Head Start, the early childhood development program, has lurched from crisis to crisis, but it’s always found a champion in Edward Zigler, who’s guided the program through every presidential administration since Lyndon Johnson.
Approaching its 50th anniversary, Head Start has been praised for lifting students out of poverty through education and wraparound services for health, nutrition, mental well-being and family cohesion. One longitudinal study of siblings, conducted by a Harvard professor in 2009, showed that enrollees benefited from improved test scores, higher high school and college graduation rates, fewer run-ins with the law and better health as an adult, compared with their brothers and sisters. Other studies, however, have found that educational advantages fade over time, as early as second or third grade, in fact.
In the second half of our interview, NationSwell spoke with Zigler about how Head Start can adapt to better serve its students for the next 50 years.
Q. So many ideas from the War on Poverty have been rolled back. Why has Head Start persisted after all this time?
A. First of all, people like the notion of Head Start. There’s no way to blame a preschool child for the poverty that he or she belongs to. Anything you can do to help that child has great appeal to the American public. Studies also show that it does indeed work. These kids are doing better. All of that kept Head Start in place, even after President Johnson left the White House. People forget that his first job was as a teacher down in the border between Mexico and the United States, so he personally loved Head Start.
The other thing that’s worth noting was that Lady Bird Johnson — LBJ’s wife — she was the honorary chair of Head Start, which gave the program visibility. I can still remember the first that anybody ever heard about Head Start, there was a meeting that Mrs. Johnson chaired in the East Room of the White House. People came to that meeting from all over the country, and she told everyone what Head Start was going to look like. These people went back to their homes, and then applications began pouring in. These people wrote to have a Head Start in their communities.
Q. Have we made progress since then?
A. Yes, I think we know more about poverty and its impact on children, and we know what works. A lot of it is common sense. These kids don’t get good healthcare or good nutrition. When Head Start was put in place, it included healthcare for children and improved nutrition component. We took all that was known by the birth of Head Start 50 years ago and incorporated it into the program. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more, and there’s been more independent money to study poor children.
Q. How do we judge if the program’s been a success?
A. One of the things that bothers me after all this time is that the Congress of the United States, in their latest reauthorization, they made the ultimate goal of Head Start school performance, which is like going back to what the pre-Head Start preschool programs were doing. I’ll probably stay alive long enough [for the next reauthorization]. I usually testify at these reauthorizations, and I will argue that they ought to have two goals for Head Start. The first goal is indeed school performance, but the second improvement is in the parents. Any improvements in the parents will boomerang in the child. That hasn’t happened yet, but Head Start spends so much money and time on parents that we ought to. We should see if they get jobs, get better education, all kinds of parent measures — whether they use corporal punishment on the child even. Are they, or do they talk to the child or explain what they’re doing wrong? There’s many measures so we should make parent performance part of Head Start’s success.
Q. How else can this program adapt for today’s students?
A. That first year, Head Start was only a summer program. Anybody that understands poverty or human development will ask you, “What can you get out of a three-month program?” After the first year, there were still some summer programs but not for very long. Most became full-year programs. Many who write about development will also ask you, “What can you get out of one year?” Many of us argue that to have a really good program for preschool children, you’d begin with Head Start as a two-year program. Then there would be a Head Start component from kindergarten to third grade, a continuation of some time and effort to spur their performance. Several of us have argued for much longer programs. It’s hard enough to keep Head Start alive, but really it should be longer.
By the way, just to show how far we’ve gone, I wrote a book called “A Vision of Universal Preschool Education.” President Barack Obama, about a year and a half ago, said that he wants to get universal preschool education in this country, and that’s a very good idea. One of the things I’d change if I could do Head Start again is that I’d put poor and middle class children together in the same classroom. I like the idea of a preschool education that’s mixed. The evidence is clear. It doesn’t do any harm to middle-class preschool children, and poor children benefit when it’s more than just poor children. That’s going to happen in this country. Obama and certain governors are moving in this direction. Thanks to Head Start, preschool is considered a success. They should be doing it with all children.
Q. Has universal preschool been proposed at the federal level before?
A. There wasn’t enough money. The argument is middle-class parents are putting their children into preschool automatically. If they can pay for it themselves, why should the government pay for it? It’s hard to make that argument we should pay for middle-class children. But we use the evidence, like putting them in can actually help poor children do better and doesn’t hurt middle class children anyway. It’s not a bad idea for middle-class children to at least rub elbows sometimes and understand what a poor child goes through.
And by the way, there are certain things that poor children do better than middle-class kids. They seem to be more creative. If you give them colors, they rub that paint all over the page, everywhere. A middle-class child will very carefully push the paint, a little here and there. It looks like the poor children may be more creative. The most valuable thing the middle-class kids have, though, is an appreciation for education, which many poor kids don’t have. We’re going to get to that vision of universal preschool, because as I say, Obama’s talking about it. I don’t know who’s going to follow him, I don’t know if he’s got time enough to do it now. We’ll see. I’ve heard a lot of promises in my time.
I’ve had an interesting life. I’m an old man now. I started when I was 35 and now I’m 85 years old. That’s my life, and that’s been Head Start.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
READ MORE: The Life-Changing Program Head Start Turns 50: A Conversation with Its Founder