Narrowing the gaps?

In October 1966, at the invitation of Lloyd Morrisett, Joan Ganz Cooney produced her first report for the Carnegie Corporation, entitled ‘The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education’. It included the outcomes of her general scoping of the field of preschool education, as well as an ambitious proposal for a new television series. Afterwards, Cooney went back to work at WNET, but in 1967, as interest in the report began to grow, she was again bought out of her full-time job by Carnegie to produce a second report, ‘Television for Preschool Children: A Proposal’, jointly authored with Linda Gottlieb, a freelance writer: this report included a shortened version of the first, alongside more specific plans that effectively became the blueprint for Sesame Street. Both reports made much of the need to close the gap between ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘middle-class’ children; and both asserted that disadvantaged children would be a ‘primary concern’ and a ‘crucial target’ for any funded initiative. The imperative need to reach such children – those ‘whose intellectual and cultural preparation might otherwise be less than adequate’, as Cooney put it – would require considerable efforts directed specifically at ‘ghetto cities’ or ‘poverty areas’.[i]

In March 1968, representatives of its three major funders – Alan Pifer, the President of the Carnegie Corporation, Harold Howe, the Federal Commissioner of Education, and McGeorge Bundy, the President of the Ford Foundation – held a press conference to announce the formation of the Children’s Television Workshop. Their press release included a joint statement identifying the Workshop’s key aims:

Greater efforts to help close the gap between disadvantaged and middle-class children are urgently needed, but right now public school resources – funds and classroom space – are not nearly adequate. The Children’s Television Workshop could provide one immediate and practical answer, although by no means a final or total one.[ii]

Appended to the press release were excerpts from Cooney’s original study, referring to ‘the urgent problems of disadvantaged children’ and the need to create ‘a more intellectually oriented preschool program’ for inner-city children – although they also claimed that such a program would address all children, not merely the disadvantaged.

About eighteen months later, a series of reports written by CTW staff for the Carnegie Corporation emphasized the ‘experimental’ nature of Sesame Street, but reiterated these basic aims. Cooney’s report ‘The First Year of Sesame Street: A History and Overview’ (December 1970) identified ‘disadvantaged children of the inner city’ as ‘a priority target’. It suggested that, in the years preceding the launch, ‘educators and psychologists were beginning to believe that the achievement gap between disadvantaged and middle-class children could best be reduced by injecting intellectual stimulation into the early years of the disadvantaged’.[iii]

The following year, CTW published a glossy brochure entitled ‘Memo from the Children’s Television Workshop’ restating these central aims. Again, the programme was described as an ‘experiment’, in which ‘we concentrated on reaching the disadvantaged children, the ones of our inner-city neighborhoods, the ones who need Sesame Street the most’. CTW, it proclaimed, ‘does very much desire to serve as an early educator for children who otherwise would suffer the condition of no regular intellectual stimulation’. ‘For poor children,’ it went on, ‘television is most often their only continuing window on the world. They have far less access to stimulating toys and games, live in a far more limiting environment, and may know less regular and reassuring contact with parents’. Most of the images in the brochure show African-American children in urban settings; and one carries the caption (attributed to Cooney herself) ‘the intellectual achievement gap between the disadvantaged and middle-class child can be substantially narrowed if we begin teaching children early enough’ – an assertion that (the brochure claimed) had been borne out by the findings of independent research on Sesame Street conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).[iv]

These same basic points recur repeatedly, right across the material I have read and viewed about the early years of Sesame Street. They are there in contemporary documents – in proposals, grant reports, internal memos and press stories. They are there in somewhat later documents from the early 1970s, such as Loretta Long’s PhD thesis, the interviews with CTW staff conducted by Richard Polsky for his own PhD, and summaries of the research on the programme’s effectiveness.[v] They are apparent in descriptions of the work of CTW’s ‘Utilization Department’, and in CTW’s other publicity strategies, which specifically targeted disadvantaged communities. And they are there in much later recollections of the period, including those of Cooney and Morrisett.[vi]

There are certainly differences of emphasis here. Some of the quotations above might appear to reflect the ‘deficit model’ I have discussed, although they tend to talk around it: there is little recognition of what some contemporary researchers would call the ‘funds of knowledge’ that black children bring from home into the school. Some of these sources appear to place responsibility for the situation on disadvantaged families themselves, although most of them see the problem in wider social terms. Yet few identify the possibility that the cause of the underachievement of black children may lie with the racism of the school system itself. Interestingly, it’s only in Loretta Long’s PhD thesis that this issue is considered in any detail: she even argues (optimistically) that Sesame Street might serve as a kind of antidote to the ‘educational racism’ that such children will go on to encounter in school.[vii] All these arguments reflect a wider debate about the nature and the causes of ‘deprivation’, and the underachievement of minority children in particular, that was emerging in the mid-1960s, and became significantly more intense in the following decade. Fifty years on, the debate continues – which is partly why the case of Sesame Street continues to be relevant today.[viii]

To propose that Sesame Street was aiming to bridge or narrow the gap between disadvantaged and middle-class children might well seem to be re-stating the blindingly obvious. Yet, as we shall see, this aim became controversial, not least in light of research that seemed to show that it was not succeeding. Looking more closely, what we find is a rather more fuzzy and inconsistent set of aims. In most cases, the formulation was ‘both/and’. Sesame Street, its proponents argued, was aiming to teach preschool children in general, but particularly those who were variously identified as poor, disadvantaged, needy, ‘inner-city’ kids – as distinct from others who were mostly described as ‘middle-class’. (Notably, ‘race’ is generally absent in these formulations, although it is sometimes obvious in some of the images that accompany them.) It was only when the potential conflict between these aims became more problematic, that there were attempts to disclaim the idea that ‘narrowing the gap’ was something Sesame Street had ever attempted in the first place.


Refining the goals

Anybody who has ever sought public or charitable funding (including academic researchers) will understand that there is inevitably a difference between rhetoric and reality. Cooney and her supporters had a product (or at least a promise) to sell. If they wanted to get it off the ground, they would need to make some big claims, or at least hint at them. They had to identify a problem that seemed urgent enough for their funders to prioritise; and they had to imply that they could at least go some way towards solving it.

Some historical accounts[ix] have suggested that Cooney’s original proposals were rewritten at the behest of the Ford Foundation and the Office of Education in order to emphasise this focus on disadvantaged children. I doubt this. There’s no question that both Ford and the OE were seeking ways of addressing the issue of black underachievement, although this focus was evident right from the start in Cooney’s first report. In fact, it seems that some in the Office of Education were somewhat sceptical about this: Louis Hausman, a former broadcaster who was then a key adviser to ‘Doc’ Howe, seems to have argued against targeting disadvantaged children ‘too heavily’, both because they would find it ‘demeaning’ and ‘patronising’, and also because ‘you would lose the middle-class whites’.[x]

What is clear is that, once the initial funding was secured, the educational goals of the programme became steadily reduced; and this was also reflected in the way it was evaluated. As with many similar projects, this was probably bound to happen; and to some extent it made sense in light of what was possible, and in relation to the wider funding environment. Sesame Street was never going to solve all the problems its advocates identified. However, this narrowing of its goals was also a result of the coming together of four key imperatives and assumptions.

Firstly, as I’ve noted, the educational theory that drove Sesame Street – again, clearly identified in Cooney’s original scoping study – was known as ‘cognitivism’[xi]: the emphasis here was on the repeated practice of particular mental skills. In fact, other aims (and implicit theories) were invoked as well: in the initial seminars that defined the programme’s curriculum, there was extensive discussion of the social and emotional aspects of learning, for example – although these too were often defined in terms of ‘skills’. As these open-ended discussions fed into the plans for the programme’s first season, however, the ‘cognitive’ focus was emphasized, at the expense of these other elements. Goals that were deemed to be best suited both to television itself and to the programme’s target audience were amplified, while a great many others were effectively dropped.[xii]

This emphasis was reinforced, secondly, by the imperative for testing – which, given the public and charitable funding, was a requirement that could not be avoided. CTW had to prove that the money was being spent wisely and with good effect. And yet it was bound to accept that there was little point in testing things that could not meaningfully be tested. As Cooney later put it, ‘we had to choose things that could be measured’.[xiii] Here again, the focus contracted accordingly, to the mastery of rudimentary ‘cognitive’ skills – letter and number recognition, simple perception and classification, basic reasoning, and so on – as defined in the form of specific behavioural objectives. Areas of ‘social and moral development’ and ‘affective, emotional development’ that were major aspects of the official curriculum aims were left aside; and the idea that Sesame Street might raise the ‘self-esteem’ of disadvantaged children, or improve ‘racial tolerance’, that were key aspects of the rhetoric surrounding the show, never featured in the evaluation. (I’ll come on to this in more detail shortly.)

This narrowing of goals was further reinforced by a third factor: a set of beliefs or assumptions about television as a medium. Obviously, Sesame Street would achieve nothing if it failed to attract viewers. Although there was some discussion with commercial networks at an early stage, it was obvious that the programme was only ever likely to be screened on public TV channels; and the disadvantaged families that were its ‘crucial target’ rarely watched such channels. Sesame Street had to compete with entertainment programmes – including the cartoons and advertisements that (in the ‘vast wasteland’) tended to dominate children’s viewing. To some extent, this meant that it was required to copy the methods of such programmes. Thus, while Cooney’s initial reports suggested using a wide range of film and television formats – including some that were quite experimental, and a long way from mainstream children’s entertainment – the focus steadily reduced.

Finally, this also coincided with a set of ideas about what television as a medium was best suited to do in educational terms. Television was good at selling things, and there was no reason why it couldn’t be good at ‘selling’ letters and numbers; it was a medium for putting across simple, straightforward messages, rather than encouraging independent enquiry or critical thinking. It was not, producers argued, an ‘interactive’ medium; and as such, it was ill-suited to addressing emotions.[xiv] It was in the area of ‘cognitive skills’ that television’s distinctive contribution could be made, or so it was argued: as Robert Davidson, CTW Assistant Director, put it, ‘work in the cognitive area would be something that we could accomplish better using television’.[xv]

These three sets of assumptions came together with a fourth, which was to do with the programme’s target audience. As we’ve seen, research had found that disadvantaged children were one or two years ‘behind’ white middle-class children on arriving at school – although the nature of this gap, and the reasons for it, were controversial. What these children needed in particular, it was argued, were the forms of ‘cognitive’ instruction and stimulation that were seen to be lacking in their home environment. Again, as Davidson put it, the curriculum was ‘consciously compensatory for disadvantaged children’: ‘it was in the area of cognitive skills that children who had little enrichment at home, whose parents may not speak to them very much, certainly not in an educational way, it was in that area that they tended to be particularly deprived’. As this implies, the deficit or disadvantage that Sesame Street was intending to address was being defined in quite specific ways – and in ways that television seemed uniquely able to address.

As this implies, there was a level of coincidence and mutual reinforcement across these four areas – although the crucial point is that none of them should be regarded as inevitable. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s interesting to compare CTW’s formulation of these issues with those of the BBC during the same period, which resulted in a very different ‘recipe’ for preschool television, and for education.[xvi] However, this is not to say that there were not also tensions between these different areas. All of CTW’s key production staff came from commercial television; and as the early seminars showed, they did not share much of a common language with academic researchers or educationalists. There were also tensions and debates within each of these areas – and even at this time, certain shared assumptions (for example, about ‘deficits’ or indeed about ‘race’) could not be spoken directly, for fear of appearing politically incorrect. This resulted in a certain strategic vagueness on key aims, even while the programme’s curriculum objectives were being tightly nailed down. As we’ll see, this became crucial once it was necessary to evaluate its success.


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[i] Both reports were consulted in UM/CTW archives, box 1.

[ii] UM/CTW archive, box 1: 4.

[iii] Columbia Carnegie archive, series IIIB: grant reports.

[iv] UM/CTW archive, box 1.

[v] Long’s PhD is online (see reference list); Polsky’s was published as Getting to Sesame Street, and his interviews are in the Columbia Oral History Archive.

[vi] See, for example, the interviews with Cooney and Morrisett for the TV Academy, 1998 and 2004 respectively; the other video sources from the Paley Center archives; and the quotations in Michael Davis’s Street Gang (which include some from Jon Stone’s unpublished memoir).

[vii] This issue is also implicit in John Holt’s criticisms, although it’s not defined there in terms of ‘race’.

[viii] Of course, the terms of that debate have changed, but the issues are still with us. In the UK, this is evident in academic books like David Gillborn’s Racism and Education (London, Routledge, 2008), as well as in more popular accounts, such as Akala’s thoughtful Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (London, Two Roads, 2018).

[ix] For instance Morrow and Davis.

[x] Columbia Oral History archive, Polsky’s interview with Hausman.

[xi] ‘Cognitivism’, as I understand it, is something much broader than the largely behaviourist approach taken from Bereiter and Engelmann, for example – hence my use of inverted commas.

[xii] This narrowing of goals is particularly evident in Polsky’s account, Getting to Sesame Street; and in the grant reports to Carnegie at the end of the programme’s first year (Columbia Carnegie archive, series IIIB, box 33).

[xiii] Interview with John Callaway, Paley Center archive B11803.

[xiv] See Polsky, especially pages 68-76.

[xv] Interview with Polsky, Columbia Oral History archive.

[xvi] See my essay ‘Watching with (and without) mother’: link in references section.