Diplomas Count 2008: School to College
Published Online: May 30, 2008
Published in Print: June 5, 2008, as For Kentucky’s P-16 Council, Quiet Influence Proves Best

For Kentucky’s P-16 Council, Quiet Influence Proves Best

A pioneer in state-level education redesign, Kentucky was among the first in the nation to bring precollegiate and higher education to the same table through a P-16 council. But, after nearly a decade, the state still faces significant challenges in smoothing the transition for students moving between its K-12 and postsecondary systems.

Just 71.5 percent of Kentucky students complete high school in four years, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. And only 37 percent enroll directly in college, according to a report released in December 2007Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader by the Denver-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, at the behest of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The report, which examined all aspects of Kentucky’s higher education system, including preparation, suggested that the state accelerate its work on the transition from high school to college. And it questioned whether the state’s 9-year-old council—an informal, advisory panel—is the right vehicle to address those issues.

It noted that action on the P-16 council’s advice depended on the willingness of the Kentucky Department of Education and the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education, or CPE. “The perception of some,” according to the report, “is that the P-16 council has served as more of a debating and discussion forum than as an effective means to address critical, cross-agency issues.”

That’s not to suggest the council has been ineffectual.

The council led Kentucky’s participation in the American Diploma Project and helped keep transition issues on the front burner in the state, thus helping to spur a new postsecondary-placement policy.

But the picture of the council that emerges from interviews conducted by Education Week is that of a panel that is more apt to influence education policy than to set it, and which has been most effective in keeping Kentucky’s education policymakers focused once there is a consensus on a particular issue. It also is seen as a useful forum for discussion that has helped state officials reach agreement on some issues.

“It’s a moral platform,” says Dianne Bazell, the assistant vice president for academic affairs at the CPE. “Even though it’s not a policymaking body,” she says, the council’s endorsement gives proposals “that extra push.”

While the state council has largely been the province of the CPE and the state education department, some of the nuts-and-bolts work of implementation has been done at the local level, by a patchwork of about 20 regional councils, with varying records of success.

Traditionally, the state council has served as a starting point for discussion and a forum to strengthen relationships between different educational agencies. While there are benefits to that approach, some agency officials and lawmakers are wondering whether it might be time to give the council a stronger say over transition issues.

“I think probably one of the issues with our state P-16 council is they have no policy authority,” says Elaine Farris, the deputy commissioner of the Kentucky education department. “It’s pretty much, you put the idea out there, and if the other agencies buy into it,” they can create some kind of statute or regulation.

But it’s not clear yet exactly what shape an overhauled council would take. Policymakers would have to decide how a revamped panel would tackle politically volatile topics, such as student assessments, and balance state authority and local autonomy. And they would have to find the resources to pay for new activities, despite a yawning structural deficit of $400 million to $600 million for fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

Informal Structure

Kentucky’s P-16 council was established in 1999, by mutual agreement of the state education department and the CPE. The two agencies take turns staffing the council, and have added new members over the years. This year, Bazell has taken the lead in staffing.

Kentucky P-16 Council

Year Established: 1999
Number of Members: 18
Governor Regularly Chairs Matters: No
Voluntary Convening or Permanent: Voluntary
Supported by at Least 0.5 Full-time Equivalent Staff-Position: No

The panel, which has fluctuated in size, now has about 18 members, including Helen Mountjoy, the secretary of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s education cabinet, which includes both the K-12 and postsecondary systems; and Jon Draud, the state education commissioner.

Unlike in other states, such as Indiana and Ohio, members of the legislature and the governor are not on the council, although Mountjoy represents the executive branch.

The structure has helped the council consider ideas without stepping on agency autonomy.

Kentucky was at the forefront of the national movement for standards and accountability in education through its landmark 1990 law, the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which overhauled the state’s public schools and established a statewide assessment system. The higher education system got a similar shake-up in 1997, with the passage of legislation creating the CPE to make the system more seamless and integrated.

In the wake of those changes, the education department and the CPE generally concentrated on their own agendas—and blamed each other for their challenges, Mountjoy says.

“People at the Council on Postsecondary [Education] started talking about how they’re not sending us qualified students; people [at the education department] responded with, ‘They’re not sending us qualified teachers.’ And off you go to the races,” she says.

The P-16 council was intended to “try to eliminate some of the finger-pointing and to realize that we were all in this together,” Mountjoy says. But it wasn’t meant to set its own policy or drive the agenda, she notes.

Generally, proposals are brought up at P-16 council meetings, and the respective agencies follow up on recommendations. For instance, Draud says, after a meeting of the P-16 council, in response to a panel recommendation, the Kentucky education department moved toward marking student transcripts with a unique identifier, to make it easier to track students as they made the transition to postsecondary education. Draud sees the move as a first step toward a P-20 data system providing information on students from prekindergarten through graduate school, a long-stalled priority for the council.

The informal, voluntary structure of the panel has had its advantages, particularly in providing for continuity, Bazell says. The P-16 council has been able to evolve and change, adding new members, without asking for approval from the legislature. And the panel hasn’t become closely identified with a single political party or policymaker, according to Bazell.

In other states, Bazell says, “governors would institute a P-16 council, and it became the bailiwick of that governor and didn’t translate across administrations.”

The P-16 council has remained a fixture in Kentucky, even after a recent major turnover in the governor’s mansion and changes in leadership in both the state education department and the CPE. In January, Gov. Beshear took over from Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who failed in a re-election bid. Draud, the education commissioner, replaced Gene Wilhoit, who left at the end of 2006 to become the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. And in 2007, Thomas Layzell retired from his post as the president of CPE.

Bazell also says Kentucky’s approach has “allowed ideas to get exposure that might not have seen the light of the day” if the P-16 council had been established by statute, such as the successful push for a more rigorous high school curriculum, which had been controversial in the state.

Policy Changes

The P-16 council served as the primary vehicle for Kentucky’s work with the American Diploma Project, a coalition of states working on aligning high school standards, accountability systems, and graduation requirements with the demands of postsecondary education and the workforce. The project is managed by Achieve, a Washington-based organization.

That effort helped pave the way for a number of policy changes, Bazell says, among them new, more demanding high school graduation requirements, devised in 2006 and set to begin with the class of 2012. Among the requirements are four years of high school mathematics, including Algebra 2, and a lab component in every year of science.

And, in November 2004, the Council on Postsecondary Education approved a statewide postsecondary-placement policy, based on the American Diploma Project standards for college readiness.

A report by one outside consultant found the council to be "more of a debating and discussion forum" than a policymaking body.

In 2006, Kentucky approved legislation requiring all students to take the ACT college- entrance exam in 11th grade, which Bazell describes as a natural outgrowth of the postsecondary-placement policy. The state will also administer the ACT Educational Progress Assessment System, which helps gauge readiness for the exam, to 8th and 10th graders.

While the P-16 council wasn’t always the single driving force behind those efforts, it provided a forum for discussion of implementation of the changes, and passed resolutions supporting many of them.

The council’s conversations have also paved the way for greater cooperation on professional development, says Phillip S. Rogers, the executive director of the state’s Education Professional Standards Board, which focuses on teacher preparation and certification.

Through the P-16 council, the standards board strengthened its relationship with the CPE, adding weight to the board’s push for universities to revamp their educational leadership programs to comply with new state requirements.

But the council largely sidestepped one of the fiercest—and most partisan—education debates in the state: a bill supported by Republicans in the Kentucky Senate to scrap the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS, which includes a portfolio component, and replace it with a norm-referenced test. Such assessments measure where a child stands in comparison with a sample of peers, with scores reported on a curve that always includes some children at the top and some at the bottom.

But the P-16 council has remained mum on the idea, although some members, such as Mountjoy, the secretary of the education cabinet, came out in opposition. The legislation passed in the Republican-controlled Senate, but failed in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

The state P-16 council has largely delegated its role in policy implementation to the network of autonomous regional P-16 councils, which focus on local priorities. Those priorities might include providing adult education, smoothing the path for dual enrollment between high schools and colleges in their areas, and forming tighter links between educators and the business community.

The record of the regional councils has been mixed. Some, such as the Northern Kentucky council, which until recently was financed partly by a grant funded by Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing, North America, Inc., and has received some additional grant money from the state, have been able to accomplish significantly more, including helping math teachers find ways to cover core content while teaching to the American Diploma Project benchmarks. Others, staffed by volunteers, have shown more modest achievements.

Regional Initiatives

Lately, some interest has been voiced in having the regional groups coordinate their work with one another and with the state P-16 council, perhaps working on some common objective.

During a recent P-16 council meeting, for example, Draud, the education commissioner, suggested the regional and state P-16 councils might focus together on greater alignment between high school standards and postsecondary expectations.

Kentucky’s budget constraints have put a damper on efforts to funnel more state resources to the regional councils.

Representatives of the regional councils quickly pointed out that there isn’t a way to hold the generally unfunded and understaffed local panels accountable for state goals. Still, local council representatives appeared receptive to the idea of setting state goals and working toward them—if the state council provided some resources.

“I think people on our board would really resist the state imposing those [common goals] on local P-16 councils without any resources,” Barbara Stonewater, who works part time for the Council of Partners in Education, the group that administers the Northern Kentucky P-16 council, said after the March 12 meeting. “If the state eventually provides support, I would think it would be very appropriate for those councils to work on a set of state goals.”

Any change in structure would have to leave room for regional priorities, given Kentucky’s economic and regional diversity.

“Our resources are very different,” says Ron Daley, the director of the University Center of the Mountains, in Hazard County, Ky., and a representative from the Kentucky River area’s P-16 council.

In Northern Kentucky, Daley says, the local chambers of commerce are generally more active than in his region. His council has made it a priority to engage the business community so that it can offer internships and mentoring.

The regional councils are effective, says Daley, because “we’re not some removed bureaucrats; … we are on the ground working with parents, students, teachers, principals, and the business community. That’s just energizing.”

Kentucky’s budget constraints have put a damper on efforts to funnel more state resources to the regional councils.

For instance, Stonewater and a handful of other representatives of regional P-16 councils sought a budget for the local panels in 2006, including state and local matching funds to provide salaries and benefits to P-16 coordinators for local councils meeting certain requirements.

But the money was never provided, in part because the resources simply weren’t available, Stonewater says. The group didn’t put much energy into a renewed push for more state dollars this year because of the state’s cloudy fiscal forecast.

“Would we rather have P-16 people and a significant cut to postsecondary education?” says Stonewater. “No, of course not. And we wouldn’t expect anyone else to support that, either.”

Possible Revamp

But the regional groups may have better luck in 2010, with the next biennial legislative session. Rep. Frank Rasche, a Democrat and the chairman of the House education committee, says it might be time for the P-16 council to get some legislative authority and a budget, and to be held accountable for results.

He doesn’t envision a major change to the council’s structure, although he says he might consider “tweaking” it, perhaps by getting the governor more involved. A revamped council could work on long-stalled goals, he says, possibly starting with a P-20 data system.

And Rep. Harry Moberly, the Democrat who chairs the House appropriations and revenue committee, says he would consider supporting legislation to authorize the council and give it a budget, if someone on the P-16 panel, such as Mountjoy, approached him with a proposal. An overhauled council might be better positioned to take on controversial issues, such as the assessment debate, Moberly says.

Others suggest a different direction.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce report recommended that the governor establish a new panel to outline specific activities and policy changes needed to develop a “seamless P-20 system.” The task force would only be temporary; it wouldn’t replace the standing P-16 council, Dave Adkisson, the president of the chamber, said at the P-16 panel’s March 2008 meeting.

The recommendation for a separate panel wasn’t meant as a criticism of the current P-16 council’s efforts, but as a sign that the state needs to go further, says Diana Taylor, of Taylor Associates, a consulting firm that is advising the chamber’s efforts.

“It’s not an indictment [of the P-16 council],” Taylor says of the recommendation. “[The council is] just not enough.”

Vol. 27, Issue 40, Pages 12-13

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