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Curriculum Opinion

Setting a P-16 Agenda

By Jan Kettlewell — May 30, 2008 9 min read
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For those who have ever wondered why high school graduates struggle during their first year of college, or why new teachers have difficulty making the transition from university training programs to school classrooms, answers can be found in the less-than-systemic connections between and among public schools, colleges and universities, and the state-level agencies that represent them.

Some states have been working to align their precollegiate and higher education systems to promote greater student success, particularly at these transition points. This work constitutes what is called P-16 reform—with the P standing for preschool and the 16 for completion of some form of postsecondary education. P-16 work is collaborative among public schools and colleges and universities locally, and, at the state level, among state departments of education, community college systems, university systems, agencies that oversee teacher licensure and preschool programs, and, sometimes, business partners. At both the state and local levels, P-16 work is typically coordinated by a P-16 council. (Some states use a “P-20” label to signal that such collaboration can extend beyond the baccalaureate level.)

I have been involved at the university level with the state of Georgia’s pioneering P-16 council. As this was the nation’s first such state coordinating body, its history and development can offer useful insights about the role such councils play in their states’ overall reform efforts, as well as their operational strengths and potential weaknesses. Georgia’s experience also can shed light on the evolution of this growing national movement toward P-16 integration.

Georgia’s first state P-16 council was appointed in 1996, by an executive order of the governor. While it included in its membership the chief executive officers of state education agencies, participation was voluntary, and few of these officials chose to take part. The council was coordinated by two middle managers, one from the K-12 system and one from higher education. Since there was little history of collaboration between these two systems, just meeting together was initially seen as an important event. Yet the charge to the council was rather unfocused and all-encompassing, and a state-level agenda that could be acted upon never took root. With leadership from the University System of Georgia (a multicampus system of 35 public colleges and universities), local P-16 councils were formed during this period, however, and important foundation blocks were laid for P-16 collaboration.

In 2000, under a new governor, the Georgia P-16 Council was replaced by the Education Coordinating Council, or ECC. It was established by statute, and included the governor and the chief executive officers and board chairs of all education agencies in the state. Staff support for the endeavor was built into the state’s newly formed accountability office. Each agency designated a staff member to coordinate the planning of the ECC meetings. These staff members’ experience in P-16 work was uneven; hence, there was no statewide agenda in place beyond preparation for the council’s quarterly meetings.

With a third governor in charge, the ECC changed into Georgia’s current P-16 structure, which is two-tiered. It comprises the Alliance of Education Agency Heads, which includes the CEOs of all state education agencies, and the Alliance Implementation Team, which consists of two individuals from each agency, with additional people participating in committees. These two groups work interactively, with the alliance setting the goals and the implementation team devising strategies and initiatives to reach them. At least two members of the alliance attend implementation-team meetings to ensure communication between the two groups. As designated by the governor, the alliance is chaired by the state schools superintendent.

Georgia now has a state P-16 agenda to be acted upon, with specific strategies, initiatives, and points of accountability. Different members of the Alliance Implementation Team take the lead on each strategy, and the work is accomplished through cross-agency teams.

Over the past 13 years of changing P-16 architecture in Georgia, what structural elements seem to have been essential? We have found, first, that there is great value in having a two-tiered structure like the one we have in place now. Participation by CEOs is critical to keeping P-16 work high on the agendas of state agencies, as well as of the schools or colleges and universities that each represents. But this is not enough. A second tier of those knowledgeable about P-16 work is needed to lead implementation efforts and sustain progress. Based on Georgia’s experience, it is safe to say that having either tier without the other will result in little sustainable progress.

So what should a state’s P-16 agenda be? There are typically what I call two big buckets of work—one related to promoting student success through the P-16 pipeline, and a second having to do with the quality, quantity, and diversity of teachers and other educators for the public schools. If you take a broad look at these “buckets,” you might conclude that a P-16 agenda includes everything that state departments of education, community college systems, and university systems do. But to attempt such a broad agenda is not feasible. Georgia’s experience shows that the best course for a P-16 agenda is to focus only on the points of intersection in the work of these agencies. For example, a state education department and a university system “intersect” on student standards, assessments, and curricula in the process of enabling students to successfully make the transition from high school to college; there should not be gaps between the level of expectation, the course sequence, or the assessments required in the schools and those required in college. The point of intersection between agencies, then, is student transition from school to college.

Two points of intersection constitute an appropriate P-16 agenda: school-to-college transitions for students, and college-to-school transitions for teachers.

Likewise, for educators, the point of intersection between agencies is the effective transition of teachers, educational leaders, and counselors from universities to the schools. Together, these two points of intersection constitute an appropriate state P-16 agenda: school-to-college transitions for students, and college-to-school transitions for educators.

While the University System of Georgia is a key partner in the state’s Alliance of Education Agency Heads and the Alliance Implementation Team, it also has a P-16 department within its main offices. I serve both as the lead staff person from the system on the Alliance Implementation Team and the head of the system’s P-16 department. Thus, I have one eye focused on changing policies and practices to strengthen the systemic P-16 agenda in the state—collaborating with other state partners to strengthen institutional transitions for both students and teachers. And, working within the system’s P-16 department, I have my other eye focused on research-and-development and demonstration projects, hoping to find answers to vexing issues important to the systemic P-16 agenda.

Consider, for instance, school-to-college transitions for students in mathematics. We know that nationally only about 50 percent of college freshmen earn a grade of A, B, or C on their first attempt in introductory mathematics courses. Yet students need to succeed in freshman mathematics to move forward in almost any college major, and they must do well in it to pursue majors in math-related fields. So we need to know what the problem is. Is there a curricular gap between high school and college? A gap in the level of expectations? In the rigor of assessments? Is the gap caused by too few highly qualified math teachers in high schools? By the teaching practices in colleges’ introductory mathematics courses?

Through Georgia’s alliance of agency heads and the implementation team, we have aligned standards, assessments, and curricula among the public schools, the technical-college system, and the university system. Through a major R&D project within my department, we have taken everything we’ve learned in P-16 work over the past decade and applied it to the fields of science and mathematics. Using external funding, we have tested strategies in 15 school districts and seven colleges and universities that relate to strengthening the student P-16 pipeline in science and math, and improving the quality of teaching available to both K-12 and college students in these fields. The lessons learned through research and development allow us to then suggest strategies—through the Alliance Implementation Team to the Alliance of Education Agency Heads—for statewide consideration. The R&D work has brought a depth, richness, and credibility to our policy recommendations, and to the P-16 collaborative programs in science and math we are implementing, that would not have been possible without it.

Science and mathematics are not the only areas that benefit from the interplay between the statewide systemic P-16 agenda and the R&D effort. The university-system department, in fact, functions like an R&D center for many dimensions of the state’s P-16 agenda. Research-and-development work is under way in such areas as school leadership, teacher quality, teachers’ working conditions, and college access and success for traditionally underrepresented students in higher education. Also under study are P-16 student-linked databases and university-school-district-linked databases that will allow us to follow teachers and other educators who are prepared in the university system into the schools. All of these R&D and demonstration projects inform the ongoing work to fashion a P-16 systemic agenda in the state through the alliance and the implementation team.

For states considering P-16 work, I can testify, from more than a decade of experience in the field, that this combination of activities produces the greatest success: working concurrently on a well-planned state P-16 agenda and on R&D projects designed to find answers to persistent problems. I would also recommend, finally, that there be some means of monitoring progress. Specific annual targets should be identified for each initiative, each R&D project, so that those involved can determine how these efforts are contributing to the overall progress of the state in the systemic P-16 agenda.

In Georgia, the P-16 department within the university system uses what is called a “balanced scorecard” to strategically manage and communicate progress toward its goals. Those interested in the particulars of our approach can find more information online at www.usg.edu/p16.

Meanwhile, the time is right for educators, policymakers, and others concerned about the future shape of learning in America to enter the P-16 arena, where more states each year are finding bold, collaborative solutions to education’s perennial problems.


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