Can State P-16 Councils Ease the Transition from High School to College?

Are P-16 councils an effective mechanism for producing change? What are the characteristics of successful councils? Jennifer Dounay and Joni Finney took questions on the P-16 agenda.

June 11, 2008

Can State P-16 Councils Ease the Transition from High School to College?

  • Jennifer Dounay, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.
  • Joni Finney, vice president at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Professor of Practice in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sterling C. Lloyd (Moderator):

Diplomas Count 2008, a new report from Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, examines the role of P-16 councils in education reform. The Education Commission of the States and The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education were partners on the project. Jennifer Dounay, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, and Joni Finney, vice president at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Professor of Practice in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, are set to take your questions on the P-16 agenda. Let’s get started.

Question from Patrick Mattimore, Retired teacher:

To what extent are high school teachers and college professors being encouraged to network with one another so that each hand grasps what the other is doing?

Joni E. Finney:

The short answer is not nearly enough. Far too often expectations for college level work are not communicated to students until they arrive for freshman orientation and are asked to take a math or English placement exam.

One powerful model is the California State University’s Early Assessment Program, which brought together K-12 leaders with CSU faculty to determine the essential knowledge and skills for college level math and English. These skills are now assessed in the 11th grade, with options for improving performance in the 12th grade. Students who pass the 11th grade exam no longer have to take a placement test upon enrolling at CSU. This program is the result of teachers/faculty and state leaders collaborating for the benefit of students.

Question from Robin LaSota, researcher and doctoral student, University of Washington:

Among P-16 councils across the country, what are some of the leading innovations in strengthening the HS to college transition? What are the common or popular strategies implemented by P-16 councils? Who typically serves on P-16 councils?

Joni E. Finney:

The most powerful strategy for strengthening the HS to college transition is to specify the knowledge/skills students must master to succeed in college level courses, particularly math and English. College/universities should be accountable for sending “signals” to students that are unambiguous.

Many students, especially those interested in attending community colleges, enroll with the assumption that these institutions are open to anyone, only to be confronted with placement tests that assess knowledge/skills that they have not been taught in high school.

Explicit expectations of academic work must be developed between high schools and colleges. These expectations must then be embedded in the high school curriculum for all students and used in teacher education programs to prepare new teachers. Question from Bob, Teacher/Parent, PA:

The idea of P-16 councils sounds useful, but is there not a possibility that such a council might become another level of administrative bureaucracy, draining precious educational funding?

Joni E. Finney:

This is a danger. Another danger is that these meetings simiply provide political cover so that state or education leaders can claim that they are “doing something” about these issues. Happily the three case study states (RI, KY, AZ) examined as part of Diploma Counts have P-16 councils that are committed to a reform agenda that includes an effort to align high school coursework and assessments with college placement exams. Also on council agendas are ways to share data or develop new data systems capable of showing how high school graduates perform on placement exams and subsequent coursework in higher education.

It is important that media and concerned citizens ensure that P-16 Councils, which show promise, stay focused and push for solutions in the public interest.

Question from Frances Fulgencio, Student, Univ of Phoenix:

I find that no matter what courses are currently available in the public school system (AP Courses), you are not prepared for college. What do you feel needs to be implemented in the U.S. public school system to assure that all students that want to attend college have the right preparation?

Joni E. Finney:

I believe it is very difficult for the public schools to respond to what higher education needs, if colleges and universities have not or will not identify the specific college level skills/knowledge that students need to be successful in college-level work. Admission requirements are not adequate for communicating student readiness, given the fairly large proportion of students who must take a remedial course after they have been admitted.

Once higher education takes responsibility for identifying the necessary skills/knowledge, I believe teachers and other school leaders will respond with curricular and assessment changes to better prepare students. Furthermore, schools of education can begin to revise their own programs to better prepare teachers for the challenges of curricular and assessment improvement.

Question from Wendy van Gent, PhD candidate; Educational Leadership, Oakland University, Rochester, MI:

My research interest is in new teacher induction. I wonder if this model can also be used to explore the transition from college into the teaching profession.

Jennifer Dounay:

You raise a good point. While ECS identified a lot of state P-16/P-20 council activity around teacher recruitment, preparation and professional development, it was less clear that these teaching quality activities extended to teacher induction programs. State councils could both play a critical role in identifying and advocating for necessary policy changes (affecting both K-12 and postsecondary), while local councils could help in implementing the K-12/postsecondary partnerships to support these state-level policies, and report back to the state level on obstacles encountered on the ground, and how state policy might be tweaked to address them.

One state council is currently spearheading efforts related to teacher induction/mentoring. In Minnesota, the P-16 council’s Science Instruction Working Group is charged with recommending policies/practices to help expand the capacity of adults in elementary and secondary schools--teachers as well as mentors and administrators--to increase student achievement and interest in science.

Question from Cynthia Rucker, Senior English teacher, Maysville Local School District:

This is the first I’ve heard about the councils. I see that Ohio has only a few county councils. Which works better--local p-16 or statewide councils? And, how much effort should they put into procuring grants for needy schools, if at all?

Jennifer Dounay:

I don’t know if it’s a question of whether one works better than the other--I really see the role of the state and local councils complementing one another, with education leaders on state councils identifying and advocating for necessary changes in the agencies they have authority in, and local councils “bubbling up” areas of need to the state level, and helping address local implementation issues as they arise.

I haven’t seen much research yet on the impact of local councils (I think KnowledgeWorks Foundation or Stark Foundation in Ohio may have published something within the past few years?), but it would be an interesting topic for a doctoral dissertation.

Question from Robert Zager, parent, Saratoga High:

Doesn’t “Paths to Degree Completion - The Toolbox Revisited” make it clear that the key to successful college transition is an academically rigorous high school experience?

Joni E. Finney:

It certainly does, but we know that students taking Algebra II in an urban setting may not be getting the same experience as those students taking Algebra II in a wealthy suburb. One may be taught by a provisional teacher without a major in mathematics; the other by a math major. That’s why specifying the courses students should take to prepare for college is a necessary but not sufficient step in sending “signals” to students about college readiness.

Making explicit the math/English concepts and skills that students must master is the next step, embedding them into the curriculum and assessments used in high school must follow. Building teacher education programs around these concepts will also help students move toward college readiness. Question from John R. Crooks, Associate Provost of the University Partnership at Lorain County Community College:

With a tremendous national desire to produce STEM majors (and the Business Roundtable specifically highlighting the need for Life Scientists), why the P -16 nomenclature? Most Life Science positions will require education beyond the bachelor degree.

Jennifer Dounay:

We have really seen a shift since the first councils were created in the 1990s. Many of the first councils started as “K-16" councils, then earlier this decade we started seeing “P-16". The majority of the councils created in the last five years are “P-20,” and last year, South Dakota created the nation’s first (and so far only) P-21 council.

When councils do embrace a P-20 scope, though, it’s important to maintain a fidelity to the “17-20.” It seems that many councils’ focus (regardless of whether they’re P-16 or P-20) is on high school, transitions to postsecondary, and teaching quality issues--that tend to lessen or stop after grade 16. It will be interesting to see if, moving forward, more councils place greater emphasis on the 17-20 in P-20.

Question from Thomas Horwood, Researcher, ICF International:

Have any empirical or non-empirical research studies been conducted to measure the impact of P-16 initiatives in any of the states?

Joni E. Finney:

Very few empirical studies have been conducted. A dissertation was written by a student at the University of Pennsylvania that looked at the impact of the California State University’s Early Assessment Program on sending “signals” to high school students in the state.

Mike Kirst’s study (Stanford University) of schools/colleges also provides empirical data. Most of the work in this area is descriptive.

Many statewide initiatives are fairly recent and a good literature has yet to emerge. We know very little, for instance, about what type of statewide structure is most effective in sustaining initiatives between schools/colleges. We know some about the financial support and incentives that students need to pursue postsecondary education from studies of Indiana’s 21st Century Scholarship Program.

In short, there is much to be done to better understand what works in terms of statewide initiatives in P-16 education.

Question from Traci Dennard, College Bridge Coordinator, National-Louis University:

How exactly are the P16 councils producing change? What strategies are being used? Are they best practice methods or simply round table discussions?

Jennifer Dounay:

P-16 councils are producing change by building consensus for policy changes--in legislation, state board rules, and postsecondary governing board policies--and then either having members return to the governing body or agency they head up to put those changes into practice, or advocating for the legislature or other governing bodies to address those changes.

In many cases, P-16 councils have developed working committees on specific topics (i.e., teacher preparation, high school rigor, etc.) to develop recommendations for changes in state policy on that issue. The recommendations may then be endorsed by the council as a whole (or just put forward as issuing from that subcommittee), and then put forward to state policymakers as a recommended plan of action.

Question from Reed Markham, Associate Professor, Daytona Beach College:

What conflicts did you find involving community college transition?

Joni E. Finney:

A study in California highlights these issues. Richard Brown from USC conducted a study for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education called “Investigating the Alignment of High School and Community College Assessments in California” (2007) that shows the serious disconnect between high school and community colleges. CA community colleges use over 100 different student placement instruments with different standards and cut-off scores for passing. This does not send a clear message to high school students or those returning to college about the necessary skills to succeed in college level courses.

It is no surprise then that CA has the among the lowest percent of students completing a bachelor’s degree among the 50 states. The community colleges that were established to provide opportunity are now a major obstacle in the state for ensuring that students can achieve their educational goals.

While this answer is specifically focused on California, I believe the issue of high school to community college transition is a serious one for all states with large community college sectors.

Question from Gully Stanford College In Colorado:

BTW, thanks for doing this! Are any states/councils particularly good at Concurrent Enrollment/Dual Credit partnerships? Do any states require access to/participation in accelerated coursework? Do any states specifically fund high school students’ participation?

Jennifer Dounay:

While a good number of state P-16/P-20 councils are tackling dual enrollment issues, the issue is still a work in progress in many of these states. However, recommendations from Louisiana’s High School Redesign Commission (one of the two groups functioning as a P-16 council in the state) resulted in creation of a pilot statewide dual enrollment program. The Ohio council (Partnership for Continued Learning) developed recommendations in 2007 to address perceived shortcomings in existing state policy.

In response to your question on states requiring access to/participation in accelerated coursework--yes, a handful of states (Texas, Ohio, Oregon, Idaho are ones I remember off the top of my head) require all high schools to offer either AP or a choice of AP, IB, dual enrollment or another early college option. ECS is coming out with a 50-state dual enrollment policy database this summer with some 15 indicators, including how the high school is funded, how the postsecondary institution is funded, whether the student is responsible for paying any tuition, etc. Question from Byron Wolt, Senior Academic Outreach Associate, Brown College:

What, if any, are the differences in preparing students for Technical/Trade Schools, Community Colleges and Universities.

Joni E. Finney:

This is a difficult question to answer. A study conducted by ACT shows that students pusuring rigorous technical and trade programs must have similarly high math, science and English content as those pursuing 2 or 4 year degree programs.

Many educators disagree about the skills/knowledge needed for technical/trade education vs. those for entering college students, but it is likely that specifying the expectations for each would lead to greater clarity about whether these are the same or separate outcomes of high school course work.

Question from Ann Duffy, Director of Policy Development Georgia’s Leadership Institute for School Improvement:

Do you think that P-16 Councils need to be formally instituted as part of the state’s governance structure for public education? If so, what role can the business community play in supporting P-16 initiatives?

Thank you! Jennifer Dounay:

If by “formally instituted” you mean the state does away with separate K-12 and postsecondary governance structures in favor of a centralized governance structure--I don’t think that’s necessary, as long as the K-12 and postsecondary members of P-16 councils can maintain mutual good will... But if by “formally instituted” you mean enactment of legislation or issuing an executive order rather than creating a council through a voluntary agreement--creation through one of these formal means may help ensure ongoing support through changes in membership (due to term limits, etc.) and formalize expectations that the council will include specific necessary players, meet on a regular basis, etc.

The business community can play a key role in supporting P-16 initiatives through a variety of means--bringing their perspective on ecomomic/workforce development needs (and potential policy solutions), providing financial support for various council costs (i.e., meeting costs, communication efforts to build public awareness/support) and, where business members are not clearly represented on the council, working to secure business membership on P-16 councils. It seems that the business community is currently represented on most, but not all, P-16/P-20 councils at this time.

Question from Elaine Donnelly, Partnership Facilitator (UMass Lowell and Lowell High School), “Partnership for College Success":

Are there specific lessons from existing statewide P16 councils that can offer guidance to local collaborations on a regional scale? What concrete and measurable outcomes linked directly to specific council activities (re. impact on student persistence in college) can be considered?

Jennifer Dounay:

I am working on a policy brief right now along the lines of “landmines councils face and how they can be avoided/addressed” that might have implications for local/regional councils. I haven’t seen much research on the activities/impact of local councils yet, but it’s a great topic for future research.

Some states (either through the council or independently) have set concrete P-16 performance goals in terms of increased high school graduation rates, increased postsecondary enrollments or completion rates, etc. (Don’t know if you’ve already seen this section of the ECS database.) And while this document came from the University System of Georgia’s P-16 division rather than from the state council per se, it definitely provides food for thought on what states might strive for (and hold themselves accountable for internally).

Question from Christine Thatcher, Associate Director, CT Dept. of Higher Education:

How much have PK-20 Councils around the country addressed not only the early college movement, but also the other side of the spectrum, such as students who need more time, maybe due to other life obligations, to graduate from high school?

Jennifer Dounay:

To be totally honest, there isn’t that much P-16/P-20 council activity on the “other side of the spectrum,” as you put it. There is some activity out there, though--Louisiana’s High School Redesign Commission (one of two P-16 councils in the state) advocated for policy changes that were ultimately approved by the state board last summer--changing their credit recovery policy. The commission is also supposed to monitor the availability and quality of credit recovery as things move forward.

Oklahoma’s ACE Steering Committee is charged with recommending intervention and remediation strategies and delivery methods for struggling students. More information on OK’s efforts at

Not to be a shameless shill, but I’ll be publishing a policy brief this summer on state strategies to help former dropouts back into the system to earn a standard high school diploma (as opposed to a GED) that will note some specific state policy enactments designed to partially address what you’re asking. ECS will also be putting out a policy brief this summer on student support and remediation, building off the state policy database launched in 2007.

Question from BarbaraBolson, Director,Kodiak College, Univ of Alaska Anchorage:

Who would make up the membership of such a council? What are the goals of such councils? Are they to be determined by each council independently or are there some commonalities among them which are emerging?

Jennifer Dounay:

Ideally, the membership would include K-12 and postsecondary agency leaders, along with business leaders (to identify workforce/economic development needs that may not be on the radar screens of education leaders), explicit early learning representation (to bring forward issues that impact early learning providers other than the state education agency), and representation from state policy leaders--either the governor or a representative of the governor’s office, and legislators from both sides of the floor.

If by “goals” you’re thinking the initiatives they focus on, they vary but often address teaching quality and high schools/transition to postsecondary. More details at As you can see, even if two councils both tackle “high school reform,” they tend to go about it in such different ways that there are no easy comparisons. In terms of numerical goals for reform, few states have set such benchmarks (you might be interested in this link if you haven’t already seen it: Question from Yvette Brideau Supervisor 21st Century Program:

Is there a P-16 council in New York, specifically Long Island? If not, how can I get one started? How do I become part of this council?

Jennifer Dounay:

I’m not sure if there are local councils in New York. The NY 2006 P-16 plan (page 17-18) calls for the Regents to set up regional councils “as they determine,” but I’m afraid I don’t know the current status of that component of the plan.

Question from Shadidi Sia-maat:

Can you explain why P-16 Councils are not just the flavor-of-the day?

Jennifer Dounay:

I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the problems of K-12 and postsecondary education are not mutually exclusive (and that education reform is far too important and too expensive to keep screwing up), but that in order to impact meaningful education reform, K-12 and postsecondary have to sit at the same table and agree upon solutions that impact both “silos.” P-16 councils provide a venue for this type of discussion. I think the growth in P-16 councils in the last five years--not to mention the policy changes some councils have been able to bring about to date (see indicate that while P-16 councils may continue to evolve in their membership, goals, etc., they are here to stay.

Question from Dr. Jo Campbell, Consultant, Gallup:

Are there specific examples of P-16 councils that are effecting continuous improvement in graduation rates?

Jennifer Dounay:

I think it’s hard to say at this point, not because P-16 councils aren’t working to improve graduation rates, but because grad. rates themselves are a moving target (states are changing how they calculate rates and are changing data collection systems, making it hard to compare apples to apples).

Question from Kimberly LeSage, Grad Student, Louisiana State University:

In your opinion, what are some of the obstacles inhibiting K-12 and higher ed collaborations.

Joni E. Finney:

K-12 and higher education operate in separate orbits. They are organizationally distinct at the state and institutional levels. For example, decisions about funding are made by separate committees in the legislature, with little, if any interaction between the two. Their policies are made by separate boards at both the state and local levels. Even the content of courses is done with little to no collaboration across the sectors. In addition, the higher education sectors frequently operate separately;community colleges, public regional universities and flagship institutions often have little to do with one another, even if they serve the same students.

All these changes make collaboration hard work.

Question from Jack Connell, Director Special Projects--Provost’s Office, University of Akron:

What would be some important considerations in forming P-16 networks, either regionally or statewide.

Joni E. Finney:

I think the answer to your question really depends upon the state. Some questions states should consider before forming these councils might include: are current programs linking schools to higher education developing regionally? Are there statewide initiatives? How are your higher education institutions organized? Statewide systems may benefit from statewide leadership. Strong regional systems may be able to move forward regionally. What can the state do to encourage either state or regional collaborations?

Sterling C. Lloyd (Moderator):

That’s all the time we have today. Thank you for your questions. And thanks to our guests, Jennifer Dounay and Joni Finney, for participating.

For more information: Read Diplomas Count 2008 at

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