Special Report
School & District Management

P-16 Councils Bring All Tiers of Education to the Table

By Scott J. Cech — May 30, 2008 13 min read
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“Is this the right vehicle?”

It’s the question you might ask yourself at the truck-rental office right before a do-it-yourself cross-country move: You want something big enough to haul everything, but nimble enough to stay on twisty roads. The engine has to be powerful enough to make it up steep hills, but not so powerful as to burn up your budget.

You know where you need to go; you just aren’t sure what you need to get there.

Similar considerations are vexing education officials nationwide as they struggle to find the best design for a bandwagon that can carry precollegiate and higher education toward a common goal: a more seamless continuum that better prepares students for life, work, and further study.

A favored vehicle in policy circles is the “P-16” or “P-20” council—state committees that bring together people from the various levels of education, ranging from preschool (hence the “P”) to college and beyond (years 16 to 20), and that often include representatives from state government, business, and the community.

Under the definition used by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, there are now 40 such councils nationwide; 38 states have at least one—up from 25 councils in 2000. In addition, four states without councils have governance structures that serve functions similar to those of P-16 councils. Only eight states and the District of Columbia have neither a P-16 council nor a governance structure that mimics one. (“State Councils Vary in Form and Focus,” this issue.)

The stakes for greater cross-sector cooperation are high: A growing proportion of U.S. jobs require at least some college. But mismatched curricula, stubbornly high remediation rates for incoming college students, and other sticking points keep K-12 students from going the distance.

The question is whether P-16 councils represent a real solution to such problems, or are merely another paper-generating exercise.

Like the states that spawned the P-16 and P-20 councils, no two councils are exactly alike. Some of the groups are chaired by governors, while others are led by education officials. Some have statutory authority and line-item budgets. Others get by on their leaders’ say-so and budget scraps. Some could squeeze into a minivan, while others would require a chartered bus—or two.

With such a diversity of approaches and composition across the country, this year’s Diplomas Count examines state attempts to bridge the gap between precollegiate and higher education through the use of such councils.

One thing council participants and observers agree on is that merely forming such a council does not automatically solve anything.

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“We’ve suggested to governors that the P-20 councils are one way to bring both K-12 and postsecondary education together,” says Dane Linn, the education director for the Washington-based National Governors Association, which since 2005 has funneled $20 millionfrom the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to 10 states for use in creating or funding P-16 entities. (Diplomas Count is also underwritten in part by a grant from the Gates Foundation.)

“At the same time, we’ve encouraged governors to not put all their faith in the P-20 councils as the vehicle that will solve all the problems that they have,” says Linn.

Paul E. Lingenfelter, the president of the Boulder, Colo.-based State Higher Education Executive Officers, an association that represents the chiefs of statewide boards that govern higher education, echoes that caution.

“I started my career in the 1970s in Illinois as an administrator with the Illinois board of higher education, and we had something called a joint education council. It candidly never amounted to anything,” recalls Lingenfelter.

“Although people were civil and polite and wanting good things,” he continues, “[K-12 people] didn’t have any interest in complicating their lives by working with higher ed, and the same was true on the other side.”

In some states, including Indiana and Rhode Island, governors have attempted to preclude that kind of outcome by chairing or co-chairing the council meetings themselves. (“Rhode Island Governor Drives Agenda, Raising Questions About Sustainability,” this issue.)

“When he convenes the meetings, everyone drops what they’re doing to attend,” says Stan G. Jones, Indiana’s commissioner of higher education, referring to Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, who co-chairs meetings of Indiana’s Education Roundtable—the P-16 council created by the late Democratic Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon in 1998.

“In my opinion, the most effective P-20 councils have been those states in which the governor leads these meetings,” says the NGA’s Linn. But he also acknowledges that there are risks to the governor-led approach.

“A governor can create an executive order, and the agency heads can come together,” Linn says, “but that doesn’t demonstrate to other key stakeholders, like legislators, that the work of the P-20 council is serious and should be paid attention to when policy is developed in statehouses.”

There’s also the question of a governor’s limited time.

“Governors have a lot on their plate,” says Lingenfelter, who contends that for the sake of P-16 councils’ continuity, education leaders should be at the helm. “I don’t think governors in the long run should be relied upon to be in charge of our education systems.”

Going the Distance?

Whatever the leadership might be, some observers are dubious about P-16 councils’ capacity to chalk up genuine accomplishments.

Outside Influences on P-16 Councils

Achieve’s American Diploma Project and the National Governors Association’s Honor States Grant Program have influenced the work of states’ P-16 councils since 2005. The 33 ADP Network states convene governors, education officials from precollegiate and higher education institutions, and business leaders to work on raising standards and aligning expectations across sectors. The NGA’s Honor States Grant Program is a governor-led initiative to improve the graduation rates and college readiness of high school students in 26 states. Twenty-two states participate in both initiatives.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2008

“It’s a great idea, but a lot of [the P-16 councils] don’t have the authority or the ability to do anything,” says Scott S. Montgomery, a co-chief operating officer for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

Sandy Kress, a former White House adviser to President Bush who helped craft the No Child Left Behind Act, says the councils can be useful at the beginning of a P-16 effort, if only to help K-12 and postsecondary leaders see the divide between them.

But he adds: “I don’t see them carrying the ball too far down the field. … They started a discussion; but I don’t think they go the extra 10 miles to get some of this stuff done.”

By contrast, he says, in his home state of Texas, “some of our legislators knew that more was necessary, so they passed a bill that created a college-readiness process.” The absence in other states of a similar mechanism for turning recommendations into law or policy is a defect that Kress calls “fatal” to P-16 councils’ effectiveness.

Even when P-16 councils have such mechanisms, they often lack staff and money to actually do much work. But that’s not the case in Georgia.

Within the university system, several line items in the budget support P-16 work. And Jan Kettlewell, during her tenure as vice chancellor for Georgia’s P-16 initiatives, has brought in $78 million in external funding to help support a research-and-development agenda.

About half that money is from a National Science Foundation grant, now in the first of five years. It enables seven Georgia universities, 15 school districts, and the state department of education to create K-16 learning communities of scientists and mathematicians from the college level to work with teachers in elementary and high schools on professional development.

“The capacity to bring external funding to the table is really important because you don’t have money at the state level to fund R&D work, and the truth is if we knew how to solve some of these problems, we would have solved them,” Kettlewell says. “If you only sit around the table and wait for the state to fund it all, or some new insight to drop from the sky on how to do this, you’re going to stall out.”

Setting Specific Goals

Other experts say the problem isn’t P-16 and P-20 councils themselves, but their predisposition to lose focus.

“They don’t have a focused agenda; it’s either too broad, or it’s just very nebulous,” says David S. Spence, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based group of 16 states that pushes for school improvement.

Kettlewell recalls that when the original version of Georgia’s council started in 1995, “we struggled with clarity of focus. Everybody wanted to be there. They recognized the importance of what we were trying to do.

“But at the concrete level,” she says, “it was difficult to do anything.”

Linn of the NGA says selecting a small set of objectives—preferably ones that neither precollegiate nor higher education can achieve alone—can help keep the councils on track.

“The danger in not focusing the P-20 councils is you end up with another body that gets together and simply updates each other on their activities in both K-12 and higher education, but nothing really gets done,” he says.

Kettlewell says Georgia has determined five specific goals for its alliance: increase high-school-graduation and college-transition rates; strengthen the quality, quantity, and diversity of teachers; strengthen workforce preparedness; strengthen principal and superintendent preparation; and improve college readiness.

The university system also has developed a balanced score card to track and monitor its progress on those things related to the P-16 agenda that it can control. “We report our progress annually,” Kettlewell says. “That helps to keep us focused. We have identified people who are responsible for each item, so that we know we’re driving forward our progress.”

One way to identify priorities, Linn suggests, is to look at available data. “States should not be using P-20 councils as leverage to advance an idea for which there’s no data to support,” he says.

Janis Somerville, the staff director of the National Association of System Heads—a Washington-based membership organization of the chiefs of 52 public higher education systems in 38 states and Puerto Rico—says concentrating on connecting data systems, standards, and assessments across the high school-college divide can beget widespread benefits.

“One of the things that we’ve learned … is not only how important it is to pick a few highly focused areas for sustained attention, but to pick things that we’ve come to talk about as ‘high leverage’ issues: issues that, if you accomplish them, you have the ripple effect of the changes and the benefits to both sides,” she says.

Hitting the Mark

A laser-like focus has enabled some states to accomplish a lot of P-16 work in specific domains.

Somerville points, for example, to Louisiana as a state that has made major progress in revamping its teacher education programs, putting in place a value-added system for examining the success of education school graduates, and beefing up high school graduation requirements.

The state has done this by relying on a series of commissions, rather than a single unified P-16 council. One of the commissions focuses chiefly on teacher quality, and another works primarily on high school redesign.

Jeanne M. Burns, the Louisiana board of regents’ associate commissioner for teacher education initiatives, says there’s a good reason why her state’s Blue Ribbon Commission for Educational Excellence was called the Blue Ribbon Commission on Teacher Quality when it was created in 1999. She credits the success of the commission to its concentration on teacher preparation.

Burns points to several significant accomplishments stemming from the commission, including a 10-percentage-point jump in the passing rates on the Praxis teacher-certification exams among graduates of Louisiana’s education schools from 1999-2000 to 2003-04. According to the state, 99 percent of teacher-preparation-program completers at all Louisiana universities passed all parts of the Praxis exams in the latter year.

Staying true to the commission’s original aims, Burns says, its meetings have zeroed in on such subjects as prepping middle school teachers, creating conditions to support school leaders, and revising the accountability system for teacher preparation.

But those who praise the commission’s nonconformist streak might be surprised to hear what’s now on the agenda.

“Actually, our focus this year is on PK-16-plus partnerships,” Burns says. “We’re actually going back to look at whether we should be moving to a different kind of structure, or whether we should continue with the kind of structure we currently have. We feel good about what we’ve done, but we feel that we could do an even better job of collaborating.”

The rethink, Burns says, is intended to cut out duplication and overlap in the work being done by two other state bodies: a high school redesign commission, which also has higher education members, and an accountability commission. The Education Commission of the States counts the Blue Ribbon Commission for Educational Excellence and the Louisiana High School Redesign Commission as independent P-16 councils.

Glenny Lee Buquet, a member of the Louisiana board of elementary and secondary education, says the move toward a more conventional, unified P-16 council would “bring in more career and technical people, more business people, and sort of make it more an arm of the governor’s push for career technology.”

At the same time, she says, “we don’t want to lose our focus on teacher quality—that’s one reason we’re struggling with whether to change.”

In California, state schools chief Jack O’Connell formed a P-16 council in 2004. It was preceded, though, by the Early Assessment Program, a targeted effort that is sometimes held up as a P-16 success story.

Launched by the California State University system statewide in 2004, the program allows high school juniors to assess, using a modified state test, whether they have the English and math skills necessary for college. If the students pass the exam, they are excused from taking any further CSU placement tests. If they don’t, they can take special college-prep classes developed by high school educators and CSU faculty members during their senior year.

Though about three-quarters of California’s high school juniors voluntarily take the assessment, it is not aligned with the more selective University of California system or the state’s community college system, which have their own admissions and placement criteria, and together educate about 3 million students.

Necessary for Reform?

Others believe that the whole concept of P-16 as a continuum of education needs to be reimagined.

Aligning pieces of paper with curricula written on them ... doesn’t necessarily translate into anything that matters either in K-12 or higher education."

“I think these are interesting vehicles, but ‘Are they really an arm for change?’ is the question that’s on the table,” says Paula Dominguez, the senior education policy adviser for Rhode Island’s House of Representatives. “I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that [a P-16 council] really is a necessary, required feature of any education reform effort.”

Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, puts it even more bluntly.

“Aligning pieces of paper” with curricula written on them, he says, “doesn’t necessarily translate into anything that matters either in K-12 or higher education. What really matters is the substance of what’s taking place” in the classroom.

Instead of trying to figure out how to solder the two major segments of education together, he suggests, “thinking about K-16 should really cause us to rethink our assumptions about education.”

Hess suggests tapping the content knowledge of working professionals without education degrees and utilizing undergraduate students as K-12 tutors, among other ideas.

Unless and until that level of rethinking occurs, he says, educators in P-16 councils should brace for lots more meetings, but shouldn’t expect much to come out of them: “You get 20 or 40 people in a room, and everyone talks about India and China and stakeholders, … and it doesn’t amount to anything.”


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