• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 07th April, 2009

Still a bridge over troubled water

No-one knows better than Edward Zigler how difficult – even treacherous – the current connecting child development research and policy and practice can sometimes be. Carry him back to 1971 and he will readily recall how close Washington once came to building a universal childcare system. Congress passed the bill, “but it was vetoed by my boss!” The boss in question was President Richard Nixon, who protested that what was being proposed was a form of Socialism – making government responsible for raising children.Throughout his long career, Zigler has stayed on the pulse of the relationship between improving research and the fluctuating political will. Its present condition was high on the agenda of the Society for Research in Child Development conference in Denver, last week, where he took part in a special session on the direction of child development science and policy.When the Society started out in 1933, such connections were nowhere on the radar, and it was only in 1978 that a social policy arm was added. Now SRCD provides its members with regular policy reports, and presentations on practice implications are commonplace. But Zigler’s example and experience are unrivaled; he has spent more time on Capitol Hill than most politicians. Dante Cicchetti, one of his star pupils, who has gone on to revolutionize the field of developmental psychopathology, calls him “extraordinary,” – one-word testimony to Zigler’s care for humanity and his persistence in raising the political profile of childcare and early childhood education.

"We have made children visible"

The son of Polish immigrants, Edward Zigler spent his early years in a settlement house during the Great Depression, and he speaks with the authority of someone who has experienced poverty and its consequences at first hand. He describes himself as a philosopher of science but also as a pragmatist: “knowledge is important whether you are trying to get to the moon or raise children” he says.He began teaching at Yale in 1959 after earning a PhD in developmental psychology from the University of Texas. Just five years later he was appointed to the White House panel that was to be responsible for the creation of the federal Head Start program, designed to promote healthy development and learning among low-income children. When the first Office for Child Development (now the Administration on Children, Youth and Families) was opened in the US in 1970, he was chosen as its head. He is straightforward about his contribution: “I started the field of child development and social policy… I ran the Children’s Bureau… and I've been a bridge between academia and decision-makers in children’s lives.“We have made children visible. There was a sense that parents and families were sacrosanct and you didn’t see children from when they left the hospital to when they entered school. But by then the achievement gap between rich kids and poor was already apparent, and it only got bigger with the years.” Head Start has had some success in closing this gap “but it’s not enough. By third grade it’s back”.His prizewinning book A Vision for Universal Preschool Education, brings together colleagues from psychology, education, economics and political science to make a compelling case for expanded access to preschool services. The authors describe the social, educational, and economic benefits. The key is access for all. Zigler and colleagues are behind one of the largest school reform models in the US. Schools of the 21st Century promotes children’s health and development from birth by placing health and social services alongside education under one roof. “This isn’t pie in the sky. We’ve achieved it in over 1,300 schools. It can be done.” Some of his contemporaries are not convinced. Economist James Heckman, for example, continues to argue for targeted services. But others seem to be listening: President Obama’s Zero-to-Five plan will provide comprehensive support to families in the early years to enable children to enter kindergarten ready to learn. Zigler does not work alone. He cites as mentors Urie Bronfenbrenner and Julius Richmond, the first director of Head Start. Both were close professional friends throughout their lives. But how does he see Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, which says that children develop within nested environments of family, community, society and culture, being applied in policy making? “It’s not very helpful saying everything is important,” he concedes. “You have to provide some focus.” Hence the quadrants of his own career interests: family, health, education and childcare. The condition of one – contemporary childcare – is a source of regret. “The days of mum at home with the kids while dad goes to work are gone. We have two-parent working families now and a large proportion of single-parent families who need to work. Where are the children going to go?” His view is that politicians and the public think about childcare as a service that allows parents to go to work – which of course it is. But it is also social setting and one that will determine children’s developmental trajectories. The US is notoriously unequal when it comes to health care; as Zigler argues, “Sick kids don’t learn. Sick kids don’t function well’.

“We have no childcare system over here”

A new book is due out in May. He calls it “the saddest I ever wrote” and makes no apologies for the gloomy title, The Tragedy of Childcare in America. “We have no childcare system here” says Zigler. “It is just a hodgepodge of services – poor to mediocre at best; at least 12% of them could be judged to seriously compromise children’s development. It might not sound like a lot but we’ve got 74 million children in this country; that 12% affects a lot of children.” At 79 there seems to be little change to Zigler’s academic pace but finding successors to carry on his legacy, to continue to be the ‘bridge’ between child development research and social policy is surely critical.“I’m not worried at all. We’ll get there. One of my colleagues will achieve universal childcare in the US’. For his part, he reflects that if he has done nothing else in his life he has been instrumental in helping the 25 million children and their families who have been recipients of Head Start to get a better life. No-one could argue with that.

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