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Head Start

The purpose of the Head Start Division, directed by Edward Zigler and Sally Styfco, is to synthesize the relevant literature, analyze social policy, and disseminate information on Head Start and early childhood intervention. The Head Start Division was created at the Zigler Center in 1995, originally both to conduct empirical research and to interpret the broad literature on Head Start and related programs for a variety of audiences. The division now focuses on synthesis, policy analysis, and dissemination activities. Grounded firmly in the knowledge base, efforts within the division are directed to focus academic and political attention on Head Start and to propose future directions for services and underlying policies.
The Bush Administration’s recent attempts to make major changes in Head Start’s structure, content, and funding procedures created high demand for the Head Start division’s abilities to illuminate, advise, and in some cases defend, preferred practices. The launch of the National Reporting System (NRS), an achievement test administered to all Head Start 4-year-olds at the beginning and end of the academic year, brought a flurry of requests by policymakers, the media, and practitioners to advise on this and alternate accountability systems. Our efforts have had some impact on the content of the NRS. Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, is planning to add measures of social and emotional functioning to the cognitive assessments. Edward Zigler, who has worked with every president since Lyndon Johnson, is holding to this tradition and serving as a consultant to the Bush Administration on Head Start, the NRS, and related matters.

Developments outside of the political arena are also imposing changes on Head Start’s future. The majority of the states now fund pre-kindergarten programs to varying extents, and the trend is clearly toward universal public preschool. We have developed a vision of Head Start’s place in this movement. Thus far we have identified at least three possibilities: Change the focus of the program to infants, toddlers, and their families by expanding Early Head Start; as schools assume responsibility for preschool education, Head Start will provide social support services to eligible children and families that presuppose academic success; and turn Head Start into a therapeutic preschool to provide intensive services to children of all income levels with serious emotional or behavioral problems. These proposals, all of which capitalize on the program’s strengths in serving children and families who are most in need of comprehensive services and who may be underserved in public preschool settings, are detailed in a chapter written with Sally Styfco in the recently published book, A Vision for Universal Preschool Education (Zigler, Gilliam, & Jones, 2006).

Recent writing projects include a chapter on the profound influence social and emotional development have on children’s school readiness and academic success and the problems with a narrow focus on cognitive skills in preschool programs (Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2006). In a journal article we examined the eternal confusion over Head Start’s goals and explain how the now codified goal of school readiness will help deter scientists, policymakers, and the public from overly high expectations that cannot be met by a brief preschool experience (Zigler, Gordic & Styfco, 2006). Zigler and Styfco (2006) prepared another chapter describing the backdrop of Head Start as a social justice program.

Major projects currently in the planning stages include a monograph on developing meaningful expectations for early intervention and preschool programs, featuring experience with Head Start as the ballast of our arguments. We are also gathering ideas for a book on Head Start’s hidden history—facts and circumstances that shaped program operations, public opinions, changing degrees of political support, and the program’s own developmental course.


Zigler, E., & Bishop-Josef, S. J.(2006). The cognitive child vs. the whole child: Lessons from 40 years of Head Start. In D. G. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff, & K. A. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play = Learning: How play motivates and enhances children's cognitive and social- emotional growth (pp. 15-35). New York: Oxford University Press

Zigler, E., Gilliam, W. S., & Jones, S. M. (2006). A vision for universal preschool education. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zigler, E., Gordic, B., & Styfco, S.J. (2006). From IQ to school readiness: Four decades of uncertainty in Head Start's purpose. Submitted for publication.

Zigler, E., & Styfco, S. J. (In press). Social justice and America’s Head Start program. In C. Wainryb, J.Smetana, & E. Turiel, (Eds.), Social development, social inequalities and social justice. San Diego, CA: Erlbaum