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Can Access To Educational Television Make A Difference In School Performance?

© 2016 The Fred Rogers Company

If you’re the parent of a child under 7, chances are, you know the theme song for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood by heart.

If you want to watch the show, you can stream it online at any time of day, but if you don’t have broadband Internet, you can also catch it over the air in the Valley, but just in mid-morning.

"What we’re finding is that more of the viewing is happening on the weekend and on the evening," said Chris Callahan, the CEO of Arizona PBS. "Or in other words, when we weren’t on."

Callahan said while their shows slotted in the evenings and overnight aren’t bad for young kids, they’re not the most enriching for them either. To fill the gap, national leaders at PBS decided to create a new channel dedicated solely to children's educational programming. Something Arizona PBS will be signing onto early this year.

And network officials explain that the goal is more than just age-appropriate entertainment.

"Kids who don’t have the advantages of going to preschool or full-day kindergarten, we’re trying to be there for them," added Linda Simensky, the national vice president of children’s programming at PBS. 

And in a state like Arizona, where more than two-thirds of kids don’t have access to high quality preschool, an educational television show, she argued, could provide at least some benefit when it comes to helping kids get to grade level once they reach grade school.

"The shows are designed to have an impact," Simensky said. "The shows are designed so that kids can get something out of them. Some sort of curriculum information."

But can any meaningful learning and early-childhood development actually happen just by watching a TV show? Rebecca Gau with Stand For Arizona Children, a state education advocacy group, said yes and no.

"Children learn in 3D," Gau said. "So we want to make sure that the academic content that we think of in early learning, letters, numbers, colors, shapes. It’s not enough to see those on a screen."

She added, it's also not a bad thing for parents to have more choices in television.

But that doesn’t mean kids programming has no educational value. That’s what one study, that explored the impacts of Sesame Street on young audiences, suggests.

"It definitely had the ability to reduce deficits in falling behind a grade for age levels to a significant degree," explained Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College, and one of the lead authors of the 2015 study.

Levine's research compared the educational outcomes of kids who could have feasibly received the show over the air in the 1970s with kids whose households could not. And Levine’s team found that, yes, the show was helpful. In fact, kids in areas that could receive the show’s broadcast were about 14 percent less likely to be behind in school.

"It didn’t even come close to eliminating the differential, but it definitely had a meaningful impact," he said.

But Levine is quick to point out that educational TV shows can only go so far. At some point, interaction with an adult, whether that’s a parent or teacher, is still necessary for child development.

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.