Early Childhood

‘Father of Head Start’ Edward F. Zigler Dies at 88

By Christina A. Samuels — February 10, 2019 2 min read
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Edward F. Zigler, a clinical psychologist who was one of the original creators of Head Start, died Feb. 7 at his home in New Haven, Conn., leaving behind a federal program that has served more than 35 million children and families since its founding in 1965.

In an interview with Education Week in 2014, Zigler said that the planning committee that created Head Start envisioned serving perhaps 25,000 children in its first summer. Sargent Shriver, who was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s chief architect for the War on Poverty, had other ideas.

Look, if you have a small program, it'll be an experiment, and it'll probably vanish within a year," Shriver argued, according to Zigler. "And he kind of made a compelling case. I mean, we had programs like this that lasted a year or two, so the planning committee kind of went along with him."

The program served 560,000 children in its first summer.

Zigler said the distinctive traits of Head Start were the program’s focus on parental involvement and on comprehensive services—focus areas that continue to this day.

Before Head Start, there was not the degree of parent involvement in any of the early preschool programs," he said. "The second was comprehensive services. Health, social services, all the things—I mean, if you're interested in the development of children, you can't just stop with education, and the planning committee saw that."

Today, more than 1 million children ages birth to 5, along with pregnant women, are served through Head Start and Early Head Start, at a cost of about $10 billion for fiscal 2019.

Zigler said the program’s longevity is a testament to its popularity and success. “What program of any kind in Washington has lasted more than 50 years?” Zigler told Education Week.

Head Start has faced criticism, however, especially after a 2013 federal study found that much of the positive benefits of enrollment faded out by the time children were in 3rd grade. Those results were released around the same time that Head Start was starting a competition process designed to boost overall program quality and weed out underperforming Head Start grantees. In 2016, Head Start released the first revision of its performance standards since 1975, with a goal to cut red tape and further improve quality.

Zigler a ‘Titan’ in the Early Childhood Field

Yale University, Zigler’s academic home since 1959, wrote in its remembrance of Zigler that his upbringing resembled that of many Head Start kids—a child of Polish immigrants, he attended a “settlement house” in Kansas City that provided social supports and English instruction to Zigler and his family.

He would go on to receive his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1958, and spent a year at the University of Missouri before joining Yale as an assistant professor of psychology. He was only 35 when he was selected to be on the 14-person committee that developed Head Start.

During the Nixon administration, Zigler was appointed director of the Office of Child Development. He championed the 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Bill, which passed both houses of Congress and would have created a national network of child care centers. Nixon vetoed the bill.

“That veto remains the greatest disappointment of my professional life,” Zigler told Education Week in 1994, after Nixon’s death.

But Zigler’s work in early-childhood research and programming continued unabated. In 1978, he founded The Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. (The center was originally funded by a foundation created by 3M executive Archibald Bush and his wife, Edyth.)

In 2005, Yale’s Bush Center was renamed the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. Walter Gilliam, the current director of the center, said on Twitter that Zigler was a “titan in the field of developmental science,” and a mentor to many.

“I will miss him dearly. I learned so much from him. I wasn’t finished,” Gilliam wrote.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.