Minding Young Minds

An Interview with Edward F. Zigler

Commentary | March 8, 2007
Related Issue(s): K-12 Education

Edward F. Zigler has been a leading national authority on child development and early learning for more than four decades. Today, as growing numbers of policymakers embrace pre-kindergarten as an important source of education opportunity, Zigler, an active scholar and prolific author at 77, continues to play a central role in shaping the nation's thinking on early learning. Born in Missouri to Polish immigrant parents, he earned a doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of TexasAustin in 1959 and began teaching in the psychology department at Yale University the same year. In 1964, Zigler was appointed to a White House panel that spawned the creation of the federal Head Start program for economically disadvantaged children a year later.


Zigler became the first director of the federal Office of Child Development (now the Administration on Children, Youth and Families), where he administered Head Start and programs to improve child care. Three decades later, he headed a national commission on infant care that inspired the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, a law that gives working parents greater opportunities to be with their newborn children.


At Yale, where Zigler is Sterling Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, he established what is now the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. As the center's long-time director, he trained a number of the nation's most influential thinkers and researchers in the field of early learning and development. He and Yale colleagues also created a model elementary school program called Schools of the 21st Century that provides mothers with prenatal services and postnatal visits, preschool beginning at age three, and after-school services for children through age 12.


Zigler is the author or editor of 32 books and over 600 scholarly articles. Richard Lee Colvin, the director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, author of the early childhood education blog Early Stories, and an Education Sector Nonresident Senior Fellow, spoke with Zigler recently about Head Start, child care, and the emerging American preschool movement.


Education Sector: Your latest book is called A Vision for Universal Preschool Education. One of the big debates in early childhood education is whether public dollars should fund preschool for all or only for the poor and working poor. Why universal?


Edward Zigler: The problems in school are not limited to poor kids. If you examine dropouts, test scores, whatever you want to look at, middle-class kids aren't doing all that well. And there are so many more middle class kids than poor kids. No one ever talks about this, but the gap between middle-class kids and rich kids in our schools is as large as the gap between poor kids and middle-class kids. The "poor only" people aren't worried about middle-class kids. But I think America has to worry about that group. It's true that poor kids profit more from pre-k than middle-class kids. But, it's like schooling in general. Would we say we should only have schools for poor children?


That brings us to Head Start. After 41 years, Head Start still only serves about 50 percent of eligible kids. It never has and it never will serve all those who are eligible. That's because the poor carry very little weight with policymakers. You've heard the old saw, "poor programs for poor children." We always feel we can get away with a little less for poor kids. What I learned from the history of Head Start is that to maintain a good program you need a broad and influential constituency. The pre-k programs in Oklahoma and Georgia started serving only poor children and [officials in those states] learned that to maintain the programs, they must be universal.


I tried to integrate [poor and middle-class students within] Head Start when I ran it. We've known since the Coleman Report [a 1966 study of American students by sociologist James Coleman that found that black children did better in integrated, middle-class schools] that when poor kids are mixed with more affluent children, the poor kids do remarkably better. Besides, poor children have characteristics and attributes that would be helpful for middle class children to model.


Schools aren't just there to help children develop a trade or a profession. Schools are there to help adults live in a democracy. And how are we going to do that if kids don't see kids of other colors and kids from other socio-economic groups? Why is it all right to segregate kids along class lines but wrong to segregate them by race? I want kids to mix and that's why I'm for universal.


ES: The gap between middle-class kids and the rich will always be there. No matter what the public purse provides for middle-class kids, rich parents will spend whatever it takes to make sure their kids still have an advantage. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that rich parents in London get their kids on waiting lists for $23,000 per year preschools when they're still little more than embryos.


EZ: Yes. It's not just the quality of education that people are able to purchase. It's about the rest of their lives. It's museums, libraries, a thousand other things, that rich children have in their lives. The interesting thing about these rich kids is that they do well educationally, but personally they don't always. New research being done at Teachers College shows that these rich kids are just as likely as others to be taking drugs or getting into trouble. They tend to be deprived of parental time. The truth is I'm worried about all kids. Each of these groups presents different kinds of problems. But the primary goal of these preschools is school readiness and, if you're talking about school readiness, pre-kindergarten helps both poor kids and middle-class kids.


ES: You've always been an astute political observer and a pragmatist. So, explain to me the politics of universal versus targeted preschool.


EZ: Universal is more pragmatic. A new study by the group Zero to Three found that universal preschool appeals to people. I remember I was in a cab in D.C. when I ran Head Start. I asked this cabbie, "What do you think of Head Start?" And he said, "It's rotten." No hesitancy. Just rotten. I asked him why he thought it was so bad. His answer was one sentence: "Why should I pay my tax dollars for those children to get services I'd like to have for my own children?"


ES: You contend that a high-quality pre-kindergarten program would mix poor kids with middle-class kids. Given housing patterns in the U.S., is that realistic? How can we make it happen?


EZ: I don't think it's going to happen. But some people think it will. David Rusk [the former mayor of Albuquerque and a scholar who wrote Cities Without Suburbs] has a chapter in a new book that looks at five communities that have integrated their schools by class. The effect [on student achievement] is so large. It's a terrific idea. But my realistic opinion is that we will not be able to do this in America. I'd like to see it. But I haven't seen a convincing case of how to make it happen. Still, it's important to have the ideal and maybe you can do something on the fringes.


ES: For decades you've decried the abysmal quality of what we call child care in this country. Public money pays for a lot of child care in private settings. Do you worry about the quality of the private pre-kindergartens?


EZ: The key to everything is the quality of the program. People who think you're going to have weak programs and are going to get the effects of a program like High/Scope are kidding themselves. [High/Scope refers to the famous Perry Preschool that in the mid-1960s served poor African-American children in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Longitudinal studies of that group show strong positive effects.] We have to bring them up to good quality at least.


I would like to see the time come when school in America simply begins at age three. We should make the school day as long as the work day. Seventy percent of preschoolers in America have two working parents. Al Shanker said in 1970 that schools ought to do this. We don't have to monitor schools. Schools are high quality settings and we keep trying to make them higher quality through NCLB.


In contrast, the quality of the average child care program in private settings and homes is somewhere between mediocre and poor, and about 15 percent of them are so poor that they compromise the development of kids. I just finished a paper that looked at a massive amount of data from Missouri and we found that the quality of preschool affects what happens to kids up through the third grade. We've been arguing this forever.


State preschool programs are threatening to the private sector. Childcare centers can't charge the real cost of their infant and toddler programs. They use preschool money to subsidize their infants and toddlers. So the private child care providers make sure they're written into the [state pre-kindergarten] bills. These companies carry a lot more weight in the legislatures than someone like me who only cares about kids. State preschools don't have anything to do with child care. They're supposed to get kids ready for school. So let's just put this in the schools.


ES: You say the purpose of preschool is to get kids ready for school. Yet many parents today—affluent, well-educated people—argue that we're over-structuring kids' lives and putting too much emphasis on academics, even though emerging research shows this is not true. I get the sense that some parents think learning is painful. Is learning painful for three- and four-year-olds?


EZ: No. Kids are natural learners. They are like sponges. The question would be, "How can you stop kids from learning?" But it depends on how you do it. The controversy's been going on for 50 years and there are two competing approaches. One is the whole-child approach. We know that for kids to function they have to know more than the alphabet and numbers. We have to champion "play" in these places. Kids have to learn to get along with other kids, be healthy, learn to cooperate. The other approach is to focus on the cognitive development of kids. This controversy's been going on for ever. [Stanford University School of Education Dean] Deborah Stipek says we need a reconciliation between the two approaches.


I remember when people were so worried about abusing kids in Head Start that they wouldn't even put up the ABCs on the board. Any extreme is wrong. Good play is structured and kids learn to do certain things at certain times of the day. You have to read to kids. But that's not enough. You must get kids engaged. When you're reading to them, you ask, "What is this? What do you think that means?" Extend kids' language and sense of numbers. That's cognitive development. Kids' lives are filled with teachable moments. A trip to the grocery store can be educational. That's why we need well-trained teachers who understand this.


ES: But you've said that the quality of child care affects school readiness too?


EZ: About 35 percent of middle class kids and 40 percent to 50 percent of poor kids enter kindergarten not ready for school. And one reason is that kids are not getting high enough quality child care. Deborah Lowe Vandell of the University of Wisconsin said that 12 percent of child care settings are so bad that they hurt kids.


ES: The National Institute of Early Education Research judges many of the 39 state-funded preschool programs to be low-quality as well. What's the solution? How can we ensure quality?


EZ: States are moving toward creating preschool standards: a good teacher-child ratio, a decent curriculum. But it all costs money. And that's always the bugaboo.


ES: Tell me more about the Schools of the 21st Century project that you created with the help of your colleagues at Yale. How do child care and preschool figure in?

EZ: There are 1,500 of these schools, the biggest network of any school reform model. The goal is to promote the optimal growth and development of children, beginning at birth. We make sure mothers have good prenatal care. We follow that with home visits after the baby is born. We start kids in preschool at three, and the school day is as long as the work day and is year-round. Then, from ages five to 12 we add an after-school program.

The model includes health programs and social workers to connect parents with all of the services in the community. A place going gangbusters on this is Arkansas. They are up to 140 schools and they want to go statewide. The startup money for this comes from the state and foundations [in Arkansas, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation]. After that it's parent fees, calibrated to income. For poor communities, where they can't charge anything, they use federal Title I money [that targets disadvantaged students] and can also use money from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

There are four determinants of kids' growth and development. First, and by far the most important, is parents. Second is the health care system. Third is the quality of the school. And the fourth is the child care system. My schools are directed at hitting each of these domains in a big way. A lot of parent involvement. Schools don't raise kids, Head Start doesn't raise kids, parents raise kids.

There's a fight within our field about home-visiting programs. Some very good scholars say you don't get much from these programs. I'm in the opposite camp. Everyone knows how important a parent is. I'm an empiricist. I say the case is open and let's collect more data. Studies of Parents as Teachers, the family support program, showed improved school readiness. We also have the federal Early Head Start program, which is one model for a home-visiting program. We've got a randomized trial [a carefully planned research project] that shows it works. It doesn't have huge effects [on student achievement]. But it can change a kid a little bit early on and get them on a different trajectory.

ES:There are now more four-year-olds in state-funded preschools than in Head Start. Why don't we hear much about Head Start anymore?

EZ: Head Start is still important. One of the biggest fights of the [George W.] Bush years has been over Head Start. When President Bush was campaigning the first time he said Head Start was just a social program and that it should be more educational. Then he came up with a plan to give eight states block grants to run Head Start, as an experiment.

I spent a lot of my time trying to defeat that plan. The reason is quality. I'm convinced that Head Start is superior in quality to most state programs. Any time states demonstrate that they can do it as well as the feds, I'll switch. Many Republicans in the House ended up voting against the Bush plan and it passed the [then-Republican-controlled] House by only one vote. They had to twist arms to get even that one vote margin. The Senate wouldn't even consider it, so it died.

I'm now working on reauthorization of Head Start. Head Start will pass this time with a Democratic Congress. The problem is money again. They want to raise the eligibility criteria for Head Start up to 130 percent of poverty. But they've never served all the kids below the poverty line. So what makes them think they'll serve all the kids up to 130 percent of poverty? They'll also recommend that about a third of the Head Start teachers have Bachelor of Arts degrees. But that's an unfunded mandate.

ES:A group of mayors recently went to D.C. and lobbied for a big increase in federal spending on preschool. Will it ever happen?

EZ:The feds are tighter with money than the states. The states don't think twice about serving kids five to 18 years of age in schools. What's such a big deal to go down to age three? I'm a bit perplexed about how much federal policy is being imposed on the states. We have to get to a place where the states take on the investment. States will always spend the lion's share of the cost of education.

ES:In advising Congress, will you push them to spend more money on serving all kids eligible for Head Start, or would you say they should turn money over to the states to spend on state pre-kindergarten?

EZ:The big tragedy for kids in this country is child care. This is where the feds have to be. Nothing has been done since the Child Care and Development Block Grant [a federal program, created from several smaller programs during the 1996 welfare reform, that funds state child-care programs for low-income families and parents attending school].  The catastrophe for kids, the catastrophe for families, is the big split between child care and education. Education is looked as the state's responsibility. Child care is thought of as a family's responsibility. But we wind up with the kids in our schools. We don't know how to change. The Right Wing will fight anything that makes the lives of mothers and children better.

Some think of child care as a container. A mother brings a kid to this container as if it's a package and, like a package, it's kept dry and safe. Mother comes at the end of the day and picks up the package. Why would we pay for that? We have to come to view child care as an environment that determines the growth and development of children. And the quality of that environment is critical.

I remember a study done in the 1970s that said a lot of child care was horrendous. It's the same in studies done in 2000. By some criteria you could say we haven't made any progress in 30 years. I don't want to be all that pessimistic. Things can improve. But it would take a president to really do something on these issues. I will make some recommendations. They're the same recommendations I've been making for 35 years and they haven't gone anywhere.

ES:You're about to publish a book titled, The Tragedy of Child Care in America.

EZ:Yes, it's a tragedy for two reasons. We came so close [to creating a federal child-care system] in 1971 [when Zigler worked in the Nixon administration]. We thought we had a system. Congress passed it. But Nixon vetoed it. Pat Buchanan [a conservative social commentator who was at that time a Nixon speech writer] wrote the veto message. The message said, "This is socialism. The government is raising children, not their parents." It was the usual right-wing rhetoric, but nobody could touch [the idea of a federal] child care [program] again for years and years. The other reason for the title is that the quality of child care has been bad for so many years—at a great cost to children's development and parents' peace of mind.

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