Educational Television, Fred Rogers, and the History of Education

The history of teaching and learning via television has compressed into a half-century many of the same stages and themes of the larger story of common schooling in the United States. Responding to a variety of public, private, and foundation interests in the post-World War II period, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set aside 242 television frequencies for noncommercial educational purposes in 1952.

Three decades earlier, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) had asserted a need for broadcasting to serve a common good for the broad public and civic interest.

During the 1920s, nonnetworked educational radio stations were formed on various college and university campuses.

The FCC and FRC used national interest as a rationale, broad and subsidized public access as a goal, and designated locations (i.e., electronic frequencies) as a means. These actions and what grew from them echoed three developments in the broader history of American public education. [1] Colonial legislation, and later the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, provided that land would be designated for school construction. The Morrill Act of 1862 extended the notion of democratically-available higher education to every state. [2] Common schooling—like twentieth century classroom instructional and later adult educational television—began as a diverse and scattered variety of initiatives through the colonial, early national, and antebellum periods—many private, some public, and some hybrids—before any pattern of “networks” or “systems” came into being. [3] Key political leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann argued that a free society requires free public education in the public’s interest—much as twentieth century government and foundation spokespersons viewed the emerging airwaves as a public educational trust.

If public broadcasting began in ways that paralleled the development of public schooling, it has also experienced a similar fate, especially in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Both public broadcasting and public schooling have faced charges of diminished legitimacy as agents of the public interest, generating conservative critiques accompanied by new challenges to public funding and trust, as well as a shifting focus toward privatization and corporate sponsorship. The “culture wars,” over allegedly inappropriate content or political orientations, have targeted educational television just as they have the public schools and, for that matter, the performing and fine arts. Some people question whether education as a public trust—whether in the classroom or on the educational airwaves—has a future in an individualistic, market-driven political climate that has always been central to America’s core values but seems in particular ascendancy today.

Television technology began to merge with new broadcast outlets in London and New York City by the late 1920s, with developments also occurring in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Both the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the forerunner of the Columbia Broadcast System (CBS) were established in 1927; the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) operated its first television station in New York in 1928—also the year of animated character Felix the Cat’s television debut; and the forerunner of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was founded in 1932. Television broadcast New York Yankee baseball in 1939, and University of Pennsylvania football and the Republican National Convention to Philadelphia television in 1940—but only 500 to 1000 Philadelphians owned a set. [4] Only a handful of United States cities had broadcast stations, and they typically offered no more than 20 hours per week of programming. Two important United States developments in 1941 set the stage for rapid growth of the industry—FCC authorization of commercials on television and the attainment of a high resolution picture standard—but World War II halted television manufacturing. Electronically shared network programming and widespread television set manufacture and purchase did not occur until after the war. [5] It is interesting to note that television broadcasting began in Great Britain, Canada, and Europe as “public,” government-established programming, with private commercial television coming much later; while in the United States, government and foundation efforts served to squeeze out a space for classroom-instruction and public access educational television in an otherwise commercial environment.

The Philadelphia school district appears to have pioneered classroom-based instructional television. [6] According to a report from one district administrator, Martha Gable:

Television was inaugurated in the Philadelphia public school system in 1947 with one broadcast per week. During the school year 1951–52 thirteen telecast programs a week have been received by approximately sixty thousand pupils on more than one thousand receivers in classrooms….

The rapid increase in classroom television, due largely to favorable responses from teachers, pupils, and parents, leaves no doubt as to the effectiveness of this new medium as a teaching device….

Programs have included art, music, science, vocational trades, teen-age matters, social studies, health, arithmetic, reading, and language arts—practically every subject in the elementary and secondary curriculum….

Topflight personalities have participated in this pioneer effort. Eugene Ormandy and others of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences … the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University (etc.) … have made fabulous contributions in personnel, materials, and time … (and there was also) time donated by stations WPTZ, WFIL-TV, and WCAU-TV…. [7]
Gable also noted that summer in-service training for teachers on television in the classroom had been available for four years. As the scope of instructional technology grew and its reach expanded geographically, questions arose about teachers’ skills, comfort levels, and willingness to make these tools central to their teaching. [8]

The Ford Foundation became a major source of initiative and funding for educational television, not only for children, as its Fund for Adult Education (1951) and Fund for the Advancement of Education sought to establish community-based stations. The University of Houston established KUHT, the first educational television station in the United States, in 1953. [9] By this time, many people associated with educational television initiatives believed the medium had the potential not only to teach children in the classroom but to provide in-home broadcast alternatives to commercial television and what some saw (even then) as its violence and triviality. When Pittsburgh station WQED—the nation’s first community-owned television station—received a $10,000 grant from the Emerson Radio and Phonograph company and began broadcasting in 1954, station manager Leland Hazard announced, “On this station you will find a children’s hour designed to determine whether it is necessary for someone to get killed in order to entertain young folks.” [10] That children’s hour was “The Children’s Corner,” a live program for which Fred Rogers (1928–2003) was the producer, puppeteer, composer, and organist. Hosted by Josie Carey, “The Children’s Corner” won the 1955 Sylvania Award for best locally produced children’s television program in the United States; it also provided the stage on which Rogers introduced many of the puppet characters that eventually inhabited “The Neighborhood of Make Believe” on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” [11] Rogers would help guide WQED to its leading role in the production of programs for home viewing, both locally and in the soon-to-come educational television network, and it was his death in February, 2003 that stimulated work on this essay. We will return to Rogers’ life and contributions below. (See Figure 1 .)

Figure 1. Televising an educational program on Pittsburgh’s WQED, circa 1950s. Courtesy Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. P8738 (M).

Apart from feature programming for young children and families, classroom instruction comprised a central part of WQED’s early programming, as well as characterized the local development of educational television generally in the 1950s before the appearance of any formal national network of stations. Classroom television programmers and educators considered not only the medium’s particular potential to teach school subjects, but also the notion of providing supplemental resources to schools in a time of teacher shortage due to the baby boom. However, teachers expressed little enthusiasm. Registering its disapproval, the American Federation of Teachers unanimously resolved that television not become the core of the curriculum: “We are unalterably opposed to mass education by television as a substitute for professional classroom techniques.” [12]

In 1955, public and parochial schools in the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, Butler, and Westmoreland counties joined in a year-long project, called the Television Teaching Demonstration; 639 fifth grade students learned from a television at the front of the classroom. The Pittsburgh Board of Education controlled the television courses’ content (arithmetic, reading, and French) and WQED created the presentation. Teachers used more than 750 visual and auditory aids and welcomed guests, including a baseball star, a folk singer, and the poet Robert Frost onto the classroom programs. That same year, the St. Louis community-owned station KETC likewise embarked upon a large project that included ninth grade and second grade classroom instruction. [13]

WQED’s “Fifth Grade Experiment,” as it became known, along with the St. Louis projects, attracted widespread attention and evaluation. (See Figure 2. ) A Ford Foundation report summarized the Pittsburgh project’s approach and outcomes:

Figure 2. A typical classroom scene using WQED programming in the Pittsburgh schools, circa 1950s. Courtesy of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. L875 (M).

Its purpose was to raise the quality of teaching in the local schools simply by selecting outstanding teachers, freeing them from all other duties so they could prepare their lessons with great care, and presenting their teaching every day over the open-circuit facilities of community-owned WQED. Grade-school children, and later high-school students, viewed these telecasts in classes of conventional size, averaging about thirty-five pupils to a room. Their regular teachers were in attendance and supplemented the telecasts with their own “follow-up” instruction—directing drill, practice, and review, answering questions, maintaining the back-and-forth of class discussion, helping individual students, and otherwise carrying the teaching process beyond the televised presentations…

The Pittsburgh television experiment tried from the outset to improve the quality of teaching not only by putting superior teachers on television but by offering courses that otherwise could not be offered under conventional arrangements. A beginning course in conversational French was offered to fifth-graders in 1955-56. At first, the plan was to teach the course entirely by television, but teachers in the classrooms found the children needed drill and practice sessions as well. However, they also found that they themselves learned enough along with their students to lead these sessions…

The most complete report so far available on test results in Pittsburgh is for 1956–57…. Tests were administered (in all subjects but French) to several television classes and several conventional classes. As in St. Louis, no very exact comparison of the two groups was possible, and there were many variations on how individual classes in each group were taught. It was thus impossible to conclude from the results that either method was superior to the other—either regular classroom teaching or televised teaching supplemented by classroom work. However, the finding of wide variations of achievement among rather comparable classes of students within the two groups apparently suggests that the effectiveness of the televised lessons depended to an important degree on the quality of the “follow-up” by teachers in the classrooms. [14]
The report also noted that “the primary focus of these experiments,” that included over 100 school districts as well as many university classrooms by 1959, “has been on multiplying the effectiveness of able teachers.” [15] A study of the first year of “The National Program in the Use of Television in the Public Schools” asserted that: “Out of 110 different kinds of comparisons involving a combined total of 14,326 television students and 12,666 control students of equal ability, sixty-eight comparisons favored the television students and forty-two favored the control students. In thirty-eight of these cases, there was a statistically significant difference in the achievement of students in the two groups…. Of these … twenty-nine were in favor of the television classes and nine were in favor of the control group.” [16]

Such findings were sufficient to convince the Ford Foundation that the medium had great promise, but its report went on to list the conditions and teaching arrangements that promote television-enhanced learning. The Foundation also reported a substantial list of potential problems, caveats, and recommendations. One important recommendation urged that classroom-based and on-air teachers meet to collaborate on curriculum and methods. [17]

By 1967, WQED offered instruction in a practically every subject to 800,000 pupils in over 23,000 regional classrooms. Televised formal classroom instruction spread across the country, and in Texas, even offered teacher education housewife audiences.

Several philanthropic organizations financed the spread of televised classroom instruction. WQED received a $150,000 grant from the Ford Foundation’s Fund for the Advancement of Education, with additional financial assistance provided by the A.W. Mellon Education and Charitable Trust, for its “Fifth Grade Experiment.” The Ford Foundation invested more than $2.5 million in classroom television instruction during the 1950s, and in the early 1960s granted $6 million to the recently-formed National Educational Television (NET) network for program development. Foundation president Clarence Faust argued that society “cannot let televised teaching wind up as icing on the educational cake. It has to become an important part of the cake itself.” This support and financial assistance, as well as an exchange of non-commercial broadcasting programs through networks like NET and the Eastern Educational Network, fostered the growth of educational television and its viewer audience. For stations like WQED in Pittsburgh, this aid helped the station reach an audience of over seven million during some of its broadcast time. [18]

In the meantime, Fred Rogers continued his work with “The Children’s Corner” while studying at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for his ordination as a Presbyterian minister in 1963. (See Figure 3. ) He made his on-camera debut during a one-year stay in Toronto, where he developed the forerunner of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a fifteen-minute feature program. In 1966, the expanded program debuted locally in Pittsburgh, and in 1968 went national via the NET and its successor, the Public Broadcast Service (PBS) network, established one year later. [19] In 1971, he founded the non-profit Family Communications, Inc., to produce the show. [20]

Figure 3. Fred Rogers, circa 1985. Photo by Jim Judkis, used with permission.

When Rogers died in February, 2003 at age 74, the city of Pittsburgh and the larger world of informal education for children and parents lost one of its most significant educational pioneers and ardent advocates for the possibilities of education via non-commercial educational television. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” preceded by one year another of the PBS’s most historically significant children’s programs, “Sesame Street,” and it is the longest-running program on public television, with some 900 archived episodes; he continued taping the show until shortly before his death. [21]

Rogers programmed “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” around three main themes.

First, he spoke with his audience of children about how to identify and cope with emotional challenges in their lives.

Second, he nurtured children’s imagination and taught through a “neighborhood of make believe” where human and puppet characters acted out interpersonal dilemmas.

Third, he introduced children to places in the real world by taking them on personally led field trips with a “how things work” and “how people work” focus, such as to a crayon factory and a musical instrument shop.

Rogers’ work on this program earned him George Foster Peabody Awards, Emmy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with numerous other awards and honorary degrees. While Rogers received these awards throughout his career, he emerged as early as 1968 as a national figure in public broadcasting and children’s programming, just as intermittent storms gathered around children’s television.

Rogers spoke on two fronts beginning in the late 1960s: for increased government support of public broadcasting, and for reforming television programming practices due to perceived concerns about their negative impact on the development of young viewers.

On funding issues, in 1969, Rogers appeared before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications (a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce). Rogers accompanied Hartford N. Gunn, Jr., the general manager of WBGH in Boston, to support increased government appropriations for public broadcasting. Gunn argued that as federal funds fell for public broadcasting in 1968, fewer stations would apply for licenses. But the highlight of the hearing appears to have been Rogers’ fifteen-minute testimony and his dialogue with the subcommittee chair, Senator John O. Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island. Rogers spoke with his familiar quiet passion about the social and emotional learning young children need to grow up as confident and constructive members of society, and how alternative television programming such as the Neighborhood could help nurture these qualities in children—especially by contrast to other messages children were receiving from popular culture and media. Pastore, who had not previously seen any of Rogers’ work, indicated he was now anxious to view the program, told Rogers that what he heard gave him goosebumps, and that the impact of Rogers’ testimony was “I think you just got your twenty million dollars.” [22] Congressional appropriations were made two years in advance; counting forward to 1971, PBS funding increased from $9 million to $22 million after the Pastore committee hearings. [23]

As concerns grew about media content and its impact on children, Rogers played a leading role. In 1968 he served as Chairman of the Forum on Mass Media and Child Development of the White House Conference on Youth. At the same time, grass-roots activist organizations, such as Action for Children’s Television (ACT) founded by Peggy Charren, lobbied and petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to enact policies that would ensure quality children’s programming and eliminate commercial advertising aimed at young viewers. ACT pursued legal action and lobbying on behalf of children and counted as its major success the passage of the Children’s Television Act of 1990, after which ACT disbanded in 1992. [24]

Concerns about the viewing habits of children and the growing commercialization of children’s television—including PBS and educational television—have since grown. Sociologist Jerold Starr found that children spend 60 percent more time watching television than in the classroom and that the average child sees 30,000 commercials a year.[ 25] According to child development specialists, children are six to eight years old before they understand that advertising is meant to sell products. Yet PBS and the license holders of PBS television-related products from programs such as “Arthur” and “Sesame Street” target an audience of pre-schoolers and primary-grades children. [26] “Sesame Street,” first broadcast in 1968 and produced by the Sesame Workshop, now earns $7.5 million in annual revenue from sales of books, puzzles, videos, toys, etc., comprising one-half of its annual production budget. “Arthur,” developed in 1997 and produced at public station WGBH-Boston, earned $1.4 million of its $4 million annual production costs from retail sales and licensing. [27] The Christian Science Monitor recently reported, “With the death of Fred Rogers … the children’s television industry said goodbye to one of the last creators who didn’t sell merchandise to finance his show.” [28]

Does a perceived growing commercialization of public television lead to greater public skepticism about devoting tax dollars to this programming? Is educational children’s television absorbing some of the more general conservative political attacks on public-subsidized broadcasting and the arts on the grounds of a perceived liberal bias? Will the nation’s rapid descent back into government deficits hasten a further decline in public support for arts and education generally, and including public broadcasting? Will the existing extent of commercialization and reliance upon major corporate funding erode public broadcasting’s ability to make program decisions based upon educational rather than political considerations—or is commercial and corporate funding no more constrained or restrictive in that regard than reliance upon public funds? These are among the questions that face the industry in the days after the loss of one of its founding figures, Fred Rogers.

Other questions face classroom-based instructional technology. It appears that many of the lessons reported, if not learned, from the heyday of instructional television have not been applied to projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars to put computers in schools. Insights from the 1952 American Council on Education conference report and the 1959 Ford Foundation report seem absent in the gaps between what Federal and state funds have purchased for classrooms and how teachers have received and have been able (or have chosen) to use the technology. Funding agencies and school districts have often overlooked inservice teacher training and ignored the need for teachers to interact with technology contractors and developers.

What roles might historians of education play in shedding additional light on the past and present of classroom technology and public broadcasting? Several lines of inquiry seem promising. Ellen Lagemann’s work on foundations has established a strong base of scholarship to explore further the interaction of corporate and foundation money and politics on educational initiatives. [29] The literature on the history of childhood has grown through the efforts of such scholars as Barbara Beatty, Paula Fass, Joseph Hawes, and Joseph Illick, but little has been written historically about the intersections of childhood, schooling, and media. For example, in the voluminous anthology Childhood in America, only two of the 178 pieces seem to address electronic media directly. [30] Many books have historically analyzed the interaction between popular culture and childhood—but the literature is thin with regard to the educational television. Other historians have studied television news as a vehicle of education [31] ; including the impact of press coverage on how the public understands specific events, especially the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, but much remains to be explored.

The whole area of classroom-based technology provides a large landscape for historical work. The leading scholar in this regard has been Larry Cuban. [32] There was also a growing international literature on educational television during the 1950s and 60s, including publications by the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. There many questions remain about how the profession of teaching, the principles of curriculum and instruction, student learning, and instructional technology have interacted on local, national, and international scales. Historians of the curriculum, educational policy, and teaching as a profession may all find engaging topics here.

The History of Education Quarterly encourages such avenues of research.

Robert A. Levin is Associate Professor of Education and American Studies at Youngstown State University, and Associate Editor and Book Review Editor of the History of Education Quarterly. Laurie Moses Hines is Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education at Kent State University-Trumbull, and Assistant Editor of the History of Education Quarterly.


1 Jerold M. Starr, Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 21.

2 William Hoynes, Public Television for Sale: Media, the Market, and the Public Sphere (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994), 38–39.

3 See, for example: James Ledbetter, Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States (London: Verso, 1997), and Richard Somerset-Ward, “Public Television: The Ballpark’s Changing—Background Paper,” in Quality Time? The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Public Education (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1993), 75–174.

4 “A Timeline of Television History.” Canadian Museum of Civilization online, 7 August 2001. (8 May 2003). Nat Pendleton, “The Dawn of Modern, Electronic Television.” Paper presented to the March 2001 meeting of the South Carolina Historical Association. Hilliard, OH: Early Television Foundation online, 28 May 2002. (8 May 2003).

5 Ibid.

6 George N. Gordon, Educational Television (New York: Center for Applied Research in Education, 1965), 51–52.

7 Martha Gable, “Television in the Philadelphia Public Schools,” in Carroll V. Newsom, ed., A Television Policy for Education. Proceedings of the Television Program Institute Held under the Auspices of the American Council on Education at Pennsylvania State College, April 21–24, 1952, (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1952), 118–120.

8 See, for example, Larry Cuban, Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920 (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986), as well as Cuban’s later work, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

9 George N. Gordon, Educational Television, 9–11.

10 Edward J. Furey, “Station WQED Opens New TV Epoch Here,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 2 April 1954, reprinted in Round-Up of the Nation’s Press, a publication of the Joint Committee on Educational Television, No. 14. Folder, “Pittsburgh Television WQED-WQEX,” Pennsylvania Room, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

11 “Fred Rogers’ Biography,” Family Communications online, 2003 (9 May 2003).

12 “But Some Buts Are Being Voiced,” an undated excerpt from a report of The Fund for the Advancement of Education, in File “Pittsburgh Television-WQED-WQEX 1950s” in the Pennsylvania Room, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Also see Note 7.

13 “Teaching by Television,” a joint publication of the Ford Foundation and the Fund for the Advancement of Teaching (New York: Ford Foundation, May 1959), 34–37.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., 6–7.

16 Ibid, 9–10.

17 Ibid., 11–15.

18 “Check-Up for Tomorrow.” (Pittsburgh: Metropolitan Pittsburgh Educational Television WQED-WQEX, 1964).

19 When the U.S. Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, it created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) as an organizational and financing source for what would become PBS (1969) and National Public Radio (NPR) in 1970.

20 “Fred Rogers’ Biography,” see note 11.

21 Ibid.

22 “Fred Rogers: America’s Favorite Neighbor,” documentary film jointly produced by WQED-Pittsburgh and Family Communications, Inc. hosted by actor Michael Keaton (a former backstage employee of Rogers’ on the Neighborhood), May 2003.

23 “Amounts Authorized and Appropriated for CPB, 1969–2001.” Public Broadcasting PolicyBase, a service of Current Newspaper and the National Public Broadcasting Archives, 21 April 2001, online at (3 May 2003). Also see “Public Broadcasting Act of 1967” and other documents and links with text, or citations for library-archived materials, at the National Public Broadcasting Archives, University of Maryland Libraries, 1 April 2003, online at (5 May 2003).

24 C. Alperowicz and R. Krock, Rocking the Boat: Celebrating 15 Years of Action for Children’s Television (Newtonville, MA: Action for Children’s Television, 1983) and Barry G. Cole and Mal Oettinger, Reluctant Regulators: The FCC and the Broadcasting Audience (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.,1978). ACT’s archival materials are located in the Special Collections of the Monroe C. Gutman Library, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

25 See Note 1.

26 “What are your kids watching?” USA Today Magazine 131 (August 2002).

27 G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “The Big Money Guys,” The Christian Science Monitor, 8 April 2003, pp. 13–15, citing PBS sources.

28 Ibid.

29 Ellen Condliffe Lagemann Private Power for the Public Good: A History of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching [1983] (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1999); idem., The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989); Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (ed.), Philanthropic Foundations: New Scholarship, New Possibilities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

30 Paula S. Fass and Mary Ann Mason, eds., Childhood in America (New York: New York University Press, 2000). The noted articles are by Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Media Violence and Children,” pp. 469–472, and Don Steinberg, “What Makes Nick Tick?” (referring to the Nickelodeon cable television network), pp. 697–699. A related piece on the history of children’s toys, by Gary Cross, appears on pp. 694–696, excerpted from his book, Kids Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

31 See, for example, Robert J. Donovan and Ray Scherer, Unsilent Revolution: Television News and American Public Life, 1948–1991 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, published by Cambridge University Press, 1992).

32 See Note 8.