Column: It’s time to strengthen the P-16 continuum


Most state laws specify that public school systems have an obligation to provide an education to children by the age of six. Kindergarten, which generally includes children of five years of age, generally does not fall under the compulsory attendance requirements. Consequently, the majority of school systems still offer kindergarten as a voluntary half-day program, even though the benefits of a full-day program are evident—especially for at-risk children.

Pre-kindergarten programs are clearly out of the range of responsibility of public school systems and usually are offered only when paid for by state or federal funds, as is the case with many special-education preschool programs. There are also instances where the public school district will run programs like Head Start, as is the case today in Fairfax County, Va. This arrangement allows for a seamless delivery of services to children beginning as early as age three and progressing into the K-12 system.

However, the organizational separation between preschool and K-12 services usually extends from the local level all the way to the federal bureaucracy. Head Start, for example, is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Department of Education.

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At the other end of the K-12 spectrum, we undoubtedly have an even greater chasm between school districts and higher-education institutions. There are high schools that offer college-level courses that, in collaboration with a local college or university, will earn college-level credit. There are the Advanced Placement courses that might earn students advanced credit in the colleges they will attend. There are high schools located within college campuses, often referred to as laboratory schools. But generally, we do not see the school district infiltration into higher education that is seen at the preschool level.

Undoubtedly, this is because all children will move into the K-12 system—but unfortunately not all K-12 students will graduate and go on to college. This is a deficiency that the current education reform agenda is attempting to correct as we work to reduce the high school dropout rate and significantly increase the number of students going on to and graduating from college. President Obama has set a goal that the United States will lead the world in the percentage of college graduates by the year 2020. This is a goal that clearly extends beyond the K-12 realm and applies to a preK-16 system.

The challenge for K-12 education now goes beyond eliminating the dropout rate and ensuring that every students graduates; K-12 districts also must also work to prepare students to graduate from college. This is a greater challenge than we have ever faced before and will necessitate greater cooperation between K-12 districts and institutions of higher education.

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