University systems across the nation have been experimenting with the idea of linking public funding to performance measures for at least the past decade. This gives our state leaders some good footing to build on as they go about creating a system that fits the unique higher education needs of Montana.

Though discussions about performance measures have been taking place in the Montana University System for years, this legislative session brought a formal proposal to tie as-yet-unspecified benchmarks to a portion – about 5 percent, or $7.5 million – of future funding. So far, the idea has received support from nearly every corner; last month, Gov. Steve Bullock, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian and the entire Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education gave their approval to a budget addendum that, for the first time, would make a portion of the university system’s biennial budget dependent on performance.

The reasoning behind their support is sound, and outcomes from other states point to the likely success of such a system in our state. Much more critical – and controversial – will be determining which performance standards to adopt and how best to measure them.

While systemwide performance standards have yet to be determined and defined, they will almost certainly include graduation rates. Bullock made increasing the percentage of college degree holders in Montana an important part of his overall vision in his recent State of the State address. The addendum he and Christian signed specifically mentions “increasing college completions and other related outcomes aimed at accelerating time to degree.”

In this regard, there is strong evidence performance-based funding systems can help. In Pennsylvania, which has been held up as a leader by the Lumina Foundation for Education for its performance-based funding structure, the state’s four-year colleges have increased their graduation rates by roughly 10 percent in 10 years. In Ohio, the median time to earn a bachelor’s degree dropped only slightly from 4.7 to 4.3 years – and remained lower – after performance-based funding was adopted.

The experiences of other states have also shown that it is of critical importance to correctly tailor any adopted standards to each individual institution. It’s also important to have accurate method tracking of student achievement – one that allows comparisons to be drawn between education institutions that may have very different missions.

Creating such a system won’t be easy or without argument, but Montana is fortunate in that can look to the successes and failure of university systems in other states – as well as to its own deep pool of expertise.

Earlier this month, the Board of Regents agreed that higher education faculty should be involved in determining which performance standards will be adopted. Their input will be considered along with nationally recognized best practices, along with advice from an outside consultant. Next month, Missoula and Bozeman will begin hosting discussions focused on performance standards.

Meanwhile, Bullock and Christian have both signed a memorandum of understanding that freezes in-state tuition for the next two academic years – so long as the Legislature approves a full $164 million in funding for the university system for each of the next two years. The Legislature would do well to support performance-based funding as a meaningful way of promoting both affordability and accountability within the Montana University System.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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(3) comments

BobbyLee
BobbyLee

It must be wonderful living in such a simplistic world as you lot. Did you not ever think that a country or two might have gone down this road before? And wouldn't it have been smart to research what they discovered? The U.K. all but destroyed its once renowned education system due to one political/administrative target after another, one 'performance based' notion after another. Initially, even for several years, it looked like the process was succeeding, until business leaders discovered that those leaving university no longer had the knowledge or wherewithal of the subjects the universities deemed they had. In effect, in order to remain funded, the universities passed on those targets to teachers, who were then forced to fudge the numbers, and even overtly cheat, in order to meet unmeetable targets or lose their jobs. Sure, it did wonders for the paperwork, the numbers were staggering, and no one thought to ask how it was that, all of a sudden, every child in the state suddenly became as bright as the brightest. Not until they went for a job, that is. When business leaders discovered that they had to reteach university graduates the basics.

But don't take my world for it - even though I've seen it before, which is easy to do if you keep your eyes open and stay abreast of the times and not live in an overly simplistic pre-1990 world in a small town.

"One of the most prominent arguments for U.S. educational reform, generally, and for the establishment of student performance standards, specifically, has been the assertion that they will create a world-class workforce. Behind this expectation is the assumption that there is strong and demonstrable evidence that higher and better educational standards and student performance are keys to higher workplace productivity. But a review of available evidence suggests only a weak relationship between test scores and economic productivity and virtually no evidence on the predictive validity of the newer performance standards. This article suggests that the educational standards movement has relied on the economic rationale largely because of its persuasiveness in stimulating educational reform rather than any compelling evidence on the links between specific educational standards and economic performance." - Henry M. Levin, David Jacks, Professor of Higher Education and Economics for Education & Educational Research.

It's not the emerging university numbers that you should be concerned about. It is the viability of those students in the workplace that is the real test of success. And why is it, that despite all the recent 'no child left behind dogma,' and the large increase in 'graduation rates,' businesses still cannot find qualified candidates. It's no coincidence that many jobs are now outsourced, and it's no coincidence that Finland is leaps and bounds ahead of the education curve, by giving its teachers and professors more autonomy and less burdensome bureaucratic overhead - exactly the opposite of what you've just promoted, which only further compounds administrative overhead. Just brilliant thinking. Is that what a U.S. university education provides you with these days?

The worst people to be running universities are outdated professors using outdated ideas. At the University of Montana, at least, we have both. And they will soon push their antiquated agenda onto the COT. That's modern day 'progressive' thinking apparently.

tfs1150

BobbyLee, you make a very compelling argument, particularly in drawing the parallels between "no child left behind" and the proposal being advanced by this editorial.
Fact is the program has not worked well at the k-12 level, and there is no reason to believe it will work any better at the collegiate level.
The other thing I found troubling was the apparent desire to move people to graduation at a faster rate, rather than putting the emphasis on comprehension, exploration, and accomplishment.
To whit, I was with you all the way until you blamed "progressive" thinking, rather than "neo-con" philosophy for the whole idea.

BobbyLee
BobbyLee

It's not what I call it. It's what they call it. But if you're willing to discard it because of one lousy word then that says more about your mindset than it does the whole argument - which, btw, has reams of data from numerous countries to support it.

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