Black schoolkids were falling behind after the Civil Rights Movement. 'Sesame Street' filled the gaps and changed public programming forever.
- Black literacy and education achievement rates were below the national average during the 1960s.
- To bolster Black schoolchildren's success, "Sesame Street" emerged to present diverse representation.
For decades, early childhood education was racially separated but glaringly unequal. While the 1950s and 60s were rife with extensive legal efforts for educational equality, classrooms were still producing a major gap in educational attainment— roughly 3/4ths of the Black American population did not have a high school diploma in 1965. Four years later, the Black illiteracy rate, although a stark drop from previous decades, was still 3.5 times higher than the national average.
Educators and academics recognized this gap was not going to be filled with traditional lesson plans. With televisions reaching nearly every household, there was a concerted effort to introduce a revolution in educational programming: "Sesame Street."
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated Head Start, the first publicly funded preschool program catered to low-income students. As a result, documentarian Joan Gatz Cooney published "The Potential Uses of Television for Preschool Education" in 1966, sparking the investment in the intersecting tactics of education and quickly-developing audiovisual technology. Partnering with experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett and the Children's Television Workshop, the duo set out to jumpstart the beginnings of public educational programming through "Sesame Street."
The show's curriculum was highly-vetted by academics, medical professionals, and experienced psychiatrists — most notably Dr. Chester Pierce, founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America. As a head consultant to "Sesame Street," Pierce emphasized the necessity to promote positive representations of African Americans to combat the microaggressions (a term coined by Pierce himself) present in popular media at that time. His intentions became known as the "hidden curriculum" behind the show: to bolster the confidence of children of color and portray an accurate representation of the multicultural world around them.
Depicting ornate brownstones, bustling city streets, and a diverse cast of characters, "Sesame Street" set out in its 1969 pilot to mimic, and effectively destigmatize, the Black child's urban upbringing.
Almost immediately critics recognized the "hidden curriculum" and worked to stifle the spread of the show. One year after the premiere, the Mississippi State Commission on Education voted to veto the showing of "Sesame Street" because it featured a "highly integrated cast of children" and "Mississippi was not ready for it."
In the decades that followed, the program maintained its commitment to children of color and diverse representation. Special guests included Black pioneers and leaders like Jesse Jackson, the Harlem Globetrotters, Whoopi Goldberg, Patti LaBelle, and Nina Simone. New cast members were introduced in the 1970s to represent shifting demographics in the country. More recently, characters and messaging have been added to feature children with disabilities and help children cope with the impacts of addiction, and global conflict.
Nearly 50 years later, the show's efficacy continues to be proven. One of the most extensive and longitudinal studies conducted on "Sesame Street" found "children who were preschool age in 1969 and who lived in areas with greater predicted "Sesame Street" coverage were statistically significantly more likely to be at the grade level appropriate for their age." The program has also proven to be especially beneficial for boys, Black children, and children living in predominantly low-income areas.
Its legacy as one of the longest-running television shows in history has undeniably sparked inspiration in countless other forms of childhood education. What began as an initial goal to ensure equal access to all children helped solidify the future and success of generations of children.
"We hoped to find a way," said "Sesame Street" co-creator Lloyd Morrisett, "using television, that we may help those children who would otherwise not succeed in school, do better." On January 23, Morrisett died at the age of 93.
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