Head Start

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

HEAD START provides an account of how the Head Start program was conceived and how it has managed to survive both the well-intentioned errors of its friends and political hostility of its enemies. The authors are well qualified to tell this story. Zigler, a psychologist at Yale, was one of Head Start’s founders in 1965. He also was administratively responsible for the program from 1968 to 1971 when he directed the Office of Child Development under President Richard Nixon. Muenchow, a former journalist, coauthored a 1980 presidential report on Head Start with Zigler and currently works as an advocate for children’s services.

Written from Zigler’s perspective, the book begins with an account of Head Start’s hasty beginning (“operation rush-rush”). The purpose of Head Start was multifold. In addition to accomplishing the desperate allocation of unexpended Community Action Program funds, the program was primarily designed to prepare economically disadvantaged, preschool children for increased academic success. It was also supposed to provide jobs for disadvantaged adults and politically to empower impoverished parents and communities. These purposes have not been easily reconciled. In addition, Head Start’s hasty beginning led to conspicuous unevenness in performance. Other obstacles to the program’s success included its early focus on IQ rather than motivational factors, deeply flawed but influential studies which indicated the program’s ineffectiveness, changing political winds, and scarcity of funds. With the help of dedicated bureaucrats, creative fieldworkers, and avid grassroots lobbying, Head Start has managed overcome these obstacles, gaining nearly universal recognition as one “War on Poverty” program that really works.

The program, however, has survived in watered-down form. The authors make it clear that a genuine commitment to our nation’s children requires that more than mere lip-service be paid to former President Bush’s pledge to fund Head Start fully.