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Reliving the History of Compensatory Education: Policy Choices, Bureaucracy, and the Politicized Role of Science in the Evolution of Head Start

by Barbara Beatty & Edward Zigler - 2012

In this article, Edward Zigler, interviewed by Barbara Beatty, talks about a turning point in the history of Head Start that reveals how policy choices, bureaucracy, and science came together when he was told to phase out the program in 1970. New to Washington, Zigler learned that President Richard M. Nixon’s domestic policy advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had put forth the Family Assistance Plan, favored direct support for mothers and families over compensatory preschool education. Zigler saw how both the methodologically flawed 1969 Westinghouse study on the supposed fadeout of Head Start gains and Arthur Jensen’s controversial 1969 article on the supposed failure of compensatory education became politicized and influenced arguments about Head Start’s future. With President Nixon’s veto of the 1971 Child Development Act, Zigler witnessed how competing policies, bureaucracies, and political ideologies could block support for universal child care and comprehensive services for children and families. After many years of consulting to Head Start and research on applied child development, he sees public schools as sites for coordination of social welfare programs that can improve access to high-quality health care, education, child care, and family services, as in his Schools for the 21st Century model.

Edward Zigler arrived in Washington in 1970 to direct the newly formed Office of Child Development (OCD), which housed the Children’s Bureau, the venerable child welfare agency founded in 1912 at the urging of Progressive Era social advocates Lillian Wald, Florence Kelley, and others, and Head Start. He had been wooed to head the bureau and the OCD by President Richard M. Nixon’s Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), Robert Finch. Impressed by Nixon’s 1970 speech to Congress in which Nixon had talked about the importance of “establishing a network of child development projects to improve our programs devoted to the first five years of life,” Zigler was especially attracted by the opportunity to run Head Start, for which he had been on the initial planning committee.1

Two years after the change from a Democratic to a Republican administration, however, the political environment in Washington was shifting, and Zigler was faced with a shocking development in the status of Head Start. Only a week after he had taken the job, Zigler was called to a meeting at the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), through which Head Start funding was channeled. Although Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy director Richard Cheney had taken over at OEO, financial matters were overseen by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), an arm of the White House. At the meeting, a young OMB staffer put up a chart showing how Head Start should be phased out, only five years after it had started. Zigler was told by the OMB staffer to cut Head Start’s budget by a third for each of the next three years until the program was completely gone.2

Zigler experienced some of the tensions among policy choices and policy makers that permeated the relationship of compensatory education and welfare policy in the 1960s and early 1970s. Although Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nixon’s chief domestic policy advisor, had written Nixon’s speech to Congress in which Nixon expressed support for projects targeted at young children, Moynihan favored direct funding to mothers and families. Author of the controversial 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Moynihan was pushing his Family Assistance Plan welfare reform.3 Head Start, which served many children of so-called welfare mothers, and Moynihan’s Family Assistance Plan posed a policy tension. Although Moynihan’s Family Assistance Plan contained a childcare provision, Zigler was worried about its quality and about Moynihan’s lack of support for Head Start.4

 Tensions among different approaches to supporting poor children and mothers are not new. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when publicly funded aid for poor working mothers began, what was thought to be good policy for poor children and good policy for poor mothers was at issue. Jane Addams, one of the mothers of public child welfare policy, chose mothers’ pensions over child care. In advocacy that initiated the push for the federal welfare program, Addams argued that publicly funded pensions would allow poor mothers to stay home and take care of and educate their young children. She condemned day nurseries, which provided child care outside the home, for their low quality, problematic effects on young children, and cost, continuing issues in early childhood care and education today.5

Although staying home is no longer a realistic option for most poor mothers because of changes in welfare policy and the economy, Zigler was deeply concerned about insufficient access to high-quality preschool education and child care, and to Head Start. President William Jefferson Clinton’s 1996 reform of Aid to Families with Dependent Children required mothers living in poverty to work, regardless of whether they could find high-quality preschool education and child care for their children. Most poor mothers need to work for economic reasons as well. But most eligible poor children then, as now, do not receive subsidies or access to high-quality preschool education and care, a situation that is worsening as the economy declines.6

Bureaucratic infighting was a second factor in the directive to Zigler to phase out Head Start. Head Start, like compensatory education generally, was overseen by different federal agencies. Although OCD and Head Start had been delegated to HEW, both OEO and OMB had a say in Head Start’s governance. Of the two agencies, OMB was more powerful in the turf wars that erupted over what was left of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs.7 These competing chains of command often came into conflict. Horrified that he was supposed to end the program he had come to Washington to administer, Zigler told Elliot Richardson, who had taken over at HEW after Finch left, that he would resign that day if Head Start was cut. Richardson told Zigler not to worry. Zigler’s job, Richardson said, was to improve the quality of Head Start. Richardson said that he would go to the White House to defend the program.

Nonpartisan, Zigler, who has always said “my politics are children,” tried assiduously not to get caught up in the jockeying among different federal bureaucracies. He surmises that Richardson must have gotten President Nixon to override Moynihan’s opposition to Head Start.8 The standoff was over. Of course, increased financial pressure from another political priority, the escalating Vietnam War, played an important role, as did other competing goals. Head Start survived, and it remains one of the most popular of all federal programs; however, the Head Start budget covers only about 40% of eligible children, and its use of the official poverty line for admission means that it serves primarily children living in poverty, with only 10% allowed to be over the poverty line.9

Zigler also experienced how politicians use science-based research as a rationale for policy positions. Moynihan was impressed by the findings of the premature, methodologically flawed 1969 report by the Westinghouse Learning Corporation and Ohio University, which purportedly showed that Head Start’s gains faded.10 Moynihan took the report at face value, Zigler says, and believed it was accurate.11 As a sociologist, Moynihan did not have the disciplinary background of the developmental psychologists and other researchers who critiqued the study. That the Westinghouse Report was criticized by leading methodologist Donald Campbell went little noticed. Despite these critiques, Moynihan used the Westinghouse Report to support why Head Start should be cut.12 The Westinghouse study and Arthur Jensen’s 1969 Harvard Educational Review article, in which Jensen declared compensatory education to have been tried and failed based in part on Westinghouse data, were “a one-two punch,” Zigler says, for belief in the effectiveness of Head Start during the program’s early years.13

In fact, Zigler had tried to stop the Westinghouse study before he came to Washington. As the Westinghouse study was beginning, Zigler and fellow developmental psychologists Edmund Gordon and Urie Bronfenbrenner designed a competing three-year longitudinal study of Head Start with control groups, results of which Zigler hoped would be available to offset the Westinghouse Report. But internal methodological debates at the Educational Testing Service, which collected the data (much of which was done by Virginia Shipman, who worked with Robert Hess on the study of black mothers’ childrearing patterns that Barbara Beatty describes in this issue), led to the ETS Head Start study remaining in the ETS archives for over two decades. When the data were finally analyzed by Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and others in the late 1980s, they documented gains for children who had attended Head Start and, because Head Start attendees were more economically disadvantaged than children in the control groups, that the Westinghouse report had underestimated these gains.14 Zigler was heartened when research by the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, formed in 1975 by Cornell University psychologist Irving Lazar, provided evidence that a number of preschool interventions, including Martin Deutsch’s preschool project in New York City and the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, had long-term effects. The consortium’s findings boosted support for Head Start and the movement for increasing funding for education for young children.15

Zigler experienced the impact of policy choices, bureaucratic competition, and politicization again during the struggle over passage of the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have mandated federal support for universal child care and included Head Start. Zigler had worked with Democrats Senator Walter Mondale and Representative John Brademas, who designed the act. Influenced by Head Start, the act combined child care with the kind of comprehensive health, nutrition, and social services that Head Start offered. At the same time, Zigler was designing new, more enforceable childcare standards that would have increased childcare quality generally and in Moynihan’s Family Assistance Plan if it passed, which it did not. Once again, Zigler encountered resistance from OMB, which opposed the new childcare standards as too expensive. 16

Although the Comprehensive Child Development Act passed the Senate and House in the fall of 1971, disagreement existed over the size of the community necessary to receive a grant. The final version of the bill allowed communities as small as 5,000 to receive a grant, which Zigler knew would be an administrative nightmare.17 Opposition also mounted from the Right over the idea that the act would increase federal control over families. Conservatives likened the act to Communist-style intervention into family childrearing.18 Mobilizing developmental psychologists, Zigler helped get the Society for Research in Child Development to endorse the act.19 To the surprise of the bill’s many supporters, Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, objecting to its “fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability, and family weakening implications.” In language taken from his speechwriter Patrick Buchanan that is still quoted by childcare and preschool advocates today, Nixon said that the act would “commit the vast moral authority of the national Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family centered approach.”20

Like so many others in the childcare coalition that had come together around the Comprehensive Child Development Act, Zigler was deeply disappointed by Nixon’s veto. Zigler was also disappointed by OMB’s opposition to improved childcare standards. He continued to work for quality improvements in Head Start, but when it became clear that there would be no federal support for child care, Zigler resigned as director of the Office for Child Development in 1972.

 What might Zigler’s memories of his tenure at OCD suggest about compensatory education for young children? He saw how the kind of behind-the-scenes policy tensions and bureaucratic jockeying that are constants in politics could block what he thought were good policies for children. As a scientist, he was especially concerned by effects of the timing of scientifically based research. When politically influenced policy “windows” that affect policy choices open and close, scientifically based studies of supposed program effects or lack thereof can have a big impact, no matter how methodologically sound or unsound the studies are.21 During times of lean domestic budgets, internal policy advocacy, bureaucratic competition, and scientific studies, whatever their quality, can be overridden by external national goals, as Zigler saw, too.22

As a developmental psychologist, Zigler was also keenly aware of the importance of the variable of children’s age in policy choices, as other preschool advocates know painfully well. Never funded comparably with Title I, Head Start has long waiting lists of children who never receive its benefits.23 Zigler has long felt that preschool education should be minimally two years, but because of limited funding, most Head Start children receive only one year. Time and again, preschool programs for poor children are proposed, begun, and then cut, in a last in-first out cycle of funding. Other education programs come and go as well, as politicians and their staffs, education researchers, and philanthropic organizations shift their perspectives from one set of new proposals to another, but programs for young children frequently remain at the end of the queue, as discretionary budget items.24 For example, Zigler came out in Education Week in February 2009 in favor of targeted kindergarten through Grade Three programs over generic Title I. More of a funding stream than a program, he wrote, the many billions a year in the federal Title I budget would be better spent on educating children in the youngest age range, for whom there is stronger evidence of effectiveness, he argued.25

From his experiences in Washington, ongoing consulting with Head Start, and extensive applied developmental psychology research on children’s well-being, Zigler has become convinced that comprehensive services to children and families, such as those that Head Start provides and the Comprehensive Child Development Act would have made universal, are key. He agrees with psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s concept of the “ecology” of human development, the idea that children grow up in a complex network of interacting social systems of which schools form one piece.26 Zigler insists that to have an impact, high-quality programs must be directed synergistically at four systems: families, health care, education, and child care. Although Zigler knows that there are many things that schools cannot do, he believes that schools can be sites to coordinate help for some of the external factors that affect young children living in poverty. To achieve this goal, Zigler designed a Schools of the 21st Century model, which links health care, education, child care, and other family services, and demonstrates how the ecology of schools and society can be better integrated. There are now over 1,300 Schools of the 21st Century serving children and families.27 Having lived through the critical period in the early 1970s when compensatory education was increasingly embattled and federal support for universal, comprehensive programs for young children rose and was blocked, Zigler understands the many barriers that adults need to bridge—some in policy, some bureaucratic, some related to the politicized use of research—to be able to help poor children.


This article is based on an interview with Edward F. Zigler conducted by Barbara Beatty on May 17, 2011. Zigler, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Director Emeritus of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, was the director of the United States Children’s Bureau and first director of the Office of Child Development, which included Head Start, from 1970 to 1972. A developmental psychologist, he has consulted on Head Start since the program’s inception; shaped the field of applied developmental psychology; and had a profound influence on children’s policy in the United States. Some of this information is also from Edward Zigler and Sally Styfco, The Hidden History of Head Start (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).


1. Interview with Edward F. Zigler conducted by Barbara Beatty on May 17, 2011. Some information in this article comes from Edward Zigler and Sally Styfco, The Hidden History of Head Start (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) and other sources, as noted. Richard Nixon, Special Message to the Congress on Education Reform, March 3, 1970, available online on the American Presidency website at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=2895&st=&st1=#axzz1frltnKtw. Ruby Takanishi and John Spencer provided helpful comments on drafts.

2. Zigler interview with Beatty.

3. United States Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1965). On the Moynihan report and his Family Assistance Plan, see, among many others, Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, eds., The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967); and James T. Patterson, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

4. Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 159. Two Head Start Programs were part of the study.

5. For more on policy tensions between support for mothers and support for child care, see, among others, Sonia Michel, Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); Elizabeth R. Rose, A Mother’s Job: A History of Day Care, 1890–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Barbara Beatty, “Policy, Politics, and Preschool Advocacy: Lessons from Three Pioneering Organizations,” in Who Speaks for America’s Children? The Roles of Child Advocacy Organizations, ed. Carol J. DeVita and Rachel Mosher-Williams (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2001), 165–90. On the benefits of childcare centers as “networks” for mothers, see, among others, Mario Luis Small, Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

6. For statistics on childcare eligibility, see Hannah Matthews, “Child Care Assistance in 2009,” March 9, 2011, Center for Law and Social Policy CLASP website, http://www.clasp.org/issues/topic?type=child_care_and_early_education&topic=0008. On access to quality preschool education, see W. Steven Barnett et al., The State of Preschool 2010, National Institute for Early Education Research website, http://nieer.org/yearbook/.

7. For more on the administration of Head Start and preschool policy, see, among others, Edward Zigler and Susan Muenchow, Head Start: The Inside Story of America’s Most Successful Educational Experiment (New York: Basic Books, 1992); Barbara Beatty, Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); Maris A. Vinovskis, The Birth of Head Start: Preschool Policies in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Gene I. Maeroff, Building Blocks: Making Children Successful in the Early Years of School (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); David L. Kirp, The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); and Elizabeth Rose, The Promise of Preschool: From Head Start to Universal Pre-Kindergarten (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

8. Zigler interview.


9. On percentage of Head Start children covered, see Jeffrey Mervis, “Giving Children a Head Start Is Possible—But Not Easy,” Science 333 (August 19, 2011): 956. For recent state-by-state and national Head Start and Early Head Start statistics, see “Head Start and Early Head Start Participation by Age (2007-2010),” CLASP, August 2011, http://www.clasp.org/admin/site/publications/files/Head-Start-and-Early-Head-Start-Participation-2007-2010.pdf; Zigler interview.


10. Westinghouse Learning Corporation, The Impact of Head Start: An Evaluation of the Effects of Head Start on Children’s Cognitive and Affective Development, Ohio University Report to the Office of Economic Opportunity (Washington, DC: Clearinghouse for Federal Scientific and Technical Information, 1969), ERIC Document No. ED036321. For differing views on the impact of the Westinghouse Report, see, among others, Zigler and Styfco, The Hidden History of Head Start; Zigler and Muenchow, Head Start; Vinovsksis, The Birth of Head Start; Kirp, The Sandbox Investment; and Rose, The Promise of Preschool.

11. Zigler interview; Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 83.

12. Zigler interview; Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 72–73, 77.

13. Zigler interview.

14. Zigler interview and Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 180–85. On the results of the ETS Head Start study, see Valerie E. Lee. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Elizabeth Schnur, “A 1-Year Follow-Up Comparison of Disadvantaged Children Attending Head Start, No Preschool, and Other Preschool Programs,” Developmental Psychology 24 (March 1988): 210–22; Valerie E. Lee, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Elizabeth Schnur, and Fong-Ruey Liaw, “Are Head Start Effects Sustained? A Longitudinal Follow-Up Comparison of Disadvantaged Children Attending Head Start, No Preschool, and Other Programs,” Child Development 61 (April 1990): 495–507; Barbara Beatty, “The Debate over the Young ‘Disadvantaged Child’: Preschool Intervention, Developmental Psychology, and Compensatory Education in the 1960s and Early 1970s,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

15. Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 194–98; Zigler interview. See Irving Lazar et al., “Lasting Effects of Early Education: A Report from the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies,” Monographs for the Society for Research in Child Development 47, no. 2/3 (1982).

16. On Zigler’s effort on the childcare standards, see Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 162; and Rose, The Promise of Preschool, 65.

17. Zigler interview.

18. Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 172–73; Rose, The Promise of Preschool, 60.

19. Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 165.

20. Quoted in Zigler and Styfco, Hidden History, 63.

21. On policy windows, see John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984).

22. For evidence of recent declines in state funding for preschool education, see studies by W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, at http://www.nieer.org.

23. Zigler interview.

24. On churning in education policy, see, among many others, Richard F. Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin, Steady Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1988); David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: Reflections on a Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); Charles M. Payne, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); and Frederick Hess, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999) and The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

25. Edward Zigler, “A New Title I: From a ‘Hodgepodge of Efforts’ to a Targeted K-3 Program,” Education Week, February 4, 2009.

26. Urie Bronfenbrenner, An Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

27. Matia Finn-Stevenson and Edward Zigler, Schools of the 21st Century: Linking Child Care and Education (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999). On numbers, Zigler interview. For more on policies that link education, child care, and other children’s services, and on the politics of children’s policy, see, among others, Edward F. Zigler and Mary E. Lang, Child Care Choices: Balancing the Needs of Children, Families, and Society (New York: Free Press, 1991); Edward Zigler, Sharon Lynn Kagan, and Edgar Klugman, eds., Children, Families, and Government: Perspectives on American Social Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Edward F. Zigler, Sharon Lynn Kagan, and Nancy W. Hall, eds., Children, Families, and Government: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996); and Edward F. Zigler and Edmund M. Gordon, Day Care: Scientific and Social Policy Issues (Boston: Auburn House, 1982). On children’s policy and fragmentation, see, among many others, Maris Vinovskis, Education, Society, and Economic Opportunity: A Historical Perspective on Persistent Issues (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); David L. Featherman and Maris A. Vinovsksis, eds., Social Science and Policymaking: A Search for Relevance in the Twenty-First Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001); W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, Broken Promises: How Americans Fail Their Children (New York: Basic, 1982); and Gilbert Y. Steiner, The Children’s Cause (Washington, DC: Brookings, 1976).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-10
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16694, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 6:56:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Barbara Beatty
    Wellesley College
    E-mail Author
    BARBARA BEATTY, professor of education, Wellesley College, is the author of Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present and other publications on the history of preschool education and the relationship of psychology and education. She taught kindergarten in the Boston Public Schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
  • Edward Zigler
    Yale University
    E-mail Author
    EDWARD ZIGLER, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Emeritus Faculty, and Director, Emeritus, The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale University, is the author of numerous publications in developmental psychology, applied developmental psychology, children’s policy, family policy, and education policy, and on the history of Head Start, which he directed from 1970 to 1972.
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