This article explores Head Start’s overall effectiveness in improving school readiness outcomes and its potential to reduce gaps in these outcomes in light of changing program goals, resource and funding capacity, and the demographic changes in the low-income child population it serves. Although not an explicit goal of the Head Start program, we assess whether and how the program can address reducing school readiness gaps between children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and income groups. Because of changing policy priorities and targeting vulnerable groups of children with diverse needs, meeting Head Start goals within funding constraints can be challenging. Yet, as we will show in this paper, the program has successfully adapted to its changing environment, and despite the evolving nature of its goals and populations served, it has managed to demonstrate a favorable impact on children. Future research on tailored programming, program implementation and impacts on specific groups of children is needed to help Head Start further improve its ability to address persistent school readiness gaps.

Key Take Away Points

  • Overall, Head Start has successfully adapted to changing demographics and meets its primary goal of improving child school readiness at kindergarten.
  • Evidence also indicates that enhancing Head Start services with additional evidence-based practices results in additional improvements in school readiness.
  • Capacity constraints limit the program’s ability to reach all eligible children, reducing its potential to narrow inequities in school readiness at the population level.
  • Future research is needed that examines the program's impact on previously understudied subgroups of children (such as immigrant children), directly evaluates its impact on school readiness gaps, and considers variation in service implementation across local programs.

Author Biography

Pamela K. Joshi is a senior research scientist at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts. Kimberly Geronimo is a research associate at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Dolores Acevedo-Garcia is the Samuel F. and Rose B. Gingold Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and director of the Institute for Child, Youth, and Family Policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.


The authors thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for generous funding for the diversitydatakids.org project, on which all data and analyses in this article were based.