Pioneering Steps in Developing a Federal Preschool Intervention

Pioneering Steps in Developing a Federal Preschool Intervention – and Fumbles

Edward Zigler

In the early 1960s, I was an ambitious new professor doing what most respectable psychologists at the time were doing–basic research. My fields of interest were abnormal psychology (following my postdoctoral training as a clinician) and mental retardation (which I became interested in as a graduate student and was the topic of my dissertation). Although some of my seniors thought I just could not make up my mind, I did not see these areas as all that disparate. From a developmental perspective, I was beginning to understand various psychiatric disorders as related to the patient’s premorbid level of functioning, or developmental level. Among children with cultural-familial retardation, my work was indicating that their functioning was equivalent to that of nonretarded children who were chronologically younger but at the same level of cognitive development. These lines of thought eventually grew up to become developmental psychopathology and the developmental approach to mental retardation. The philosophy was the same–people’s thinking and behavior are linked to their developmental level, regardless of their mental health status or rate of cognitive growth.

When the call came from Washington, I thought they had the wrong number. Dr. Robert Cooke, a noted pediatrician, was forming a committee of experts to design a school readiness program for young children who lived in poverty. Dr. Cooke had heard me lecture on why children with mental retardation often performed below what would be expected at their cognitive level. I theorized that because they had failed so often, their self-confidence and motivation to try were diminished. Dr. Cooke thought that poor children also experienced an inordinate amount of failure and would do better in school if they believed they had a chance to succeed. Thus, he thought I had something to contribute to his committee. My only experience with economically disadvantaged populations was that the children with cultural-familial retardation in my studies were generally from poor families. I myself had grown up poor. So, with some trepidation, and against the advice of my “scientific” scientist mentors, I agreed to join what became the Head Start Planning Committee.


The Committee was convened under the mission of the War on Poverty, an ambitious federal effort to help the poor help themselves to share more fully in the nation’s resources and democracy. President Lyndon Johnson and Sargent Shriver, the administration’s chief strategist of the War on Poverty, both believed that education was the vehicle for escaping socioeconomic disadvantage. Shriver was troubled by census data showing that children comprised half of the population living in poverty. He thought that they did not do as well in school as their wealthier peers because they were behind when they started. Thus, he envisioned a national intervention program to help them enter school on a more equal footing.

With the exception of a few small experimental projects, there was little experience at the time to suggest how to meet the needs of economically disadvantaged preschoolers. The 14 committee members had backgrounds in medicine, mental health, social work, and education, and each felt that his or her discipline should be part of the focus of intervention. As a result, we designed a broad program with comprehensive goals: Head Start would enhance social competence among children and their families by providing health care, nutrition, and social support services. Parents would be involved in the program for their own benefit and that of their children. While the planners did not realize it at the time, the comprehensive services, two-generation program we designed would become the benchmark for effective interventions in the coming years.

We counseled Shriver to begin with a small pilot program and carefully evaluate it before implementing Head Start on a national scale. But President Johnson demanded that Shriver fire a major volley in the War by starting out big; when Head Start opened in the summer of 1965 (just a few months after we finished our plans), more than 500,000 children attended. There was no time to screen the grant applications carefully, so quality was uneven from the very beginning. A few years later, when I became the federal official responsible for Head Start, I realized how difficult this problem was to fix. Of the initial grantees, not a single one had been defunded because of poor performance.

The experience of planning, and later overseeing, Head Start taught me some harsh lessons about mixing science and social policy. The first lesson was never to oversell what you can accomplish. Our planning document was nebulous: “Social competence” was neither clearly understood by lay people nor easily measured by evaluators. When President Johnson read a preliminary report that children’s IQs went up by as much as 10 points after spending one summer in Head Start, he found something people could understand. He proclaimed the program a resounding success because it made children smarter. He carried this tentative finding a step further and predicted that they would go on to successful school careers and stay off of welfare and out of jail and poverty when they grew up. The planners, anxious to see our program succeed, did little to dispel these claims.

What exactly did we think our program would accomplish? To be very succinct, not much. Head Start began as a summer school, enrolling children for 6 to 8 weeks before they entered elementary school in the fall. We knew we could not change their life trajectories in this brief space. We thought that some educational and social experiences might have a positive but small effect. About all we were sure of was that health care and good nutrition would be beneficial and that at least the other services would not be harmful.

The wild claims made for Head Start had repercussions that are still being felt. When the initial gains in IQ were found to fade away in the first few years of school, Head Start fell from grace in the minds of many. The extra IQ points did not have staying power, so the program had no power at all. To this day, Head Start’s accomplishments in preparing children for school, health, and family functioning are overlooked by critics disappointed by the apparent fade-out of cognitive benefits. This perception is a sad commentary on the poor job social scientists have done in conveying human development as a multifaceted, lifelong process.

In the era of Head Start’s birth, many theorists subscribed to what I have labeled the “environmental mystique.” Their premise was that given the “right” experiences at the “right” time, children could become great intellects. The magical period was commonly assumed to be the years before school age; the favorable experiences were everything from crib mobiles to talking typewriters to a few weeks of preschool. These beliefs translated into expectations that Head Start and other early interventions could inoculate children against the harmful effects of growing up in poverty. The notion that we could somehow repeal the laws of human genetics and rebalance the nature-nurture equation has never been extinguished. Indeed, the current bandwagon that infant brains need constant stimulation for superior neural wiring and growth is the environmental mystique with a biological twist.

Head Start’s planners did not subscribe to the inoculation model. They knew that children came to Head Start from impoverished environments and would return there at the end of the day. This is one reason why we emphasized parent involvement. Children would graduate from Head Start, but their families would continue to guide their development for the years to come.

The moral is that there is no quick fix for poverty and no magical treatment that will turn us all into Nobel laureates or Rhodes scholars. Development is a continuous process. For children who may have difficulty traversing the stages of development, intervention must begin early and last long enough to make a difference. Head Start’s administrators have worked to operationalize this commonsensical idea since the early days. Just 2 years after the program began, the Parent and Child Centers were opened to provide educational and support services to families and children before the preschool years. This mission has now been given to Early Head Start, a new and expanding model of services to families of infants and toddlers. Also initiated 2 years after Head Start was Follow Through, which continued intervention through the early grades of school. The latest effort to extend support services and encourage parent involvement from kindergarten through third grade is the Head Start Transition Project. These programs appear to reflect a gradual realization among policymakers that the early years, the preschool years, and the time of transition to school are all important to a child’s healthy growth and development. However, social scientists still must prove the greater value of dovetailed services over the quicker, less costly ones that have been desired for so long.


The hasty manner in which federal officials implemented Head Start magnified the problems inherent in such a large and novel undertaking. Hindsight being clearer than foresight, I have observed these errors carry over time and invade other well-intentioned efforts on behalf of at-risk children. I have spent a good part of my professional career trying to correct these problems and teaching my students to avoid them in their future work with children.

Some of these lessons are program specific. For example, Head Start has always been a segregated program, dividing economically disadvantaged children from their wealthier peers. The planners believed that both groups could benefit from learning and playing together. Therefore, we suggested that 10% of enrollment slots be opened to above the poverty line children. We hoped this mandate would be a first step toward fully integrating the program in time. Head Start has never been funded to serve all eligible poor children, however, so very few participants are above the poverty index. Those students who are not poor are likely to be children with disabilities who are enrolled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Head Start has actually been more successful integrating children with disabilities than those with higher incomes. Under my recommendation, Congress mandated that children with handicaps comprise 10% of enrollment. In recent years, this ratio has been consistently exceeded.

More general lessons I gathered from my experience with Head Start involve having crystal clear goals, a feasible evaluation plan, and rules to define and monitor program quality. I counsel my students to be brave: When they see something amiss in a program, they must speak out. Although this might offend the program’s guardians, constructive criticism can ignite positive changes that benefit those the program is intended to benefit. I will briefly expand on these points.

The planning document for Head Start did not contain a unitary goal but listed seven objectives. This made it difficult to explain the point of the program, which in turn made it easy for President Johnson to focus on the one part of one objective that everyone understood–cognitive skills. When I was Head Start’s federal administrator, I saw the confusion the planners inadvertently created and pushed for a simpler goal statement. After several years of operation, the goal of enhancing social competence was officially adopted. Yet this construct did not mean much to the public and, as it turned out, meant too many things to professionals. Over the next 10 years, teams of scientists conducted three major efforts to operationally define social competence and develop an assessment battery for use in Head Start evaluations. Despite this significant amount of work, no practical results were achieved. Head Start continued to be misunderstood as a cognitive enrichment program and disparaged because the enriched IQs it produced did not last forever.

In 1990, President Bush and the state governors adopted national education goals for the year 2000. Goal i is that all children will enter school ready to learn. Policymakers began to embrace preschool programs as the means of attaining universal school readiness. They renewed their friendship with Head Start and poured funds into the program for expansion. I quickly saw the value of using terminology most people could understand.

Although I had long insisted that Head Start’s goal is social competence, for young children this is exactly the same as school readiness. To be competent, a child must be effective in dealing with his or her environment and be able to meet age-appropriate social expectancies. Children who cannot deal with their environments or demonstrate abilities that are reasonably expected of their age group are not ready for school. Discussions of competence and readiness, in fact, rely on the same themes. For example, the Head Start Bureau listed healthy growth and development, preschool education, and families who nurture their children’s learning among objectives that support social competence. The three objectives for National Education Goal 1 (school readiness) are exactly the same. I shared these thoughts with Congress, which officially changed Head Start’s goal to school readiness in the Coats Human Services Reauthorization Act of 1998. (Lest I be accused of having a change of heart, I will repeat that the planning committee was charged with designing an intervention to give poor children a “head start” so they would arrive at school with skills comparable to those of classmates from wealthier homes.)

The construct of school readiness shares a fault with that of social competence: Neither has an authoritative definition and therefore both lack standard measurement. This brings me to the second theme I teach my students. A program must not only have a clear, attainable goal, but there must be a way to assess whether it is being realized. One reason why early studies of Head Start relied heavily on IQ and achievement tests is that investigators had no standardized tools to measure certain objectives like “self-confidence, spontaneity, curiosity, and self-discipline.” Shortly before the program opened its doors, Edmund Gordon (who would become Head Start’s first research director), several graduate students, and I worked nonstop to develop some measures for the various objectives. We only had a little over a week, so our tests were never formally validated or a bit useful. Their only value was in representing a commitment to evaluation that would take some time to mature. Later, efforts to develop a battery of social competence protocols were likewise fruitless. Evaluations of Head Start were thus confined to what we had, namely, IQ and achievement tests, although a few investigators looked at impacts on health, family functioning, and adaptation to school.

This state of affairs might have gone on indefinitely if federal officials had not mandated accountability for all government programs. Once results were required, Head Start could no longer elude serious evaluation. The Head Start Bureau is currently working on the development of program performance measures to assess both the quality and effects of program services. The measures should be as valuable in showing the scope of Head Start’s benefits as in highlighting ways to improve them.

Attention to quality is the advice I deliver most loudly. We do not need a cadre of experts or a stack of tests to prove that good services are better for children than poor services. Head Start started off so big and so fast that quality was uneven. Many centers delivered excellent programs, but some were only fair and others worse. I tried to correct this as soon as I got to Washington. It was then that I discovered how difficult it was to bring together politics, knowledge about child development, and common sense. I initiated efforts to develop standards to govern Head Start services and quality. The resulting Program Performance Standards were finally implemented in 1975, 10 years after the project started. Model Head Start programs that served children younger than preschool age had no quality dictates at all until 1998, when the Performance Standards were revised and extended to cover Early Head Start.

The lack of attention to quality over the years, including the lack of consistent monitoring, resulted in an erosion in the value of the services delivered. This situation was exacerbated in the early 1990s when a period of rapid expansion began. I knew that many Head Start participants were not being served well, and I did not want to see more of them served that way. I therefore made a move I do not regret. I told the press that one-third of Head Start centers were of such poor quality they should be closed.

My friends in Head Start were shocked and hurt, and they were not shy about telling me so. But soon after the disgruntled phone calls and hate mail subsided, what I had tried to do so long ago in Washington actually came to be. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, convened the Advisory Committee on Head Start Quality and Expansion. Congress passed legislation setting aside funds for quality improvements. Research Centers on Head Start Quality were formed. And, as I mentioned, the Performance Standards were revised, and measures to assess progress were put into development. These efforts have produced results, and Head Start is now better than it has ever been. It still has some way to go, but the administration’s commitment to improvement bodes well for further progress.


When I arrived in Washington to assume responsibility for Head Start, I immediately realized how little I knew about the policymaking process. I also came to see how little policymakers knew about the child development literature. They were very eager to learn. I came to be called “Professor” Zigler, and my staff meetings were known as “lectures.” This was of course not academia, and the high-ranked officials who attended were not my staff or my students. They were very dedicated elected officials who wanted to hear what research could tell them and use this information to form better policies.

I never envisioned myself in this position or in the federal administration at all. As a basic scientist, my business was to produce and refine knowledge and theory. My work was shared with colleagues in professional journals and academic lecture halls. When I agreed to join Dr. Cooke’s planning committee, my mentors were very unhappy with me. At that time, basic and applied science were viewed as opposite ends of scholarship and basic researchers as superior to those who worked in application. In Washington, I realized how artificial this split was. I had access to a wealth of knowledge derived from decades of work by basic scientists. Social policies were being formed without the benefit of this literature. Policymakers welcomed me as an interpreter and tried to act on what I taught them.

After seeing firsthand how policy construction could be enriched by developmental science, I joined three leading developmentalists (Urie Bronfenbrenner, Julius Richmond, and Sheldon White) and approached the Bush Foundation with a new concept. We proposed establishing centers for training child development scholars who wanted to work at the intersect of research and social policy. The Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, which I still direct, has trained many Bush Fellows over the years to use their knowledge to solve social problems.

The mission of the Bush Centers has now become more acceptable in academic circles. Government and many private funding sources are seeking projects that have visible results. The spread of interdisciplinary work has brought psychologists closer to those in fields devoted to practice. And today’s young students are an active-minded generation who want to contribute both to the knowledge base and to humanity.

As I launch them on their careers, I give them a parting caution to be educators, not advocates. As I learned during my time planning Head Start and advising its administrators, we can accomplish much more by telling policymakers what we know and admitting what is not yet known–separating our facts from our opinions. As with our scholarly work, our interface with policy must be solidly based on a commitment to serving the best interests of children and families.

Address: Edward Zigler, Yale University, Department of Psychology, PO Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205

Edward Zigler with Sally J. Styfco, Yale University


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