Special Report
Curriculum Commentary

The ‘Three A’s’ of Successful P-16 Reform

By Jennifer Dounay — May 30, 2008 9 min read

Creating a seamless, prekindergarten-through-college system for learning has become a key component of education reform in the states, with the number of P-16 (or P-20) councils steadily increasing, from one in 1996, to 25 in 2000, to some 30 in 2006, and to 40 this year. Yet establishing a council is just the first step, not the end of the road, for a state seeking to implement P-16 reform. As too many stakeholders can testify, many well-intentioned P-16 alignment efforts can stall or become stuck in a quagmire because crucial elements are missing.

Work on the Education Commission of the States’ database of such councils, which is informed by the National Governors Association’s criteria for “traction” on P-16 efforts, has revealed certain design elements that seem to help ensure that P-16 councils maintain their momentum and effect meaningful policy change. These elements can be loosely grouped around what could be called the “three A’s” of successful implementation: agenda, actors, and appropriation of resources.

AGENDA. One of the cardinal sins of P-16 councils often is committed while addressing this first A: Councils frame a reform agenda that is either too vague (“improving student achievement”) or too broad—trying to take on, say, six or more discrete areas of work at the outset, rather than tackling a more manageable set of issues first, achieving success on those, and then moving on to the next set of challenges.

Successful councils—both well-established ones, such as Georgia’s, and more recently established ones, such as Washington state’s—have honed the areas they will focus on to a specific and narrow action agenda of roughly five or fewer issues. Despite Georgia’s long and successful history of P-16 reform, for example, it is currently focusing substantial capital on only five high-impact goals. Washington’s P-20 council, created last year, is concentrating on only three areas of reform, and is already beginning to see its efforts take root. Only after a state has demonstrated results on its narrowly defined P-16 agenda should it attempt a broader scope of work. Indiana, for example, after achieving initial success, is aggressively targeting 10 high-impact reform components, ranging from early learning through postsecondary participation and completion.

While it’s important to set a specific and (especially at the outset) reasonably honed reform agenda, it’s also valuable for states to set clear targets to measure their progress toward reaching those goals. The goals, like the agenda items they address, should be as specific as possible. That is, rather than assert a goal to “increase high school graduation rates,” the state should identify a numerical target and a year by which the target will be reached. An example of this can be seen in Arizona, which has set itself the goal of reducing the high school dropout rate by 12 percent by 2012. Hawaii’s council, meanwhile, has agreed that the state should aim to increase the proportion of working adults with a two- or four-year degree to 55 percent. And Kentucky has begun to see progress in achieving its ambitious goal of doubling the number of bachelor’s-degree holders between 1997 and 2020, to 580,000, to reach the projected national average.

But after setting specific goals, then what? To answer that question, some councils have established measures to hold themselves more accountable. While many states have set their sights on improving rates of high school graduation and college readiness, for example, attainment of this goal in Georgia translates into 13 performance measures. Those measures range from increases in high school graduation rates in targeted districts, to the percentage of students earning passing grades in introductory math courses, to the number of students ultimately earning bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines.

ACTORS. Any discussion of setting a P-16 action agenda must lead to considerations of the next A: the actors on the P-16 council. In addition to the traditional members—state schools chiefs, state higher education executive officers, and members of state-level public K-12 and postsecondary governing boards—the ECS recommends that P-16 councils maintain a broad-based membership that includes representatives from the following areas:

Early learning. While the chief state school officer might fairly represent the perspective of prekindergarten programs through a K-12 lens, optimal representation occurs only when early-learning programs are explicitly represented. Arizona and Delaware, states that convene a state board representing the broad array of birth-through-age-5 providers, and Kansas and Washington, states with cabinet-level early-learning entities, all include early learning on the P-20 council. California includes an early-learning researcher on its council, while a member from the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind represents the youngest recipients of special education services on that state’s council.

Business. The health of the business community is dependent in large part on the “output” of the P-20 education system. Business or economic-development representatives on councils vary from state to state, but often include such partners as chief executive officers, cabinet-level stakeholders, business-roundtable members, and state chamber-of-commerce leaders. On the Wyoming P-16 council, the business representative heads the “sustainability” committee, which is seeking to make private support one of the council’s three funding streams.

Lawmakers. While some states have been reluctant to include legislators and governors on P-16 councils, fearing that they might “politicize” reforms, councils are apt to see only limited progress without the participation of state lawmakers. Having governors and legislators participate on a council can:

• Maintain communication so that state decisionmakers hear directly from education constituencies the challenges they are facing and potential solutions to such problems.

• Help education role-players understand where proposals may face political obstacles, and suggest how these hurdles might be overcome.

• Help develop buy-in from legislators and the governor before reforms proposed by the council are brought to state decisionmakers.

The alignment of early learning, K-12, and postsecondary systems no longer is an 'option' or a 'nice idea,' but the essential path for states to follow if they are to meet the economic, demographic, and education challenges of the 21st century.

The inclusion of top lawmakers also helps avoid the development of “parallel tracks” in the effort to resolve education issues in a state, and helps ensure that recommendations issued by a P-16 council are informed by and have the support of those who will take those recommendations from proposal to enactment. Ideally, legislative members of P-16 councils should hold positions of leadership related to education (chairpersons of education or appropriations committees, for example). They also should include both majority and minority leaders, to avoid potential partisan domination of education issues.

Councils should discourage the practice of allowing designees to take the place of the officials, however. By allowing participation only of primary members, they can set a tone about the importance of the work, and help maintain fidelity to the council’s goals.

Foundations. Representation from the philanthropic community brings a different view of state needs to the table and can help identify deficiencies that might not be on the radar of K-12, postsecondary, or government leaders. Foundations also can offer financial support to P-16 reform efforts beyond what state coffers are able to provide, and can organize efforts to build public understanding and develop public support for reform. States such as California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio include representatives of local and/or national philanthropies on their P-16 councils.

Some states also include organizations or agencies that may fill an important niche in the state’s education landscape, but do not fit clearly into the groups listed above. Such members include state- or district-level nonprofit organizations that support education; representatives of private K-12 and postsecondary education; members of the public at large, including parents and students; tribal representatives, in those states with a significant number of Native students; and representatives of adult education.

In sum, broad-based membership on a P-16 council helps the state reach consensus among all key players affected by P-16 reform, and ensures that recommendations don’t become “the big report that goes nowhere.” The work can instead be taken back to members’ agencies, organizations, or constituencies, where it can have an impact on policy and move the P-16 dialogue forward.

Not only is it important to have, as the author Jim Collins suggests, “the right people on the bus,” but it’s also important that the bus get out of the station. The ECS suggests that councils meet at least quarterly. That frequency can reduce the potential for inertia, and will help hold councils and subcommittees to regular deadlines on action items and recommendations.

APPROPRIATION OF RESOURCES. While some highly successful P-16 councils, such as Kentucky’s, have achieved significant reform based on the pro bono work of participating agencies and organizations, other states are struggling to move their P-16 agendas ahead because they lack financial support or the human capital necessary to communicate to the public and develop councils’ recommendations into policies or programs. Various types of funding cover the staff and communications efforts that can underpin successful P-16 efforts. In some states, the budgets of participating agencies include money to support the P-16 council’s work. In a number of states, money from local and national foundations helps sustain P-16 work. Grants from a local American Indian tribe and from Intel Corp. support specific efforts of the Arizona and Colorado P-20 councils, respectively. The Wyoming P-16 council has established a “sustainability” subgroup with the goal of developing three sources of revenue: state government/legislative appropriations; foundation funds; and support from private businesses.

What human capital is necessary to move such efforts from the meeting room to reality? While some states have brought about P-16 reforms by assigning additional council responsibilities to existing personnel in participating agencies, having an additional “full-time equivalent” position dedicated to supporting the council’s efforts can help ensure that council efforts are not postponed or set aside in favor of other priorities.

The alignment of early-learning, K-12, and postsecondary systems no longer is an “option” or a “nice idea,” but the essential path for states to follow if they are to meet the economic, demographic, and education challenges of the 21st century. Coordinating structures can play a strong role in this alignment. Building upon the right agenda, with the right actors in the room, and supported by adequate funding to communicate and move these efforts forward, P-16 councils have the tools in the toolbox to build the seamless education systems America needs.

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