Michael Levine

Michael Levine

Executive Director, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop


Educators: relationships matter most!

Presidential campaigns are often won on the basis of whether voters can feel a candidates’ passion and concern for real peoples’ pain on economic matters. Educators need to similarly step back from the daily fray and consider an issue that is too often overlooked: the depth and quality of their relationships with students, peers and parents.

Research on young children's developing brains and self-regulation as active learners is now aligned with decades of research by experts on school climate and parent engagement. Dr. Daniel Siegel, a pioneering neuro-psychiatrist at UCLA, recently observed: ‘studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom point to relationships as the most robust predictor of positive attributes in our lives across the lifespan.” These insights align with what pioneers such as Dr. James Comer of Yale University pointed out over two decades ago.

The power of school is enhanced or diminished by the types of relationships that are formed at the core of our educational enterprise. Teachers, parents, supervisors and students must be linked together in a relationship-rich environment that is open, flexible and which relentlessly promotes learning.


Families still matter.

In a similar vein, educators need to vigorously resist being placed at cross-purposes in education reform debates with families. Teachers who are held to stringent assessment metrics often worry about how much they can do to overcome the impact of poverty and family stress—and understandably are critical of policies that weaken autonomy and expect achievement gains that are unrealistic in short-term bursts.

Today’s families are often more vulnerable than past generations based on changes in family structures, economic shock waves, and resulting mental health issues. We need to help find ways to nurture families’ resilience. Research on family development finds that the most powerful predictors of academic achievement are parental education levels, employment status and health in the early years.

Every educator needs to become an advocate for strong families through lifelong learning based on sustainable employment, health care, and supports such as parental leave.


Fourth graders need to think global and master digital.

In the famous scene in the iconic movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman is counseled to think about the next big thing: “plastics.” Today’s well-educated youth should still have confidence that they can pioneer a career in promoting innovative new products. But they will be wise to begin their preparation, beginning by age 10 with four core competencies: Basic literacy, STEM literacy, digital literacy and global literacy.

We live in a flatter, more interactive world where the challenges our generation has left in terms of cooperative, environmental and economic security are daunting work for our youth. To remain ‘smarter than the average third grader’ now requires new types of knowledge, perspectives, and skills.


Public media can help remove the moat between home and school.

Over four decades after Sesame Street revolutionized the use of television to educate children at home with vital school readiness skills, we still have had almost no success in building a productive bridge between informal and formal learning. A new bridge that can make a difference is now being built—often without educators’ knowledge—by innovators in the world of interactive technologies.

We have the capacity, but are lacking the will, to utilize the artfulness of educational media innovators in service to our nation’s schools. The conversations have started towards a “trans-media, trans-setting alliance” of interests, but key collaboration barriers must be removed and new infrastructure for digital literacy must be laid down in every learning environment in the next five years.


Innovation starts by design.

Schools need to do what Tim Brown calls “design thinking.”

School reformers have a tradition of jumping from one derivative of the same old formula to another. Fresh ideas and perspectives need more flow today—we need to source ideas from other sectors and countries that have worked, and to encourage every educator to take a reflective “re-design” approach to their practice. New structures like social networks for learning and hybrid learning models that reimagine hallowed traditions can encourage educators to take a break from conventional thinking and to go back to their core philosophies.

The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.


Michael Levine is the founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, an action research and innovation hub devoted to harnessing the potential of digital media to advance young children's learning and healthy development.

Prior to joining the Center, Dr. Levine served as Vice President of New Media and Executive Director of Education for Asia Society, managing the global nonprofit's interactive media and educational initiatives to promote understanding of Asia and other world regions, languages and cultures. Previously, Dr. Levine oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York's groundbreaking work in early childhood development, educational media and primary grades reform, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention, after-school, and early childhood initiatives.

Dr. Levine often serves as an adviser to government and public media organizations such as the US Department of Education, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and writes for policy groups such as the National Governors Association, Democracy Journal and Education Week. He serves on numerous nonprofit boards and advisory councils, including for the Forum for Youth Investment, Teach For America, the US Department of Agriculture's Healthy Apps Challenge, and Talaris Institute.