As state policy makers and educators have increasingly focused on the frequent disconnect between the sectors of elementary, secondary and higher education, most states have seized on at least one common answer to the problem: P-16 councils aimed at getting the sectors talking to each other and working together to provide more consistency throughout the educational pipeline.
Wednesday, as it unveiled its annual report on the state of high school graduation rates,  Education Week zeroed in on the impact of these councils, which "have been popping up across the country," said Amy Hightower, deputy director of the EPE Research Center, which produced the report with the magazine. Despite their popularity -- such councils have cropped up in 38 states, according to the report -- "their ability to affect change remains in question,” Hightower said.
The report shows that more than half of the councils were created by legislation, executive order or a combination of the two. Ten of the councils are led by the governor's office, Hightower said; debate persists, she said, about whether that imprimatur legitimizes the work of the councils or “further politicizes the work and raises questions about longevity once the governor leaves office.”
The most common work of these councils is in developing student data systems -- which are controversial in some quarters in higher education, but seen as a potential boon for assessing the performance of state education systems -- and creating dual enrollment initiatives, she said.
“But the jury's still out in terms of their results,” Hightower said. “So far, they're quite heavy on process and initiatives, but light on bringing about tangible policy change. If the process is the product, is this enough to drive the staying momentum in the P-16 arena?” That is especially true because most of them do not have authority to set policy, but only to recommend it.
After the unveiling of the report, a panel of experts weighed in on it. Gov. Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island, who put together a council in his state, said one of the biggest challenges he faced was getting the different sectors to work together and toward common goals.
Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said that states need to create mechanisms for tracking the progress of such councils. “If the work of these councils is as important as we're saying it is, then we're going to have to find a way to hold them accountable,” he said -- without going "too far” and creating new bureaucracies.
Kathy Christie, chief of staff of the Education Commission of the States, argued that it was important to have a governor on such councils to set a tone of importance for the work the councils do. And legislators and state higher education officers should be included so they can take ideas from the panels and implement them, she said.
The group's report, "Diplomas Count 2008,"  found that the high school graduation rate of all students across the country in 2005 was 70.6 percent, a 2.6 percent increase from five years ago. But some states at the bottom actually decreased over that period, the study found.