Guidance from Above

Colleges that shift to performance-based education usually need a big push from their presidents, Joseph A. Olzacki and Donn Weinholtz argue.

April 20, 2005

If you want to know if an art school or music school is educating its students, you can go to an exhibit or recital and check out the talent. Increasingly, government officials, accreditors and business leaders
want to be able to similarly check out the talent emerging from all undergraduate programs.

Given these new demands, it is reasonable to ask, "What role should modern college or university presidents play in the transition to performance-based education?"

To examine this question, we investigated the actions taken by three presidents of institutions where performance-based curricula were successfully put in place. Through intensive interviews with each president, as well as with faculty members and other administrators, we documented the presidents' contributions to their respective institutions' reform efforts.Our conclusions may help other educators whose colleges are embarking on the performance-based journey.

We examined Alverno College, California State University at Monterey Bay, and Southern New Hampshire University. Alverno, now with approximately 2,100 students, switched to performance-based education in the 1970's and became nationally recognized for its success. Sister Joel Read, Alverno's president at the time, remained in her position until retiring in 2003. A new institution, Monterey Bay, which currently has approximately 2,300 students, opened its doors in 1995, advertising its performance-based approach. Peter Smith is the founding president. He will be step down in June to accept head UNESCO's education sector.

Finally, in 1999, Southern New Hampshire University, currently with 3,000 students, began a three-year business administration program that became the cornerstone of its evolving performance-based approach. Richard Gustafson began as Southern New Hampshire's president in 1985. He, too, retired in 2003.

Although the programs vary across the three schools, each is distinctively outcome-driven. For example, Alverno advertises that its "ability-based curriculum" develops skills needed to be effective at work, within a family, and in the wider civic community. Assessment clearly drives learning, as faculty and other trained assessors provided students with ongoing feedback on complex tasks to promote  continuous learning. Over the last five years, Alverno has had students store evidence of their performances in diagnostic digital portfolios, which become their electronic resumes.

At Monterey Bay, each undergraduate program is organized around a substantial set of "major learning outcomes" fostered by broadly interdisciplinary, learner-centered activities, many of which involve learning outside the classroom. Whether majoring in global studies or any of Monterey Bay's many other "integrative " programs, students receive ongoing feedback as they confront increasingly complex projects.

Southern New Hampshire's three-year business administration program is designed for students to achieve proficiency in 13 complex competencies through their participation in "interdisciplinary and
cross-curricular modules." Each semester is capped by a week-long integrating experience during which students showcase their learning experiences. By their third year, students are substantially engaged in real-world experiences for business clients.

At each college we sought answers to three questions:

  • What led the college to adopt performance-based education?
  • What strategies, tactics and resources did the president use?
  • What obstacles did the president encounter?

The responses to the first question revealed the unique situations that fostered change in each of the institutions. After a religious order withdrew its financial support, Alverno was forced to change its entire curriculum to reinvent itself, attract a new student base and ensure its survival.

As a new university located on a former army base, Monterey Bay was charged with serving the needs of the surrounding communities, including the migrant farm-worker population. Right from the start, performance-based education was assumed to be appropriate to the challenge at hand.

Southern New Hampshire University changed its undergraduate business program as a voluntary response to its regional accrediting agency as well as to provide the business communities in nearby cities with students whose education linked precisely to outcomes.

We reached two conclusions from the answers we found to Question 1. First, development of a performance-based curriculum throughout a college or university is more likely to occur when a crisis threatens the existence of a college or a new institution is being created. Nothing quite galvanizes faculty and administration like finding a way to survive, or having to build a new institution from nothing. The relative dearth of college-wide, performance-based curricula across the nation may well be due to the absence of the dramatic demands encountered at Alverno and Monterey Bay.

The second conclusion naturally followed from the first: In the absence of a crisis or the challenge of creating a new institution, performance-based curricula are most likely to develop in one program
and then spread elsewhere at a college. The incremental approach at Southern New Hampshire,  beginning with the business program, probably reflects the norm for the emergence of  performance-based curriculums around the nation.

Tactics and Resources

Question No. 2 (regarding strategies, tactics and resources) revealed distinct similarities as well as some differences among the presidents' behaviors. At Alverno, Sister Joel clearly acted in the capacity of the primary "facilitator." Although she personally denied involvement beyond a supportive role, others at the college credited her with the overall success of the change process, citing her ability to delegate, mentor and communicate as well as to energize the faculty. For example, Sister Joel's early and ongoing encouragement of innovation led to the creation of "ability departments" alongside traditional discipline departments. Over time these departments became increasingly "webbed" together into a curriculum matrix.

One administrator noted that she worked with "the faculty side by side" to help them think through what they wanted and to lead them to make curricular changes aimed at fostering student learning.

At Monterey Bay, President Smith and others reported that he used many of the same delegating behaviors as Sister Joel. But while Alverno came to performance-based education through trial and error, Smith mandated that his institution would create a performance-based curriculum. As he told us, "The decision to include  performance-based education as a core value in the curriculum was introduced by me here at the university in the very early planning days in order to give us a focus for quality in the academic program. It was endorsed by the planning faculty and has been part of our academic fabric ever since."

On the other hand, President Gustavson of Southern New Hampshire delegated more than his peers. He steadfastly worked behind the scenes, supporting a few key individuals and providing sufficent resources for the new performance-based business program. As one business faculty member stated, "He said we could do it and was there every step of the way encouraging and assisting us." When asked about this, Gustavson indicated that he saw his role as generating grant-related resources to encourage people to be innovative. A U.S. Department of Education grant provided the critical funding for creating the new business administration program.

We developed a single conclusion in answer to Question No. 2: To successfully develop a  performance-based curriculum, the president must promote collaboration between the administration and the faculty and among the professors charged with developing the program. The presidents can maintain different levels of visibility, but each must serve as a motivator, facilitator and advocate for the faculty and for the curricular innovation.

Overcoming Resistance

Our findings regarding Question No. 3, concerning obstacles to change, uncovered challenges found to some degree at all three institutions. One obstacle was faculty anxiety and resistance to curricular change, in part because of misinformation and misunderstanding.  This was most dramatically illustrated at Alverno, where rumors were spread about a non-existent multi-million dollar budget deficit.

At Southern New Hampshire, anxiety among faculty resulted from the adoption of performance-based education even though the university had only a vaguely defined accreditation mandate. That's because the New England Association of Schools and Colleges began stipulating as early as 1990 that colleges should move in the direction of performance-based education, while providing little direction as to how this change might be accomplished.

Resource shortages were also an obstacle at all three institutions, since development of the performance-based curricula demanded substantial release time and financial support. Such shortagescontributed to resistance, and to faculty and staff worries about whether they'd have adequate resources to get the job done.

The unique aspects of two institutions' obstacles also became apparent. At Alverno College, Sister Joel had to deal with the problem of not having any previous performance-based curricular models to follow. Everything that was developed was done through the inventiveness of the participating faculty and administrators. Trial and error had to overcome uncertainty. Cal State Monterey Bay had the benefit of Smith's early dedication to performance-based education, as well as the previously established model created at Alverno.

However the president, administrators and initial faculty at Monterey Bay had only from January until August of a single year to design a curriculum and open their doors. This extremely short time frame created substantial tension. Other obstacles included faculty inexperience in developing performance-based curricula and the concern that the innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum might not fit into the California State University system's more traditional curricular framework.

We drew two conclusions from the responses to Question No. 3. First, if a college is to effectively manage obstacles to curricular change, it must clearly inform faculty and staff about the purposes, goals and expected benefits of the change, as well as the level of work that will be required. Second, in order to adopt performance-based curricula, an institution must provide sufficient resources, well beyond those typically required for curriculum change. Funds are needed for the release time necessary for faculty and curriculum development, assessment tools, and the lighter teaching loads required for labor-intensive student assessment.

Despite their different circumstances and styles, the presidents at all three institutions demonstrated some common behaviors. They effectively set goals, delegated authority, cajoled faculty, providedfinancial and emotional support, and offered direction without seeming dictatorial -- all while retaining final approval.

Finally, they consistently worked with faculty and community representatives to assure that changes benefited student learning. Their practices offer a useful model for other presidents confronting the multiple challenges accompanying the transition to performance-based education.


Joseph A. Olzacki is director of visual and performing arts for the Bloomfield, Conn., Public Schools. Donn Weinholtz is professor of educational leadership at the University of Hartford.

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