Empowering Children and Families to Thrive

Key Lessons from Research with the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation on Head Start FACES

The Head Start program is an evidence-based federal program that supports early learning and development for children in families with low incomes. The Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation’s (OPRE’s) work evaluating the program was recently recognized by the White House in its Applying Social and Behavioral Science to Federal Policies and Programs to Deliver Better Outcomes blog. Mathematica is proud of its longstanding collaboration with OPRE on its portfolio of research that uses Head Start data to shed light on key areas of the program—from how to better understand and support families to how professional learning for Head Start educators can support children’s outcomes. The lessons learned from this work highlight the importance of a holistic approach to early childhood education.

Lessons Learned

Holistic support and economic stability are critical

The Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) provides national information about Head Start programs and participants. Data from FACES 2019 and studies on the economic conditions of Head Start families reveal that comprehensive support systems foster family stability. Programs that integrate educational services with economic assistance, social supports, and health care are better able to address the multifaceted needs of families with low incomes. This holistic approach helps create a supportive environment that promotes both child and family well-being.

A doctor visiting a man and his young son in their home


A teacher outside of a training session holding a notebook and looking at her phone

Adaptability and resilience in education enables learning continuity

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of adaptability in educational assessments and teaching methods. Studies on early learning skills during the pandemic show that flexible and resilient educational frameworks are crucial in maintaining learning continuity. Tailoring assessment methods to current circumstances ensures that children’s educational progress is accurately monitored and supported.


Family-centered program design can support Head Start engagement and satisfaction

Understanding why families choose Head Start and their experiences within the program provides valuable insights into designing family-centered educational models. Programs that actively listen to and incorporate family feedback can better align with the needs and expectations of the communities they serve, leading to higher family engagement and satisfaction.

A woman and her baby greeting a visitor at their front door


Two infants in a classroom looking at a book with their teacher or caregiver

Early intervention supports school readiness

Tracking children’s progress in language and cognitive skills reveals that they make significant gains during their time in Head Start. These findings emphasize the importance of early intervention in preparing children for school readiness. Programs that focus on developing these foundational skills will set children on a path toward long-term academic success.


Respecting and incorporating cultural heritage enhance outcomes

The first national study of Region XI Head Start American Indian and Alaska Native children highlights the need for culturally relevant educational practices. Programs that respect and integrate the cultural and linguistic heritage of children, including those from American Indian and Alaska Native communities, can promote a more inclusive and equitable learning environment. Culturally tailored approaches enhance engagement and educational outcomes by honoring the identities of all children.

Parents sitting on a couch with a baby and two small children on the floor in front of them


Teachers sitting in a training session with an instructor pointing to materials

Continuous improvement and support can improve educational practice

The FACES 2014 study highlights the critical role of ongoing professional development for Head Start staff. Effective training programs are essential for improving teaching quality and, consequently, children’s outcomes. Ensuring that educators receive consistent support and resources can lead to significant improvements in educational practices and child development


Systemic inclusion and fairness must be a focus

Equity emerges as a central theme across OPRE’s studies. Ensuring that all children have access to high-quality early education involves ensuring accurate measurement, addressing systemic barriers, and promoting fairness in resource distribution. Equity-focused strategies ensure that every child receives the support they need to thrive.

Four preschool aged children sitting on the floor in a classroom looking at their teacher while clapping their hands

Recommendations for Implementation

We recently commented on Proposed Rule Changes to Support the Head Start Workforce. Here’s what we recommended:

  1. Address high turnover with better compensation and support.
    High turnover rates among Head Start educators underscore the urgent need for better compensation and support.
  2. Make compensation more equitable. Significant disparities exist in wages among Head Start educators based on the administering agency.
  3. Provide comprehensive training and technical assistance. Effective implementation of new standards requires robust training and technical assistance.
  4. Monitor impacts on the broader early childhood education system. Changes in Head Start standards will reverberate throughout the broader early childhood education system because of the interconnected funding and service provision. Monitoring these impacts is crucial.
  5. Address unintended consequences. Although wage increases aim to support educators, they may also lead to unintended consequences, such as reduced enrollment in programs with fewer resources.


Learn more about OPRE’s portfolio of work on the Head Start program and how Mathematica supports it.