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy.

That result would lead many to believe a similar crushing victory in the second Test at Jamaica’s Sabina Park starting on Thursday looms.

But Clarke isn’t having a bar of it, desperate as he is to turn around his team’s poor recent record on the road.

In the seven completed Test series Clarke has lead Australia in overseas, only three have ended in victory – against Sri Lanka in 2011, the Windies in 2012 and then South Africa in 2014.

The team’s record over those seven series was a middling six wins, 11 losses and five draws.

Two Test victories against the Windies will pump that ledger up to eight overseas wins under Clarke and four series won overall.

Not that the Australians are counting their chickens.

England were surprised by the Windies in the final Test of their recent three-Test series in the Caribbean, losing inside three-days to have to settle for a 1-1 result.

Clarke says he’s made it crystal clear to his team nothing less than a series win from this abbreviated stop in the Caribbean will do.

“I spoke to the boys a little bit after the first Test, just saying how pleased I was with their attitude with regards to training and preparation,” Clarke said.

“We saw the result of that in the first Test … I’m sure the boys knew exactly what I was saying in regards to what my expectations were for this Test.

“That’s probably my indicator for this team is attitude. If I see blokes with the right attitude at training, then I’m really confident that we will continue to find a way to have success.

“We want to be the No.1 Test team in the world and to do that you’ve got to win home and away.”

Australia are largely expected to go with the same XI for the Kingston Test after opener Chris Rogers was ruled out by team doctor Peter Brukner on Tuesday.

Rogers missed the first Test due to concussion and Brukner says while the 37-year-old’s condition has improved, it’s not good enough to get him back playing.

Australia had their first look at the Kingston pitch on Tuesday, though it’s unlikely the green-tinged grassy wicket will retain that look come match day.

Clarke says both Australia’s bowlers and batsmen were rusty for periods in the first Test despite their crushing win.

In a warning for the Windies, he says they’ll be better for what was the first red-ball hit out in months for many of the players.

“We spoke a little bit about that and we know that we have to have more discipline with our shot selection in Test match cricket,” he said.

“You’ll see us come out and play him better in the second Test match.”

AUSTRALIA v WEST INDIES – Test head-to-head record

Overall: Australia 55, West Indies 32, tied one, drawn 24

In West Indies: Australia 20, West Indies 14, drawn 15

In Jamaica: Australia 4, West Indies 3, drawn 3

Last time: Australia def West Indies by 95 runs at Sabina Park, Jamaica in May 2008

* Australia have won 10 of the past 13 Tests against the West Indies at home or away

* West Indies’ last Test win over Australia was in May 2003

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Housing crisis leaves Indigenous Australians in ‘third world conditions’

It’s claimed the current model is piece-meal and inefficient with Indigenous Australians overrepresented in homelessness and over-crowding.


One family in Cummeragunja southern New South Wales is now living in a condemned residence, claiming they have no alternative.

For more than a year sisters Thelma and Shirly Nicholson have lived in Cummeragunga near Echuca on the Victoria New South Wales border.

Along with their much-loved dogs they share a de-commissioned home which is listed for demolition.

Officially their occupation of the home is illegal as they’re technically squatting, they told SBS.

The local Lands Council has asked them to move but they said they have nowhere to go if they leave.

“You can’t get rid of me, this is my God given land here”, said Thelma Nicholson. “This is my mother’s country, belong here like everyone else that’s Yorta Yorta.”

The condemned home has no power or running water but 50-year-old Thelma syphons water from the nearby River Murray for their needs.

“We make sure we really, really, really flush our toilet so it doesn’t back up and we back drinking maggots again.”

Her sister Shirley suffers from Lupus, a condition causing fatigue swollen joints and skin lesions and the 48-year-old says she’s been hospitalised through poor sanitation.

“Spent a week in hospital because I didn’t realise we were drinking maggoty water for over seven months,” said Shirley.

As with many Aboriginal communities across regional New South Wales there’s a waiting list for accommodation here at Cummeragunga.

For de-commissioned properties like the Nicholson’s home the plan is to refurbish, or demolish and re-build. But funding is a problem, said Geraldine Atkinson from the Cumeragunja Aboriginal Lands Council.

“The process is so slow. A matter of 12 months we’ve been waiting to get upgrades on the houses that are there,” she said.

Aboriginal people comprise 28 per cent of homeless Australians, but three per cent of the overall population.

They’re also three times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation.

Kirstie Parker the co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said there needs to be a community controlled oversight body to consider the relevant issues.

“We don’t have anything that’s quite comprehensive that looks at all of the issues that ensures where there’s overlap that that’s corrected and that we make the most efficient use of resources,” she said.

Darren Smith from Aboriginal Housing Victoria said the distribution of federal funding is disproportionate and this exacerbates the housing problem.

“Putting resources into remote communities and stepping away from their responsibilities to Aboriginal people in urban and regional communities,” he said.

Shirley Nicholson said there was gap between the public’s perception of Indigenous housing and the harsh reality she and her sister faced.

“They’d be shocked – they think we live like millionaires down here – they think we [are] flash blacks – we not flash. I wish we were,” she said.


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‘It’s hard to pay a mortgage even as a minister’: Abbott

A day after Treasurer Joe Hockey said Sydney housing is affordable and advised potential first home buyers to get “a good job that pays good money”, the prime minister admitted even senior MPs find it tough.


And Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens on Wednesday said parts of Sydney’s housing market are “crazy” and “acutely concerning”.

Mr Stevens’ comments came as HSBC research found Australian home prices have risen 24 per cent in the past three years, with Sydney jumping by 39 per cent.

“Yes, I am concerned about Sydney. I think some of what’s happening is crazy,” he told a business lunch on Wednesday.

But, while reflecting it was hard to get into the housing market, especially in his home city of Sydney, the prime minister defended his treasurer on Wednesday.

“Even as a cabinet minister sometimes it’s hard to pay a Sydney mortgage, and I know over the years I’ve earnt a lot more than the average person,” Mr Abbott told reporters in western Sydney, noting his home was still being paid off.

Cabinet ministers are paid about $340,000 a year, while the prime ministerial pay packet is more than $500,000 annually. 

Mr Abbott disagreed with suggestions Mr Hockey had made another gaffe in his advice to first home buyers.

Mr Hockey’s “outstandingly” good budget had been the best possible thing he could have done for home buyers because it had lifted confidence, the prime minister told reporters in western Sydney on Wednesday.

Families under housing stress: Morrison

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, who also hails from Sydney, said financial stress was a serious issue.

While renters were paying on average about 25 per cent of their disposable income on accommodation, those paying mortgages were forking out about 31.5 per cent, he said.

“Once you get above 30 per cent, there is a bit of stress related to that.”

Defending himself on Wednesday, Mr Hockey said he understood the depth of feeling over his comment.

“Let’s not play the man, let’s actually deal with the policy,” the treasurer told ABC radio.

“That’s why we are working so hard … to build the jobs, to build the opportunities for people to get ahead.”

Mr Hockey said he “totally understood” that for a lot of Australians housing was very expensive.

‘Brain snap’

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten labelled Mr Hockey’s comments a “brain snap”.

“Every time Joe Hockey opens his mouth, we get an explanation of how out of touch the government is,” he told reporters in Hobart.

Mr Shorten said part of the problem lay with improving the supply of land and the availability of new housing construction.

Discussion was also needed on the demand side, he said.

Parliamentary secretary to the treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer says the nation is under-supplied by about 200,000 homes a year.

Labor’s finance spokesman Tony Burke said the treasurer was having “crazy rants” day after day without any factual basis.

He also said there were many policy levers that could help improve affordability because housing prices were influenced by demand as well as supply.

The opposition is open to including changes to negative gearing in any discussion.

“We’ve ruled out anything that would be retrospective and flatly ruled out anything that would have a negative impact on supply,” Mr Burke said.

Liberal MP backs Hockey’s housing advice

Liberal MP Craig Laundy has come out to back the treasurer over his widely criticised advice to first home buyers.

“He was saying that if you have a job and that job is secure and that job is well paid, a bank will lend you money and interest rates are as low historically as they have been,” Mr Laundy, whose electorate covers parts of western Sydney, told ABC radio on Wednesday.

Mr Laundy later said Mr Hockey’s job was not on the line after his comments.

“Pulling a sentence out of a paragraph I don’t think, in this 24-hour, this gotcha media cycle, is fair,” he told ABC radio.

The backbench MP claimed the federal government was being asked to provide a “silver bullet” to fix housing affordability, but there isn’t one.

Parliamentary secretary to the treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer says the nation is under-supplied by about 200,000 homes a year.

“We know that this is a very real issue for so many families … but the states need to get on board, release more land so more people can afford to own their own home,” she said.


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Serbia sets extradition request deadline for arrested Australian

SBS first reported Bogdan Cuic had been arrested in the Serbian city of Novi Sad on June 5 and was being held in detention.


He is accused of murdering 22-year-old Jei “Jack” Lee, who was shot at point blank range in a Brisbane shopping centre car park in April 2012.

“Now in 18 days, Australia as a state which requests [extradition] must send extradition papers or in the same time period must seek an extension for the sending of the request for extradition,” Serbian High Court spokesperson Ivana Karapandzic said. 

“This extension period can be a maximum of 40 days from the date of [Cuic’s] detention.”

For now, the Bandidos bikie has reportedly refused legal assistance from the Australian consulate.

It’s not known whether Mr Cuic is a dual Australian-Serbian citizen, which means he could potentially be prosecuted in Serbia instead of being extradited to Australia.

Australia has no formal extradition treaty with the Balkan state, although legal arrangements do exist between the two countries that could allow for Mr Cuic’s surrender.

“The high court in Novi Sad will decide about assumptions for extradition, but the final decision about whether [Cuic] would be extradited or not will be decided by the Minister for Justice,” Karapandzic said.

According to media reports Mr Cuic, who lived with his grandparents in Brisbane’s western suburbs, fled overseas the day after Mr Lee’s death. His car was reportedly found abandoned near a river.

Mr Cuic was arrested in Novi Sad while trying to take out money from a bank machine, after evading Australian Federal and international police in neighbouring Montenegro.


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