Grantmakers for Education Remarks

by Gary E. Knell
November 5, 2010

The following remarks were delivered by Sesame Workshop CEO Gary E. Knell at the Grantmakers for Education annual conference last week.

The end of World War II was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history – it was the first time in 150 years that the government made a serious investment in public education. And it was the beginning of a long-term demographic shift of historic proportions.  Soldiers returning from war were given opportunities to a higher education long considered only attainable by the wealthy classes.  Women who served their country during the war in factories, on the ball field, in schools, and in the military returned home to their families.

Along came the 1960’s which brought turbulence and change. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson launched a war on poverty and mobilized a generation committed to change.  Yet the social movements of that era in women’s roles, in civil rights, and in experimental educational practices; were not able to address a glaring gap –the gulf between a more affluent class of families who benefited from a booming economy and those whose low income or other disadvantages led their children on a path to meager outcomes.   When Head Start and Sesame Street debuted over 40 years ago, they were aligned at the hip – they both shared an outlook focused on transforming vulnerable children and their families’ lives through education – and around a 360° approach promoting physical health, emotional development and cognitive learning focused on displayable skills.

From this perch, the stage was set for Sesame Street over 40 years ago.  The founders, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, asked a question, “can television teach kids their ABCs in the same way it was introducing advertising jingles for cereal?”  This challenge to educators – and television producers, directors and writers ignited an idea. And this idea became the longest running children’s show in the world, now reaching well over 100 million children in over 140 countries.

Yes, we have focused on letters and numbers – but most recently also childhood obesity, military deployment and food insecurity.

Internationally, girls education in Egypt, HIV infection in four year olds in South Africa, mutual respect and understanding in Kosovo and Northern Ireland – even Israelis and Palestinians.

And it’s not just about television anymore.  Media are so ubiquitous that children are literally wearing devices as part of their clothing, and are “always connected.”  More viewers are watching Sesame Street on other platforms like iPods and the internet than on television these days.  There are “ebooks” to read online and games to teach literacy and health.  Podcasts and iPhone apps provide on the go/anytime entertainment and learning.

The media landscape for kids is much different from when we first started.  According to research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, on a typical day, the average elementary student is using personal media more time than they are spending in school.  Or doing anything else other than sleeping, frankly.  And mobile media is where it’s at – globally, 5 billion cell phones – media on my time, where I want it – portable, and on demand.

Where is the education landscape?  Since Sesame Street started, our nation’s population has nearly doubled – our classes and schools are stretched.   In 1983, a Nation at Risk declared that a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened the US’ competitive position.  27 years later, that prescription sadly has proven prophetic as indicators show that low-income children entering school now are trailing behind – knowing one-third fewer words than their privileged peers. More than one-half of low-income and minority 4th graders score below basic levels on reading exams.  One-half of inner city high school students today won’t graduate at all.  And, as Secretary Duncan says, you can’t get a good job with just a high school diploma!

We have fallen from first in college graduation rates globally to near the bottom of the top 10 in less than two decades.  Thousands of US jobs go unfilled because students aren’t entering the workforce with the technical skills they need to fill them. And the political landscape is in gridlock – stuck between arguments over merit pay and teacher contracts – when Wall Street bonuses boggle the imagination – and a skeptical public justifiably questions the continuation of investment in districts with disappointing outcomes year after year.

Everyone at this meeting shares the belief that education has to be on top of the national agenda, if we want to make America competitive and fit for the country.  The stakes could not be higher.  But let’s be frank—we can’t do things the same way if we are going to turn things around.  What can we do next to break a bad cycle?

The Sesame Street experience offers insights worth considering.  What keeps Sesame Street successful is continuous experimentation.  We are constantly asking ourselves, what works?  What doesn’t?  What is the next “big idea” for reaching children with educational content wherever they are and with whatever it takes?

We know that children and media are indelibly linked, whether we like it or not. We know that educational media can be effective as a learning tool.  We also know that media alone cannot close the achievement gap.  But it can help – a lot.

Students’ natural attraction to technology reminds me of my grandmother’s excitement over the refrigerator.  As kids, we couldn’t understand her visceral joy because, after all, to us, it was ‘just an appliance.’ but she remembered life without that refrigerator.  We did not.  To a child today that cell phone, Blackberry or iPod is just an appliance.  They have never known life without technology.  And never will.

These “appliances” are having an increasingly important role.  You as Grantmakers are driving new ideas around charter schools, innovative assessment models, and the use of smart boards and iPads in classrooms.  There are schools like quest to learn in New York City that are using technology and gaming the same way conventional classrooms use textbooks, pencils and notebooks.  Or the School of One, also in New York City, or High Tech High in San Diego are personalizing instruction through technology enabled project-based learning. They are breaking the mold on how to assess and reward a competent learner.  These schools are generating enthusiasm and motivation in their students.  Technology is sparking that enthusiasm.

And younger kids – our digital natives – can benefit, too.

Digital learning, starting in the earliest years should not be viewed as a threat to parent-child bonding or to purposeful engagement.  If well deployed, and culturally astute, digital educational media can untap a well of innovation in learning, much as we did 40 years ago, that can lead to real change for kids.

Let’s re-point our compass onto five planes –

First, re-invent early education.  There are powerful economic arguments about investing in early education.  Jim Heckman and others have found that a $6700 investment in quality pre-k for at-risk children yields a $70,000 return on investment over the life of the child.  It improves outcomes for long-term educational achievement, home ownership and salary while reducing negative behaviors, like substance abuse and crime.

But are the early education models invented 40 years ago evolving at the pace we need to change children’s lives today?  Are the models using technology as a tool for discovery and intention?  Are the staff and the environments designed and developed for productivity and for personal attention?  Can overstressed parents – who are dealing with an economy that asks for more effort to make ends meet — effectively track and contribute to children’s progress?  Are the skills being taught internationally benchmarked?   The short answer: not yet.

This is why we are looking at the role Sesame Street can play in recharging early education.  Sesame Street is an educational brand that three generations of viewers are familiar with.  Believe it or not, we’ve produced over 4,000 hours of curriculum-based content that can be used to reinforce lessons of all kinds — from literacy, health, and socio-emotional skills to math and science skills – not just at home but now  – in the classroom.

We can help that preschool teacher in Dallas or New Orleans reinforce her lesson on geometric shapes with compelling video about Telly’s love for triangles.  Or help connect the home-school environment through mobile messages to parents about what their child is learning and how that learning can continue at home, in the car or at the neighborhood grocery store.  Today – Julio learned the letter C – “point out things that start with the letter C – C is for clock, C is for cat … cauliflower, cantaloupe” … or provide the individualized learning that a struggling child might need to help Julio build knowledge and confidence at his own pace.

Learning never stops – it is 24/7 and must encompass the whole child.  We have an opportunity to really build a system that looks holistically at education connecting the home and school to create a preschool for the 21st Century.

Second, the quality of the content matters.  We know kids are using media more and more everyday.  And while their media choices continue to expand, sometimes more is just more.

There is a real lack of quality, educational content available for elementary children, especially those in grades k-3. An analysis of nearly 300 interactive media products for preschool and elementary age children by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found only two products based on an explicit educational curriculum available on the market.  We need more.  And we need to know how this content is impacting children’s learning.

Without quality educational content, technology is essentially a neutral medium.  It is “dumb”. It is the content that gives way to learning.  It is the content that makes technology such a valuable partner for individualized learning both inside and outside the classroom.

Take The Electric Company.  We recently brought it back to provide a “360 degree” literacy experience for 6-9 year olds using television, the internet, mobile devices, video games, print materials, after-school programs and community events.  It was created to hit the crucial time in literacy when children transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

What we’ve found is that kids are showing significant literacy gains, especially when our content is embedded in a robust early learning intervention program for struggling readers.  Kids are learning from just one segment — image what an entire library of great content can do?  In fact, we are now creating a complete phonics genome collection – so teachers can illustrate each or all of the 126 phonemic rules of the English language – the silent e and the c-h sound — we have to tap into this potential.

Third, train teachers to use technology.  When I think about teachers today, I think about Jennifer Ward at Kilpatrick Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee, a school in the shadow of Titans Stadium in an African immigrant neighborhood.  In her class of low-income preschoolers, she uses a slide projector hooked up to a computer to show video clips that support her lessons. These short videos open her students up to a larger world.  They also open up possibilities for how she teaches her students.  And she is doing it with some success.  But think what she could achieve with cataloged lesson plans tied directly to digital content illustrations.

Of course, we can talk all day about how great technology is in the classroom – how it holds unlimited potential for learning — but if we don’t train and support our teachers it will be just another gimmick with low return.

Teachers, especially young teachers, are increasingly receptive to the possibilities media hold as a learning device.  In fact, three-quarters are already using some form of digital media in the classroom.

We expect these numbers to only rise as more graduates enter the classroom, out of colleges and teaching colleges, themselves digital natives.  Now we have to make sure that behind every teacher is a solid professional development program to maximize the arsenal of content they can now have at their disposal.

Fourth, we have to engage parents – children’s first teachers – in a much more thoroughly modern and systematic way. 

A few years ago, with the assistance of a research team at Wested Labs, we developed a pilot study in Oakland, California looking at how cell phones could be used to encourage children’s emergent literacy skills.  Parents who participated agreed to take a call from Sesame Street’s Maria introducing a new letter every day for a month.  After the call, they were asked to hand the cell phone to their child who would then see a short video message about that letter from Elmo.  At the conclusion of the study, 75% of lower-income parents said that this interaction really helped improve their child’s knowledge of the alphabet.  Just as importantly, parents felt connected to their child’s learning.  A crude test – but in one month using a cell phone – kids learned the alphabet in Oakland, California.

Finally, we must forge unpredictable alliances to innovate.   You know the African proverb (or maybe it was the Tea Party) that says, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”  In this revolution we will need to unite our own expertise to create a new style of learning for the 21st Century.  It will fuse unlikely partners to create content and resources that work inside and outside the classroom.  Simply put, the sum of the whole will be much larger than the individual parts so we must work together.

Everyone in this room is already working hard to tackle the challenges of education.  Literacy.  Early childhood.  Stem education.  High school dropout rates. Small schools. Big schools. You are all here in New Orleans because of that commitment to help build solutions.  You are the action leaders that can invest and convene allies from contrasting sectors to seed new ideas and scale proven ones.  And, by the way, promote and push and prod political leaders who are increasingly incapable of driving dramatic, structural changes.

Just as we faced at the end of WWII and at the declaration of the War on Poverty, we are at a crossroads in education in 2010.  We can shape the kind of transformational change we want to see in our education system, or maintain the status quo that is pushing our nation farther down the global economic ladder.

The message goes much farther than educating a child.  This is about educating a nation on how and why we must start education early, all the while igniting children’s passion and enthusiasm for learning through lessons that meet children on their own turf through the common bond of technology – teamed up with great teaching – and a new digital trend to the connected parent.

If I leave you with one thought today it is to not underestimate the power of technology in education and the vitality and sense of fervor it can bring when looking through the lens of 21st Century learning.  Technology can help build and create innovative linkages in education, employing new ways for how we prepare that low-income preschooler in Oakland to succeed in school, or help that teacher in Nashville challenge and motivate a clever, tech-savvy – yet struggling – 3rd grader reach reading proficiency, or inspire that high school student in Detroit so when he is handed that diploma, he is positive and motivated about his future.  And our nation is the better for it.

This is the kind of future we all want for our children.  There really is no room for failure at this level of the game – the stakes are just too high.  For how we move the education agenda forward today not only impacts the life of a child; it impacts the trajectory of a nation.  This is our legacy.  Thank you allowing me to be part of this discussion today.