Dr. Edward Zigler is often referred to as the “Father of Head Start.” For the last half-century, he’s been the driving force behind the early intervention program that aims to curb the detrimental effects of growing up in poverty. Since its inception in the summer of 1965, Head Start has served more than 30 million at-risk children and their families. The comprehensive model Zigler pioneered — focusing on every aspect of a child’s early development, not just math skills or reading ability — has been replicated by the Harlem Children’s Zone and other forward-thinking nonprofits, and it’s taking hold in school districts across the country, at all grade levels, through President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods.
Zigler’s also contributed a dense volume of research to the field. He founded a child development and social policy center at Yale University that’s now staffed by 40 faculty and 50 fellows. Zigler himself authored or edited more than 40 books and 800 scholarly publications. For his work, he was presented with the Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology in 2008, the highest honor given by the American Psychological Association.
At age 85, Zigler is an emeritus professor of psychology at Yale, where he’s taught since 1959. Speaking to NationSwell from his home in New Haven, Conn., he reflected on his experience founding a mainstay of America’s education policy half a century ago.
Q: A White House panel was convened in 1964 to find a way to help low-income kids. How did Head Start develop out of it?
A: The War on Poverty was put in place by President Johnson and Sargent Shriver, and the Office of Economic Opportunity was in charge of that effort. That’s when we had something called Community Action, but it was very much disliked in this country, and it got a lot of critical press and a lot of opposition. People wanted to be aggressive about making things better for poor people, but everybody finds out, if you fight City Hall, City Hall fights back. Sargent Shriver was faced with what to do next, and he decided on Head Start. Nobody can be angry at little children that are three or four years old. As part of Community Action, he created Head Start and people did indeed love it since its inception. But it didn’t mean that they became kind to Community Action.
At that point, though, nobody knew what Head Start was, so we needed a planning committee to establish exactly what it would be. Most of its members were in their 50s and 60s and rather well-established psychiatrists, social workers, pediatricians and child psychologists. As it turned out, I was by far the youngest member of the planning committee, at the age of 34. At the age of 40, I took over Head Start in this country and become responsible for it, so I’ve been intimately involved with Head Start for its 50 years.
Q: What did the original eight-week summer pilot project look like?
A: Actually before Head Start, there were some preschool programs, like Citizen Grace in Nashville and a program in New York, but the problem was that they were only interested in one facet of a child’s development: intelligence or school performance, both of which are highly related. On the planning committee for Head Start, we decided on two things that were different and that are still in place after 50 years. The first is comprehensive services. You wouldn’t just give the child I.Q. raisers and school performances enhancers; instead, you give the kids health services, give the family social work and give them things the child would need to escape poverty.
A second pillar was parent involvement. Head Start doesn’t raise small kids; preschool programs don’t raise children. Parents raise their children. So if you want children to do better, you try to get parents to be better socializers. Head Start is pointed as much as the parents as at the child.
Q: During the Nixon Administration, you developed standards for the program as the first director of the Office of Child Development (now the Administration on Children, Youth and Families). Why was that early work important?
A: At that time, I was the federal official responsible for Head Start. The first thing I did was stop Community Action. They already had their own plan for Head Start, and they had absolutely no use for the planning committee. We were essentially a group of scholars from a lot of different fields, whereas they saw themselves as poverty warriors. They didn’t know a lot about child development, but they’d fight to get a better life for poor people, like building a playground in a poor neighborhood. Well, that’s fine — I wouldn’t be against that — but that’s not the solution to what children need. And that’s where the planning committee came in.
We didn’t have enough money to serve all the children trying to get into Head Start, so instead of teaching people how to mobilize, I stopped that aspect of the program, and all the money went to optimizing poor children’s development, which was the planning committee’s only goal. That didn’t meet the satisfaction of a lot of people — self-proclaimed “poverty warriors,” who were getting paid through the program. They wanted to meet with me to see if they could change my mind. As a public official, I was glad to meet with them. As the meeting went on, the guy who was really the leader of the group at the opposite end of this long conferences table from me, stood up and said, “Dr. Zigler, you just don’t understand us. We are willing to give up a generation of our children in order to do our work.” And I remember at the time, I stood up at my end of the table and said, “Well you might be willing to, but I’m trying to help this generation of your children and to help coming generations of children. And this meeting is over.” And that was that.
Q: In the late 1980s you criticized some centers for not living up to their promise, telling The New York Times in a front-page article that one-third of the centers should be shuttered. Why was that rigorous emphasis on results important for Head Start’s success?
A: Head Start probably started too big. Instead of getting the 35,000 kids that Shriver and Johnson wanted, we put 266,000 into Head Start that first summer. The way it was being funded, we were running a lot of very poor, mediocre programs and hadn’t close any that were poorly functioning. When I came in, I emphasized only two things that would determine the effectiveness of Head Start. One is the quality of the program — are there good teachers in the classroom teaching these children? — and second was its length. The longer the program, the more impact it’s going to have.
Another good thing happened recently. See, for years and years, you didn’t have to reapply. Every five years, you automatically got a new grant. This practice has ended. What is in place now is a monitoring system in which Head Start is evaluated, and if the program is poor, its funding is taken away and somebody else gets it. The improvement in Head Start has taken way too long, but it’s in progress in a pretty satisfactory way now.
Q: You’ve worked with nearly every administration from Johnson through Clinton. Did you have a favorite one to work with?
A: I worked with all of them. After a new administration would come in, I was asked to be a consultant for Head Start. [long pause] Let me tell you a story about President Johnson and what Head Start meant to him. When he left the White House and went back to his ranch in Texas, he discovered a Head Start center nearby. His daughters worked in Head Start, and every day he would go to the center. Now, Johnson was a great, big tall man, and he would fill his side pockets with jelly beans. All the kids got to know him. They’d reach into his pocket and get the jelly beans. After a while, all the kids in the Head Start program were calling him Mr. Jelly Beans. He was so obviously in love with education.
Q: Have there been disappointments along the way?
A: Head Start has gone from crisis to crisis. The worst one happened about one week after I got to Washington, D.C. If you know Washington, you know the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) really runs the place. So during the first week, I was called to this meeting and a guy from OMB was there and he puts a piece of white paper on the table and said, “Here’s the plan. In the first year of Head Start, you will close one-third of the Head Start centers. The second year, you will close another third of the Head Start centers, and the third year you will close the remaining ones.” I was one of the founders of Head Start, but it was going to be gone in three years.
So the same day, I went to the head of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare [now the Department of Health and Human Services], Eliot Richardson’s office, and told his secretary, “I must see the Secretary immediately.” Nobody says that unless they’re pretty damn serious, so she went in and of course he saw me immediately. He and I had hit it off. He was a great boss, a very smart guy. I told him what had just happened at this meeting run by OMB, and he looked at me in amazement. He didn’t know anything about it either — a Cabinet member in the Nixon administration and he didn’t know about it. He told me to go back to my office, do my work and forget that the meeting ever happened. He also said that he’d go to the White House and clear it up, which he did.
One of the things that always helps is that every time the reauthorization comes up, the parents with children in Head Start march in support of it. It’s been a very important factor in keeping the program alive. I don’t know of another children’s program that’s been alive for 50 years. On the adult side, we’ve got Social Security. But a program for kids? Kids don’t vote, but the parental participation helps keep it alive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.