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"C is for Cookie. That's good enough for me."

--Cookie MonsterSorry, Cookie Monster. The preceeding explanation of phonics may be good enough for the "Sesame Street" gang, but it's far from perfect, according to educational psychologist Jane Healy.

Indeed, says Healy, "Sesame Street" itself is far from the educational television show it purports to be.

"It is truly amazing that everyone seems to have bought the notion that this peripatetic carnival will somehow teach kids to read - despite the fact that the habits of the mind necessary to be a good reader are exactly what `Sesame Street' does not teach: language, active reflection, persistence and internal control," says Healy, author of "Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think" (Simon and Schuster, $11).

Healy has a number of concerns about what she calls the "sacred cow" of the Children's Television Workshop. She outlined them at a recent conference in St. Louis:

- "Sesame Street" has popularized the erroneous belief that it is appropriate for most preschoolers to learn to read.

- It overemphasizes letters and numerals and underemphasizes the language and thinking skills necessary to make them meaningful.

- It exposes children to lots of incidental knowledge with no linking of concepts.

"Sesame Street's rapid alterations in context - from a pirate ship to a city street, a barnyard to a cartoon of letter symbols - defy sequence or logic and make it impossible to see relationships, understand the sequence of cause and effect, or keep a train of thought in motion."

- It bombards kids with a confusing array of stimuli and may cause sensory overload.

- It discourages the development of attending skills.

"Reading demands sustained voluntary attention from a mind that can hold a train of thought long enough to reflect on it, not one accustomed to having its attention jerked around every few seconds," says Healy.

Not too many educators share Healy's concerns.

Daniel Anderson, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has done extensive research on the influence of television on cognitive development and has reached quite different conclusions.

" `Sesame Street' is not a perfect educational television show. But we've had 4,000 years to perfect education via text; television as a mass medium is less than 50 years old. So far, `Sesame Street' is leading the way," he says.

Anderson disagrees with many of Healy's charges. "Sesame Street" has been successful in helping kids understand letter/sound correspondence, which facilitates reading, he says. After observing 5,000 hours of kids watching the show, he thinks its rapid-fire magazine format is appropriate to a preschooler's attention span and comprehension.

As far as sensory overload, Anderson says he has conducted research comparing super-fast versions of "Sesame Street," slowly paced segments and equal amounts of time during which a parent read a story to a child. "There was no difference in behavior in any of the three conditions," he says.

"Sesame Street" isn't all bad, Healy concedes: It has made a serious effort to give positive messages about cultural diversity, disabilities and major emotional issues such as death.

But she sees the pervasive program - which is viewed by almost half of all American preschoolers on a weekly basis - as a contributor to a new and growing educational problem: the two-minute mind.

"I am convinced that today's kids lack vigilance - the ability to stay attached to and work through a problem," says Healy. "And though they may be able to sound out words in kindergarten, they have difficulty expressing ideas both orally and through written language."

Healy has been an educator for more than 30 years; she taught at Hathaway Brown School and Cleveland State University, both in Cleveland. The mother of three grown sons, she recently moved with her husband to Vail, Colo., where she works as a learning specialist and lecturer. Her first book, "Your Child's Growing Mind: A Guide to Learning and Brain Development From Birth to Adolescence" (Doubleday, $9.95), was published in 1985.

Her observations during the past 15 years or so - along with those of many of her colleagues - have led her to the belief that today's children come to school with "different brains" these days - brains that have actually been physically altered by a combination of electronic media, fast-paced lifestyles, environmental hazards and unstable family patterns.

That, coupled with educational practices that have not kept up with societal changes, she theorizes, has led to America's crisis in the classroom.

"There is a growing misfit between kids and schools. Kids today are brighter than any previous generation, but they are harder to teach by traditional curriculum," says Healy.

"They truly have endangered minds. There are fundamental differences in the way children are processing information - from learning to read to critical reasoning and scientific problem-solving. Are the incidences of attention deficit disorders and learning disabilities really increasing, or do schoolrooms need bold reform?"

To answer her questions, Healy spent three years interviewing more than 1,000 teachers, neuropsychologists and scientists across the United States, Canada and Europe.

The conclusion she reached - one that she readily acknowledges available technology cannot test, much less prove - is that young brains are being subtly, yet critically, altered.

Skills that are learned and practiced make physical connections in the brain, Healy says: "If a child spends a great deal of his time watching television or playing Nintendo, he may be building the pathways for those activities at the expense of others, such as reading or math problem solving."

Though such a hypothesis is subject to much debate within the scientific community because of a lack of data extrapolated from controlled experiments, its consideration does have merit, says Dr. John Montovani, director of pediatric neurology at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis. "We don't understand most issues related to brain development and learning," he says. "But we do know the brain is a dynamic organism, and that environment may impact children's developing sensory systems."

If we accept this idea of malleable minds, what can parents and teachers do to make certain children are receiving enough stimulation in crucial areas?

First, make sure that their early environment is a low-tech, high-touch one, says Healy.

"Parents need to stop rushing `lessons' and plugging in to technology. Instead, they need to find ways to involve their children in everyday activities - doing projects together, playing games and puzzles, reading, taking walks and talking. That's the natural way children learn," says Healy.

Parents should also control the use of television in the home, says Healy. "The American Medical Association recommends no more than 10 hours of TV a week. I advise parents to sit down with their children once a week with the television guide and plan ahead with discretion."

Schools, says Healy, need to be much more child-centered, stressing active, experiential learning.

"Ninety percent of talk in classrooms is still teacher talk. Children are not involved. Then, when they can't sit still, they are labeled attention deficit disordered. Children need to be asking questions, investigating, pursuing complex thinking."

Because of changing lifestyles, schools must also assume the role of neighborhood, allowing much time for unstructured play activities that teach social skills like negotiation, says Healy.

Most important, says Healy, both parents and educators need to listen to their children.

"Young brains seek out what they need at every stage of development. It's our job to provide it," she says. "Remember, childhood is a process - not a product."