Foundations for Excellence

Appendix A: Head Start and Data-Informed Decision-Making

Sound planning using data-informed decisions is the bedrock of effective program operations and continuous program improvement. HSPPS Achieving program goals, 45 CFR § 1302.102, requires programs to establish program goals for the delivery of program services that are responsive to community needs, along with measurable objectives to assess progress toward goals. Collecting and analyzing program data is a critical part of this process. Ultimately, it allows programs to track progress to determine how well programs are fulfilling their commitments to provide quality services to children and families from all backgrounds.

Program data is also essential for demonstrating progress on goals, effectiveness of services, and whether programs are complying with HSPPS and grantee performance requirements. As stipulated in each grantee’s baseline Head Start grant application, strategic long-term goals, measurable objectives, and projected outcomes are the basis for the program design approach.

The common refrain, “data rich but information poor,” speaks to a truth for many organizations that collect program data but do not use it in a meaningful way. The authors of Managing Information Strategically make this critical distinction between data and information:1

In order for data to become useful to a decision-maker, it must be presented as information that he or she can relate to and act upon. This is exactly why well-presented data—meaning data that clearly aligns with a program’s goals and provides a meaningful road map toward progress—is a critical feature of the grant application.

Responding to the HSPPS, Head Start programs have moved beyond simple data collection and are now analyzing, comparing, and using data-informed discoveries to make sound decisions for their programs. Data collection is most effective and useful when:

  1. Programs collect and analyze data to answer critical questions
  2. Data turnaround is fast
  3. Information is presented on an ongoing basis so stakeholders can respond in real time to address emerging issues

By following these three guidelines, data analyses will not only be richer but programs will also be able to use what they learn from the data to answer critical questions, set strategic directions, devise systemic solutions, and continually improve services to children and families.

Data collection is so much more than meeting a reporting requirement. Indeed, good use of data can enhance a program’s mission. When staff are able to clearly visualize potential program results and their role in bringing about those results, they are more enthusiastic about analyzing data and tracking agency progress.2 Likewise, when data analyses and performance measures lead to successful results, staff also become more vigilant and intentional about data collection. As an added benefit, understanding how their work affects children, families, and their community not only increases staff’s passion and energy for the work, but it also leads to more cohesive and effective teamwork.

Peter Drucker, often credited as the father of management theory, described two functions of data:3

  1. To manage operations
  2. To guide decisions

Head Start programs use data in both of these ways. Much of the data collected by Head Start programs relates to operations. Programs collect, aggregate, compare, and monitor operational data (e.g., attendance or staff turnover) on an ongoing basis to ensure that service delivery is timely, efficient, and effective. Many Head Start programs use their information management systems to track and report data on operations.

Head Start programs are becoming increasingly adept at using data to track progress towards goals and using analytic skills to inform decision-making. 

The Head Start planning cycle helps programs use data collection to support integrated, systematic planning. As programs implement their management systems, they should consider how to use data to both inform current work and, through the grant application, to develop and describe a program’s future work.

Thought Leaders on Data-Based Decision-Making

“What gets measured…gets managed [improved].” – Peter Drucker

“Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein

“Data is not just adding things to your plate. Data is about making sure you have the right things on your plate.” – Unknown

“Obstacles, of course, are developmentally necessary: they teach…strategy, patience, critical thinking, resilience, and resourcefulness.” – Naomi Wolf

“Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is, actually, the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.” – Chris Hadfield

“Anticipate the difficult by measuring the easy.” – Lao Tzu

“Without data you are just another person with an opinion.” — W. Edwards Deming

“A strategy is multi-dimensional planning, multi-team collaboration, and multi-tasking action.” — Pearl Zhu


1. McGee, J. V., Prusak, L., & Pyburn, P. J. (1993). Managing Information Strategically: Increase Your Company’s Competitiveness and Efficiency by Using Information as a Strategic Tool. New York: Wiley.

2. Schwartz, T., & Porath, C. (2014, May 30). “Why You Hate Work,” The New York Times. Article includes references to a study which found that employees were more likely to stay with their organizations when they derived meaning and significance from their work.

3. Drucker, Peter (2004, June 21). Peter Drucker on Making Decisions, Harvard Business Review.

Topic:Program Planning

Resource Type: Article

National Centers: Program Management and Fiscal Operations

Last Updated: February 11, 2019