Can Big Bird really close the achievement gap?

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Sam Chaltain

Don’t get me wrong: I love Big Bird as much as the next guy. But when people start talking about how Sesame Street is just as effective at closing the achievement gap as preschool, I start to worry that we’re becoming enamored with a seductively simple characterization of a deeply complex problem.

To wit: this article, in which we are told the “new findings offer comforting news for parents who put their children in front of public TV every day.” Or this radio story, in which the reporter claims that the show’s heavy dosage of reading and math can yield long-term academic benefits that “close the achievement gap.”

The lure of a set of findings like this is pretty clear: plug your kids into an educational TV show, help them learn their letters and numbers, and voila! No more class inequality. And actually, when one considers how we measure the achievement gap — via the reading and math test scores of schoolchildren — the opportunity to draw a linear line of cause and effect is available to us.

The problem, of course, is that school is about a lot more than literacy and numeracy — and the problems that beset poor children run a lot deeper than the 30 million word gap.

Consider the research around ACE Scores — or the number of adverse childhood experiences young people have — and how much those scores shape a child’s readiness to learn and develop (you can take a short quiz to get your own score here).

Dr. Pamela Cantor has spent a lot of time thinking about ACE Scores. She founded Turnaround for Children to help schools become more attuned to the cognitive, social and emotional needs of kids, and she’s one of many out there who are urging us to understand what the latest research in child development is telling us about what we need to be doing in schools. As she puts it, “The profound impact of extreme stress on a child’s developing brain can have huge implications for the way children learn, the design of classrooms, the preparation of teachers and school leaders, and what is measured as part of the school improvement effort as a whole.”

Consequently, whereas reduced exposure to the building blocks of reading and math is a problem (and one that Sesame Street can clearly help address), the biggest problem for at-risk children — the root cause — has to do with their social and emotional health.

The good news is that although these deficits are profound, they are also predictable, since they stem directly from the effects that stress and trauma have on young people’s brains and bodies. “These stresses impact the development of the brain centers involved in learning,” Cantor explains. “It is because these challenges are knowable and predictable that it is possible to design an intervention to address them. Collectively, they represent a pattern of risk—risk to student development, risk to classroom instruction, and risk to school-wide culture—each of which is capable of derailing academic achievement.”

That means the best way to help poor and at-risk children become prepared for school is by ensuring that high-poverty schools have universal practices and supports that specifically address the impact of adverse childhood experiences. So while I love and appreciate the benefits of Sesame Street, I’d feel better if instead of suggesting that every child needs more time with Grover in the morning, we suggested that every child’s ACE Score needs more weight in determining how schools allocate resources to support their students’ holistic development.

I hope that doesn’t make me seem like Oscar the Grouch.

This post originally appeared on Sam Chaltain’s personal blog, and was republished with permission.

Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.


Sam Chaltain (@samchaltain) is a DC-based writer, filmmaker, and strategic communications consultant. His work focuses on the changing nature of teaching and learning in America, and on how individuals and organizations can find and tell stories that capture the emotional center of an idea; build and sustain an audience of supporters over time (as opposed to merely generating awareness); and leverage both traditional and new media in order to expand an ideological base of support.

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