Standing up for Head Start's strengths

The walls of Edward Zigler's Yale University office present a slice of United States history.

Youthful photos of Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale flank shots of Professor Zigler greeting Rosalynn Carter in the 1970s and Hillary Clinton in the 90s. There's a picture of Zigler leaning toward Richard Nixon across his Oval Office desk and another of a warmly smiling Lady Bird Johnson.

Zigler was a founder and an early director of Head Start, the 36-year-old federal program designed to promote school readiness in children from low-income families. And he has worked with every US president since Lyndon Baynes Johnson on early childhood education.

By now, he and his program have seen it all.

"Head Start has always had a bit of a 'Perils of Pauline' existence," the psychology professor says with a chuckle. "People love it, and then they hate it. They say it works, then they want to change it."

But when it comes to the Bush administration's proposals to alter the Head Start formula, Zigler is candid about his concern. "I'm ambivalent," he says, "and I'm troubled."

President Bush and Secretary of Education Roderick Paige have both made it clear that they'd like to reshape Head Start, which currently serves 865,000 children living under the poverty line, into a more academic program with an emphasis on building early reading skills.

Although the education bill passed by the Senate last week does not require Head Start centers to move in this direction, it does provide funding to make it possible.

For Zigler, such an effort would endanger what he sees as the foundational strengths of Head Start. These include an approach focused on offering health care, nutritious meals, socialization, and a chance to learn through play, as well as an effort to involve parents and enhance their parenting skills whenever possible.

"Nobody's against literacy," he says, "but [the Bush administration is] backing away from a holistic approach."

Children who are malnourished and live in dysfunctional families are not ready to absorb reading fundamentals, Zigler says They have other, more essential needs to be attended to before they can be expected to focus on academics. To turn the nation's 2,100 Head Start centers into reading programs, Zigler says, would mean neglecting these primary concerns.

In addition, he says, the Bush agenda could mean a lock step adherence to methods not yet proven to be the most effective.

Mr. Bush's Reading First Initiative would rely heavily on phonics-based instruction. For 3- and 4-year-olds in Head Start, the teaching would concentrate largely on letter recognition and sound-letter relationships.

When it comes to the so-called "Reading Wars" -the debate between those who favor teaching phonics and those who prefer whole language's exposure to a rich literary experience - Zigler says he suspects the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

But to prescribe a phonics-based curriculum for all Head Start students makes him uncomfortable. "I don't see how the Bush administration can be so certain that this is best," he says.

One of the criticisms of phonics-based instruction is that it can be rote and not especially appealing to children. "There is some evidence you can turn a kid off," Zigler says, "if you make learning awful. And that's especially true for poor kids who don't have much confidence to begin with."

For many in early childhood education, the idea of straying too far from the Head Start formula is uncomfortable. The program has now been in existence long enough that there are adults ready to testify to the difference its intervention made.

There have also been studies demonstrating that the program has been effective in increasing the school readiness of children from low-income families, although it has been more difficult to prove that such gains are carried on through upper grades.

That's one of the pegs on which some detractors hang their criticism. They'd like to see a tighter connection between a child's participation in Head Start and good grades in later years.

Over the decades, conservative groups have also said Head Start should be administered through federal block grants to the states, to be used as the states see fit.

That's highly compatible with Bush's interest in moving the administration of Head Start out of the Department of Health and Human Services into the Department of Education, which administers Title I funding in block grants to states.

Many expect Bush will propose such a move when Head Start comes up for reauthorization in 2003.

"That would be a disaster for Head Start," Zigler comments. Although he admires the way some states run their own child-care centers, he worries that many, if given a block grant, would quickly abandon some of the more successful elements of the program, including parental involvement.

Despite these concerns, Zigler sees reasons for optimism about the future of Head Start. For one thing, he's encouraged by the degree of interest today focused on early childhood education.

"This is a particularly interesting time," he says. "The evidence [that early childhood education is important] is becoming clearer all the time."

It troubles him, though, that after almost four decades, Head Start still serves only 40 percent of eligible children. It's a circumstance he believes will be corrected with time. "Universal preschool," he predicts, "is where we're going."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

Edward Zigler on ...

The impact of education:

My father was a Polish immigrant who sold produce from a horse-drawn wagon. That's about as far as you can get from a professorship at Yale. My ticket out was education.

The field of child development:

I wanted something more pragmatic, not to just fill up academic journals. The goal should be to make society a better place. The science of child development has never had the impact on social policy that it should.

The early days of Head Start in the 1960s:

'Project Rush Rush' was our inside name for it. It grew too big, too fast, with no staff.... We were so naive. We were in danger of overselling the program.

The IQ of young children:

Raising children's IQ is not the ultimate proof of the success of anything. I prefer to focus on social competence. There are a lot of smart people who can't use the intelligence they have because of motivation or personality problems.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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