Edward Zigler wanted to give all children the head start they need to learn life skills. Take reading, for example, he told a Senate committee in 2002. “It begins with the thousands of loving interactions with parents after an infant is born. It begins as a child develops a sense of self-worth by realizing that his or her accomplishments, whether they’re learning to roll over or to recite the alphabet, are important to significant others. It begins with sitting in a safe lap, hearing a familiar bedtime story. Eventually, the child will want to emulate the parent and read, too.”1
But reading involves more than learning letters and the sound of words. “A child who is frequently absent from school because of illness, or who has vision or hearing problems, will have a difficult time learning to read. So will children who suffer emotional troubles.” So, “I am urging that we broaden our approach to literacy by focusing on the whole child,” Zigler said.2 And this “whole child approach” is still the foundation of Head Start, the massive federal program for preschool children he helped design as a 35-year-old professor at Yale.
But before he scaled the heights of the ivory tower, Zigler was “an original Head Starter,” as he recalled while looking back on his childhood in the Depression. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to Kansas City, MO, where they earned a meager living selling produce and poultry. By the time Zigler was 8, he was also selling fruit and vegetables from a horse-drawn carriage. But he would someday ride the road to success because the local immigrant settlement house provided him and his parents with health care, meals, social supports and education. “As the son of a non-English speaker and having grown up in poverty, I’ve been able to exceed expectations and possibilities,” Zigler said.3
After serving as an Army sergeant in the Korean War, he found himself on the fast track to academic stardom. He graduated from college in 1954, earned a doctorate in psychology in 1958 and one year later joined the faculty at Yale, where he explored childhood development in hundreds of articles and books. But he was no out-of-touch scholar. He believed in “being in the game” and used his research to make policy that would right social wrongs.4 “I don’t think we have the kind of advocacy for children that they deserve to get,” he said. “I intend to be an outspoken advocate for children. We can do better by our children than we have been doing.”5
This conviction led him to the front lines again in the early sixties when Lyndon Johnson recruited a panel of experts to help bring his War on Poverty to schools. Johnson, like Zigler, had grown up poor, and he spent his early career working as a teacher in the rural wasteland of West Texas. That is where Johnson saw poverty up close and gained his faith in the power of education to end it. “If it weren’t for education,” he once joked to Zigler, “I’d still be looking at the southern end of a northbound mule.”6
So, Johnson mainly pushed the academic component of Head Start. But education involves “more than the three Rs,” Zigler contended while discussing the Head Start approach to school readiness for low-income children.7 His model for Head Start was the settlement house, based on how he remembered being treated as the child of immigrant parents.8 This experience had showed him that focusing on the academic component is not the right response to the roadblocks many low-income children face. “Children who have uncorrected vision or hearing problems, who are ill or malnourished, who don’t sleep at night because of fear or hurt, or who have parents too preoccupied with their own problems to pay attention to them will struggle with learning no matter how good the teacher,” he said.9
And raising the quality of teachers would be one of his concerns when he served in the Nixon White House as the first director of the Office of Child Development. In that role, he revamped Head Start by adding home visiting services, resource centers and a number of other new programs. “I was also deeply immersed in the drafting of the Child Development Act of 1971,” he said. “That bill was going to put in place a huge national child care system in America that any parent could access. But the primary question was ‘Who’s going to staff all these child care centers?’ That was my primary motivation for inventing the Child Development Associate credential.”10
Until then, professionals working in child development programs had to acquire their professional standing through a formal educational process. “What was revolutionary about the CDA,” Zigler observed, “was the performance-based or competency idea behind the credential. I didn’t care if you knew who Piaget was, but I did want to know if you could effectively interact with children and teach them. The fact is a paper-and-pencil test alone is not really valid to the degree that an observation of a person actually functioning is in determining that person’s qualifications.”11
But Zigler knew there had to be a template to evaluate candidates for the CDA. “I mean you go in and look at a teacher and anybody who knows early childhood education can tell you in 15 minutes whether the teacher is competent or not,” he pointed out, “but it had to be more than that. So, what should we look at? The emotional warmth between the teacher and the child, the independence that the teacher gives the child to lead, to discover what teachable moments are — these are the things you look at.”12
You also need to look at whether teachers have the skills to boost children’s social, emotional and cognitive growth, Zigler explained. And he wanted to impart these skills in a detailed curriculum for students. This required some “heavy lifting,” he recalled. So, he asked for help from his colleagues at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “They really made it whole. Bank Street College then led the group to develop what became the 13 Functional Areas that they now look at. So, it evolved from a look-see into a more formal, evaluation process.”13
The CDA also has its own organization, as Zigler predicted it would. “When the group of CDAs becomes large enough,” he wrote in 1981, “CDAs themselves will have to decide whether they wish to form their own organization. The development of such an organization appears inevitable. The organization could enhance the professional status of the CDA certificate and could be an independent organization. This CDA organization could sponsor continuing education series, conferences, professional exchanges, and it could provide a base for advocacy efforts” — all functions now fulfilled by the Council for Professional Recognition.14 Since its beginning in 1985, the Council has fulfilled Zigler’s wish to spread the CDA network and raise public awareness of the credential.
But his efforts to provide universal child care and education were less successful, despite his strenuous work on the 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Bill. His far-reaching vision would have resulted in affordable child care options for all working American families based on a sliding fee scale. It was approved by Congress, but politics led Richard Nixon to later nix it. “Nixon vetoed the bill because of the outpouring of mail from the evangelicals and the far right,” Zigler explained. “They didn’t want women to work. They said we were Sovietizing America’s children — that children would be raised by centers rather than their mothers.”15
There was also a deeper reason for why the bill failed, as Zigler would point out in 1976. “The single greatest impediment to our improving the lives of America’s children,” he explained, “is the myth that we are a child-oriented society. In our nation today children and families all too often come last, and the social barriers to providing a better quality of life for our nation’s children have become almost insurmountable. Too many Americans either will not or do not want to hear the well-documented facts concerning our nation’s massive shortcomings in regard to children.”16
So Zigler kept speaking out for them after leaving the Nixon White House in 1972 and returning to Yale. He was an advisor on child and family policy to senior officials in every subsequent administration from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, regardless of political affiliation. He served both Republican and Democratic presidents because he believed Americans should be united by the cause of children. “I remember when I was in Washington,” he recalled in 2002. “They kept trying to get me to say whether I was a Democrat or Republican. I just said, ‘My politics are children.’ That’s all I know anything about.”17
The research he would go on to do put the spotlight on the value of family involvement and the vital role parents play in their children’s lives. He promoted Head Start Policy Councils that gave Head Start parents some say in how their local Head Start program functioned. He also developed the Education for Parenthood Project, the first national parenting education program provided to teens in U.S. schools. He would later become an early proponent of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and ardently argued for paid parental leave, an idea President Trump floated in his most recent State of the Union Address.18
Zigler knew the stresses families faced as the American lifestyle changed and more women went to work. “There’s a myth,” he said, “that working couples have a contract to share the chores. But what’s really happened is that women work all day and then come home to a second shift. As a result, they aren’t sleeping enough. We’re finding if a mother is harried and hassled about working all day, and not getting good child care, these effects show up in her children and her husband. It permeates the whole family system.”19
The federal government’s failure to address the plight of working families had reached crisis proportions by 1989 and led Zigler to despair. “I’ve been working for a child care bill in America for 20 years,” he said at the time, “and I’m convinced that this is not going to happen at the federal level. Family care is a matter for the states to deal with. What I want the Feds to do is show some leadership by providing money that’s necessary for poor children.”20
In the course of several decades, Zigler had held his breath over threatened cuts to Head Start. The history of the program “frequently has resembled the Perils of Pauline,” he joked grimly in 1982.21 And federal funding was still on his mind in 2013 when he had surgery for the heart condition that took his life last year. While lying on the table, he called to his colleague Walter Gilliam and asked him how the pending reauthorization of Head Start was doing. Zigler wanted to make sure Gilliam knew what to do in case he failed to make it through the operation.
While the two of them were talking, an anesthesiologist in the room happened to hear their conversation. Upon finding out that Zigler was behind Head Start, the anesthesiologist kneeled down beside him and thanked him. Like Zigler, he was a child of immigrants and also a graduate of the program. He said he believed his life turned out so much differently than the other children in his community because of Head Start.22
1Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. February 12, 2002. “Examining Education Issues, Focusing on Quality Educational Programs, Parent Involvement in Early Childhood Development, and Separation of Education for Children with Special Needs.” Forum on Early Learning, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-107shrg77367/html/CHRG-107shrg77367.htm.
3Roberts, Sam. February 12, 2019. “Edward F. Zigler, an Architect of Head Start. Dies at 88.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/12/obituaries/edward-f-zigler-dead.html.
4Golden, Olivia. February 28, 2019. “Head Start Founder Sought Paid Family Leave.” Hechinger Report, https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-in-the-era-of-family-values-he-was-calling-for-paid-family-leave/.
5Schudel, Matt. February 9, 2019. “Edward F. Zigler, an Architect of the Head Start Program and a Scholar of Childhood Dies at 88.” Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/edward-f-zigler-an-architect-of-the-head-start-program-and-a-scholar-of-childhood-dies-at-88/2019/02/09/d57205ac-2c8a-11e9-984d-9b8fba003e81_story.html.
6Palmaffy, Tyce. 2001. “Head Start: The War on Poverty Goes to School.” Education Next, https://www.educationnext.org/head-start/.
7Zigler, Edward F. and Sally J. Styfco. 2001. “More than the Three Rs: The Head Start Approach to School Readiness.” Education Next, https://www.educationnext.org/more-than-the-three-rs/.
10Washington, Valora, ed. 2013. Essentials for Working with Young Children. Washington, DC: Council for Professional Recognition.
14Zigler, Edward F. and Sharon L. Kagan. July 1981. “The Child Development Associate: a Challenge for the 1980s.” Young Children, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42642914?seq=1.
16Zigler, Edward F. April 25, 1976. “Children First or Last?” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/04/25/archives/children-first-or-last.html.
18“Edward F. Zigler: Eminent Psychologist Hailed as Father of Head Start.” February 8, 2019. Yale News, https://news.yale.edu/2019/02/08/edward-f-zigler-eminent-psychologist-hailed-father-head-start.
19Rierden, Andi. August 27, 1989. “Q&A: Dr. Edward Zigler; We Need a Good Child Care Program.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/27/nyregion/connecticut-q-a-dr-edward-f-zigler-we-need-a-good-child-care-program.html.
21Zigler, Edward F. January 29, 1982. “Head Start’s Perils of Pauline.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/01/29/opinion/head-starts-perils-of-pauline.html.
22Kim, Eui Young and Jessica Pevner. February 12, 2019. “Edward Zigler, Father of Head Start Dies at 88.” Yale News, https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2019/02/12/edward-zigler-father-of-head-start-dies-at-88/.