An Early Head Start

The current goal of providing public school preschool programs for three-year-old’s can actually be traced to the work of Edward Zigler who died last month. A Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, he was well known as the “Father of Head Start.” Throughout his career he worked to better the lives of children and families and pioneered in applying an understanding of developmental psychology to public policy.

One of the original architects of Head Start, Zigler was an initial planner of the program during the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty, a program that has since served over 35 million American children and their families. His concept of a comprehensive early childhood program came naturally to Zigler who considered himself an “original Head Starter.”

The son of immigrants, Zigler was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where as a young child he attended an immigrant settlement house program where he and his family learned English and received health care, meals and social supports. This experience led him to believe that young children are best prepared to learn when their health and social-emotional needs are met and their parents are involved in their schooling. His ongoing research brought attention to the importance of meaningful family involvement and the essential role of parents in the lives of their children.

The daily life importance of the social supports to families meaningful to Zigler in his life are worth noting in the appraisal of Head Start in the years since its inception. Praised initially as one of the programs introduced by Johnson to lift people from poverty, Head Start was meant to provide for low income children the kind of early life exposure to learning afforded those of means.

Somewhat expansive and unrealistic goals were then set such as improving school readiness for children in the program, improving children’s cognitive development, social and emotional development and communication skills. As the early groups moved from Head Start to grade school, the criticism offered was that although the children made gains in these areas while in the program, these gains were not sustained as children moved forward academically.

Academic outcomes have been reevaluated over the years with varying results. As in the education system generally, the push toward early introduction of academics infected Head Start programs as well as the private preschool world. This only led to an intensification of the goal that Head Start ready children for grade school entry. An experienced, long time Head Start teacher said in a recent conversation, “It’s that American love of numbers,” meaning achievement ratings.

What tends to get lost in the discussion of outcomes is the meaning of the program to the children and families served. The teacher quoted above talked about the families in her program, the number of single mothers working to support their children, the lack of affordable child care and what their lives and the lives of their children would be like without the program. She described a father visiting and crying upon hearing his daughter sing with the group – he had never heard her sing before.

In the 1970’s, Ziegler collaborated on a bill to provide affordable child care for working families with fees based on income. It was approved by congress but then vetoed by President Nixon who was overwhelmed by mail from those opposed to women working outside the home, raising the fear that children would be raised in centers rather than by their mothers. These same objections were initially raised to Head Start.

Ongoing conflict over women at work continues to pervade public policy and the lack of social supports that would improve the lives of families.