PBS Kids a “Sweet Spot for Feds in Education”

by Robert Pondiscio
August 7th, 2012

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.


  1. Both the culture and the industry have changed. Well into the 1990s, commercial programming for children and young teens still offered much that was worthwhile. It was also geared toward family viewing, with layered content that could be appreciated by adults and kids. When our family wasn’t watching PBS-produced Wishbone and Bill Nye the Science Guy, we were able to find such gems as Hey, Arnold!, Doug, Rugrats (Nickelodeon), and The Wonder Years (ABC/Nickelodeon). Now commercial television programming appears to be almost exclusively targeted to 20-something males — violent, hyper-sexualized, video-game style content and editing and just plain bizarre characters (especially cartoon series). While some PBS programs for very young children are excellent, many are also insipid, PC, and dull.

    Comment by Just a mom — August 7, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

  2. I’d take Dora over Caillou for my kids any day. Caillou acts like a super-brat for 90% of the episode and then learns his lesson, but which part do you think little kids actually pick up on? My favorite PBS Kids program, “Between the Lions” is no longer on, which is a real shame because it really helped my oldest two children learn to read.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 8, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  3. I am a big fan of Jane Healy’s classic Endangered Minds when it comes to evaluating the effects of anything media and digital on education. Nobody nailed the problems with Sesame Street like her.

    I honestly cannot read the histrionics coming out of Fordham with respect to Common Core and the attacks on Jay Greene and then call them right of center. Regardless of my documented issues with the actual implementation, right of center would have a better feel for how easy to corrupt any national mandate would be.

    And “Between the Lions” was great but the Common Core literacy learning progressions I have seen are all Whole Language and sight words. The default is syllables. The real problem is a rejection of artificial symbol systems. The essence of both reading and math.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — August 8, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

  4. “The reason the PBS shows are more educationally sound is that one of their major investors—Uncle Sam—demands that they be so.” Isn’t it too bad Uncle Sam took so long to also demand that our public schools be more educationally sound?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 8, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

  5. Compared with the quality of 99% of our commercial TV, PBS is from another planet. The key is, Petrilli astutely observes, “a much shorter line to the end product” when compared with the case of the schools, coming from the federal ed department, going through states and to the local school districts. Why not take then the logic leap one step further and work towards cutting that distance?

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — August 9, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

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