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The Legacy of Dr. Edward Zigler

A truly great American, Dr. Edward Zigler passed away February 7 at his home in Connecticut at the age of 88. A legendary scholar, developmental psychologist, and architect of American public policy, Dr. Zigler was Sterling Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, the first director of the U.S. Office of Childhood Development, and founder of the Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy.

Among his innumerable contributions, Dr. Zigler was one of the original architects of Head Start for President Johnson’s War on Poverty and is commonly termed “The Father of Head Start.” In our little corner at the intersection of independent education and social policy, he is also widely known as “The Godfather of Horizons.”

Dr. Zigler’s association with Horizons, which began in 1980, was the serendipitous result of a professional connection to Edward Fiske, then Educational Editor of The New York Times, who served as a trustee of New Canaan Country School down the Connecticut Turnpike from Yale University. NCCS had launched an experimental summer program for children from low-income families in 1964, which had become well established by 1979, when I arrived as Head of NCCS.

The Horizons program had evolved in its early decades, and it offered a stimulating and compelling summer experience for the children from nearby low-income neighborhoods in Stamford and Norwalk. However, it was apparent that more effective leadership and expertise would be required to shift Horizons from, to use a term not yet popularized, “good to great.”

Enter Dr. Zigler. Thanks to the introduction from Ted Fiske and indefatigable pursuit by Lyn McNaught, the newly appointed Executive Director of Horizons, Dr. Zigler agreed to  take a quick look at what was going on, give us a little advice on what kind of social interventions might actually make a measurable difference in the lives of children in poverty, and perhaps design a study of Horizons using his considerable resources at the Center for Child Development and Social Policy.

His interest was piqued by his initial observations. In 1980, working with a small committee of Horizons Board members, interested NCCS trustees, and administrators, Dr. Zigler and several of his colleagues conducted a randomized control study of our Horizons Program. He was a formidable presence at our periodic committee gatherings in the back of the NCCS library: brilliant, eloquently passionate about children, immensely knowledgeable, efficient and direct. With little tolerance for well-intentioned “liberal nonsense,” he brought to bear a professional persona clearly hammered out on the anvil of decades of dealing not only with fractious academicians, but also with Washington politicians.

His Yale team’s study of Horizons was thorough and, for us amateurs, agonizingly meticulous. It took almost two years of interviews, questionnaires, and discussions. At last, in 1982, Ed (With some temerity a handful of us had ventured onto what we felt was a first-name basis with the man who could surprise us in an instant with candid, often acidic passing observations such as “It’s an American disgrace that child-care providers in this country are paid less than zookeepers!”) gathered our group with his team of research assistants, shared their findings, and told us what we needed to change in order to make a genuinely meaningful impact on the lives of the families in poverty in Fairfield County, Connecticut. All of us at NCCS at the time were uncomfortably aware of the fact that New Canaan was the most affluent community in the most affluent state in the most affluent nation in the world. We were far less aware of the accompanying poverty in our communities and the fact that Connecticut had the largest achievement gap in the country!

I can clearly remember the highlights that Dr. Zigler and his team shared with us that afternoon:

  • There was minimal evidence that our summer “intervention” had increased the children’s skills in reading or mathematics, although there was modest improvement in Middle School math. (This was, of course, initially crushing news to the members of our committee. But more, later.)
  • There was clear evidence that participation in Horizons led to improved student attendance at their public schools from September to June, a significant finding.
  • There was encouraging evidence that enrolling children in Horizons significantly increased their families’ willingness to increase their involvement in their own public schools and advocate for their children.
  • Horizons students had significantly fewer disciplinary referrals than their non-Horizons counterparts.

When Ed concluded these introductory remarks, a palpable gloom hung in the little reading room. Then Dr. Zigler, the author of more than 800 scholarly articles and 43 books and monographs, instructed us on reality.

“You are no doubt disappointed that there were no dramatic measurable academic gains. But you need to understand that a significant benefit of Horizons, which you may not fully appreciate, is that simply keeping the children at the same academic level over the summer is a profoundly important achievement, because typically low-income children lose half a grade level over the summer. (He was explaining to us neophytes about “summer slide,” now a common term in public policy lexicon, though I believe he used the phrase “reversing summer learning loss.”)  Improving attendance at the children’s schools is immensely significant, as is empowering parents to advocate for their children in their local schools.”

He went on to suggest several specific programmatic recommendations (all of which we adopted), followed by:

“You need to explore the possibility of replicating your program at other sites around the country, because the challenge of reversing summer learning loss for low-income children is a crucially important national challenge.”

We left the New Canaan library in 1982 somewhat chastened, considerably wiser, and eager to address the challenges Dr. Zigler had laid out for us—at New Canaan Country School and elsewhere.

In subsequent years the Horizons model has continued to evolve. Dr. Zigler and his research team returned for a second study in the mid 1990’s, and starting in 1995, the program was expanded to an increasing numbers of sites in Connecticut and beyond. High school components have been added to many programs and affiliate programs have been developed on the campuses of colleges and universities.

What abides through all the expansion and program evolution is Dr. Zigler’s model, the magic, that works so well. Swiftly, effectively, he guided Horizons through a fundamental transformation. The inchoate little Horizons at New Canaan in the 1960’s and 1970’s served a handful of children; today, on 59 campuses in 18 states spread out over our diverse country, we serve more than 6,000 youth. And the service, the leveling of our American educational playing field for thousand and thousands of young children, expands each and every year.

The fine English poet Stephen Spender wrote of those “who were truly great…who left the bright air signed with their honor.” Edward Zigler did that time and time again, for millions of families and children in his long and productive life. At Horizons we should count ourselves blessed that he touched us with his brilliance and his compassion. The legendary “Father of Head Start” was truly “The Godfather of Horizons.”

Nicholas S. Thacher,  Horizons National Board of Directors