In recent months, the idea of what school looks like has undergone an extreme makeover as students and teachers have been hastily moved into the new ‘zoom classroom.’ While for many this transformation has brought about new obstacles; it has also heightened deeply-embedded troubles that have been plaguing the nation’s school systems since the introduction of the technological age to the classroom.
Often referred to as the virtual achievement gap, this division between the haves and have-nots in education usually focuses on a child’s access to a stable internet connection at home for them to use to complete online homework. However, in the age of COVID-19, this gap now encompasses more than just a child’s ability to submit a few papers, it now restricts their access to the education they have been promised and deserve1.
The students caught up in the virtual achievement gap are no stranger to the inequalities in America’s school systems, they statistically come from low-income families, a sector of the population which have historically had challenges accessing quality and consistent forms of education2. While many believed in 2020 this distinction between the privileged and the disadvantaged in schools would have been smaller than was seen in decades past, new data on the inequalities of online education have forced this ugly truth of the realities of school life into the mainstream3. With this inequality proving to have lasting power, along with the ability to do permanent damage to those children, especially young children caught in its crosshairs, it is time to look to the past for inspiration as to what consistent, reliable, and valuable distance-learning can look like on a national scale.
As I had hinted to previously, the families who now find themselves in the online achievement gap are no stranger to education inequality, and in previous decades the way many in this field attempted to dwindle this gap, then referred to only as the achievement gap, was through the availability of early education programs. Such initiatives helped push young children in a direction of long-term academic success, with the hopes that graduation rates of the lowest-achieving groups would rise; bringing a child’s long-term quality of life up with it. Much as internet access is the key for today’s students to succeed, early childhood education seemed to hold the solution for the achievement gaps of its time. Yet, accessibility remained an issue, as it still is today, with many of the families most in need not having many options in terms of quality education programs in their neighborhoods. That is until a familiar name came into the fold of American popular culture: Sesame Street.
Combining concepts of early childhood education and commercial television, the creators of Sesame Street started their crusade to provide consistent and reliable education programming - the first of its kind - to students from all walks of life in an attempt to equalize the accessibility of education for students from all walks of life. Each week the characters, both humans and puppets, taught children lessons on letters, numbers, and emotional and social development, and the results were spectacular. Within the first year, Sesame Street had found its way into the homes of over five million children, ⅓ of all pre-k age children in the country4. This show provided both parents and students with an enriching, fun, and reliable avenue to turn to when seemingly all else had failed. Granted, the entertainment value of the show was not its most critical element, instead, it was that the show could reach 2/3rds of American homes through the use of public television5. What was so valuable about this exposure to children from all backgrounds is that no student was left behind. Regardless of if he or she came from a low-income inner-city family or a remote rural region, the student now had access to some of the finest education content for free; an end result many modern policymakers and teachers are reaching for in online education during COVID.
This new age of education accessibility made an impact, with the ‘Sesame Street effect’ being especially pronounced for male, African-American, and low-income students - three groups who have statistically had the lowest rates of school achievement along with the highest rates of school-based disciplinary issues. Watching Sesame Street was a strong indicator for these high-risk students to be on grade level in their following school years, and in a more long-term sense, these Sesame Street children had higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and higher wages in adulthood. All of these benefits with a cost of only $5 per child to air the show across the country6.
Jumping back to the present, the solutions to our current education inequalities are scattered at best, with each state, county, or even school taking a different approach (some taking none at all). While our politicians and school experts try to work with privatized internet companies and laptop distribution chains, while simultaneously trying to balance the safety and quality of education for students, I think taking a walk down Sesame Street could provide some surely needed inspiration. Our students today should not fall victim to the whims of whatever education authority rules their district, the solution for our internet inequality needs to be one of universality and quality. A solution needs to be backed by experts in the field of education (not partisan politicians), and it needs to be decided on quickly as many of our future generations have already lost valuable time they cannot get back in the classroom.
Sesame Street provided a consistent source of education regardless of if a child’s school district was red or blue, regardless of the color of the child’s skin, or the yearly income of their family - all things that cannot be said about the current state of our online education. The show proves that comprehensive out-of-classroom learning is possible, but it is up to us now to take the lessons we learned on Sesame Street and apply them to today’s version of education on a national scale. The question we should be asking ourselves now is how can we create Sesame Street for the modern student.
1. Reilley, Kate, “The Achievement Gap Is 'More Glaring Than Ever' for Students Dealing With School Closures,” Time Magazine, March 26, 2020, https://time.com/5810503/coronavirus-achievement-gap-schools/
2. Molland, Judy, “Falling into the Achievment Gap.” GreatSchools.org. December 5, 2015. https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/what-is-the-achievement-gap-and-its-affect-on-your-child/#:~:text=It's%20clear%20that%20the%20achievement,wealthier%20families%20continues%20to%20grow.
3. Soland, Jim, “The impact of COVID-19 on student achievement, and what is may mean for educators,” The Brookings Institute, May 27, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2020/05/27/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-student-achievement-and-what-it-may-mean-for-educators/
4. Kearney Melissa, Levine Phillip, “Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street,” National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2016, https://www.nber.org/papers/w21229
5. Kearney, Levine, “Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street,” September 2016.
6. Kearney, Levine, “Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street,” September 2016.