Small-government conservatives typically argue the less Washington has to do with education, the better. But Fordham’s Mike Petrilli sees PBS Kids as “a sweet spot for federal involvement in education.” Petrilli used to agree with conservative pundit George Will that the market can provide children’s programming on its own. But as the father of two young boys Petrilli has come to believe “there’s no contest when it comes to academic content and quality” if you compare Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel to PBS Kids.
“The best PBS shows in my view—and my elder son’s!—actually teach something. Not something vague like “reasoning skills” but something concrete like science! Yes, his favorite shows are Sid the Science Kid and Wild Kratts, a very clever program about wildlife. At four and a half, he can’t read yet, but he can learn a ton about our world—and with his curiosity on overdrive, he’s eager to learn and learn and learn.”
PBS’s Dinosaur Trains and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That are also strong on content knowledge, Petrilli says. “And the line-up is rounded out with several pleasant if content-free offerings that aim to teach character and the like (Arthur, Caillou, Clifford, and so forth). By contrast, Nickelodeon and Disney have “a few decent offerings.” But Petrilli calls Sponge Bob “poisonous” and Dora the Explorer “the crack cocaine of children’s television.”
“Back to the role of government. The reason the PBS shows are more educationally sound is that one of their major investors—Uncle Sam—demands that they be so. The Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program provides upwards of $30 million a year to develop high-quality programs, as well as related content (web sites, games, etc.). Unlike most federal initiatives—which must work through the states, local school districts, and local schools before getting to actual kids—this one has a much shorter line to the end product: Good stuff for kids to watch. It’s an easy way for the federal government to make a positive contribution.”
I haven’t seen all of the shows to which Petrilli refers, but ultimately the proof is in the programming. Commercial broadcasters have other masters to serve, and any programming that helps build background knowledge in the critical early childhood years certainly can’t hurt. But remember, the Associated Academy of Pediatricians recently issued a warning saying children should watch no TV whatsoever if they are under two years of age.
First the Mars Rover, and now an unexpected mash note from the right-of-center Fordham Foundation. Big government is having a good week.