Does P-16 Work?

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I had the opportunity to present at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s P-16 Summit yesterday morning in Austin, TX. The conference brought together 600 stakeholders from around the state to discuss how to “do” P16 better.

The P-16 discussion has grown in the last few years with the acknowledgement that there needs to be a more seamless transition between K-12 and postsecondary education. This is certainly true. Of course, the conundrum is trying to encourage both sectors to play well together. K12 often looks at higher education as “know-it-alls,” while higher education looks down its nose at K-12 as those people who can’t teach children anything. Both are flawed views, surely. Especially when one realizes that it is, ultimately, higher education is responsible for training the nation’s teaching force.

I’ve always been somewhat cynical of “P-16,” or “P-20” initiatives. Not because they shouldn’t be done or aren’t potentially very important, but because they seem to become just another educational cliché that in the end does very little. I could be wrong. But I do see a lot of people throwing these terms around with very little to show for it. In true definition, P-16 is a fine concept:

P-16 is the shorthand term for a student-focused, comprehensive and integrated system that links all education levels from preschool (P) through post-secondary. It is a powerful framework for citizens and policymakers to use to improve teaching and learning and thus better prepare students for living, learning, and working in a changing world. (Mid-East Tennessee P-16 Council (

Who can’t agree with the above? It is ultimately what we would like to see. The most important part of P-16 is the alignment of standards and expectations for education throughout the education continuum, from pre-school to and through postsecondary education. At one level, this seems like a simple concept; on another it is a sea of complexity to align two disparate systems. Adding complexity is the true diversity of higher education. K-12 is fairly simple: mostly public, but some private, but they all walk the same walk. Not higher education. It is, for all intents and purposes, all over the place. Over 3,000 two- and four-year, public and private institutions in the United States alone with diverse missions and roles. And it’s entirely elective, while K-12 is mandatory until the age of 16.

To date, 31 states are involved in a P-16 collaborative. The goals of these efforts include:

Every child ready for school by age 6

Every child proficient in reading by age 8

Every child proficient in geometry and algebra by age 13

Every learner completing a rigorous core curriculum by age 17

Every learner expected to complete the first two years of college by age 21 (Van de Water & Krueger, 2002)

The only one I argue with is the final bullet. I do not necessarily believe that ALL students need to complete two years of postsecondary education. This would exclude trades which are typically 9 month programs and apprenticeship programs. We are best focused on preparing all students for postsecondary studies, but not requiring or demanding postsecondary study.

The truth is, higher education has become more of a credential need than a skill requirement. I argue that some students who have excellent high school experiences are more prepared than some BA graduates: it’s all about the rigor of the program. If we did high school better, we could ramp down our educational arms race. This was noted in a recent article on Ph.D. degrees, where critics feel that the terminal degree is being watered down. We’ve said this about every degree in the education continuum.

Nonetheless, the success of P16 collaboratives come down to a few elements, the first two, and perhaps most important, being powersharing and communication.

Powersharing is the term we use to describe how the K12 and postsecondary systems come to terms with the joint process of P16 collaboration. Each group must be assured that they have an equal standing in the arrangement. Otherwise, the initiative will not prosper. P16 isn’t a process where one side is trying to take advantage of the other; rather, it is an arrangement where both levels are trying to align their systems for a seamless transition for students.

Communication is required to ensure the powersharing structure is working and that all stakeholders have a voice in the conversation. The successful states, such as Georgia, have created state-wide offices for the P16 collaborative. This is mostly a communications device.

Also important in any of the collaboratives is ensuring that safety net programs are in effect. If all students are required to learn at a high level and proceed to PSE, then their needs to be safety net programs to protect those who have not yet developed the skills to succeed academically compared to their peers. This is critical to the success of a P16 effort.

And finally, it comes down to quality. If the P16 collaborative focuses on quality of education and of system alignment, the P16 has a much greater opportunity to work. Thus, a successful P16 collaborative needs to ensure appropriate powersharing, communication, and quality of all inputs.

For what it’s worth.

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