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NCATE Examiners in Training Hone the Skill of Skepticism

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GAINESVILLE, FLA.--Ron G. Joekel wants to know why the 20 or so members of his cadre of future site examiners are all over the map on the question of whether the University of Florida has passed one of the standards established by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

On a scale of 0 to 3, with 3 denoting passage, most members of the cadre have given the university a 2 or 3 under the criteria that make up the standard; some have marked 1. Apart from Mr. Joekel, only one or two have written down O.

So why the discrepancy, asks Mr. Joekel, the chairman of educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"1 was fooled by the glittering generalities," one woman confesses.

During this session--the first time the new NCATE training class breaks into cadres to discuss and dissect the 18 standards its members will judge as they visit institutions across the country--a lack of skepticism is permissible.

By week's end, though, the students will be expected to apply the lessons of their intensive course.

"The burden is on [the institutions] to convince us," Mr. Joekel tells his charges. "It's not that we don't trust them, but it's our responsibility to verify the information."

Mr. Joekel explains that he gave the University of Florida some low ratings because he had not yet seen the necessary documentation.

To most members of the education community, NCATE is the five- and sixmember teams of volunteers that sweep onto their campuses for a brief visit that will determine the accreditation status of their institution.

But the smaller, more intensively trained beard of examiners has been the target of criticism since it was redesigned. To clear up some of the mysteries that surround it, the accrediting body last November allowed an Education Week reporter to train alongside the 43 members of the newest class of examiners.

A Mixture of Volunteers

The volunteer examiners are nominated by their constituent groups. Of the 43 in the training class, 15 were selected by the nation's two major teachers' unions, 13 by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 12 by such specialty area groups as the National Council of Teachers of English, and 3 by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Before they arrive at the training site, the volunteers are expected to have completed their homework from the myriad reports, papers, and exercises NCATE has sent. them.

On Saturday night, the trainees meet for the first time. They are greeted by a videotaped message from Arthur E. Wise, the president of NCATE, who tells trainees: "You will be the representative of NCATE. You will be the one people remember."

Although Mr. Wise will put in an appearance later in the week, Donna M. Coilnick, the vice president of NCATE, runs the training.

She has brought aboard Kenneth Howey and Nancy Zimpher, both of Ohio State University; Boyce Williams of Elizabeth City State University; and Mr. Joekel.

David C. Smith, the dean of education, and his faculty at the University of Florida have offered themselves as guinea pigs for the simulated exercises.

Sessions begin daily at 8:30 A.M. and continue well into the evening all but two days. Even during the few free evenings the group has, conversations focus on the training or a related subject.

But there are few complaints about the amount of work.

Sandra L. Robinson, the associate dean of education at the University of South Carolina, says she willingly became a volunteer. "I'm a believer in the process," she says. "I saw what this did for as."

Catching On Slowly

The primary goal of the training is to immerse the volunteers in the standards and their application.

Early in the week, the teachers and the students grapple with the five standards that make up the knowledge base.

"There is no one right and correct knowledge base," Ms. Gollnick says.

Working from this premise, the trainees then mast discern if an institution's knowledge base meets the criteria. They also have to determine if an institution has a clear mission and if it is woven throughout the knowledge base.

During those first days, many of the volunteers look puzzled. Their anxiety shows up in a satisfaction chart Ms. Gollnick has taped to the wall of the main meeting room. At the end of Sunday, only 24 percent of the respondents say they are very satisfied with the training, and 2 percent are very dissatisfied.

As the pieces start to fit together, and understanding replaces confusion, the satisfaction level rises. By Thursday, 90 percent are very satisfied, while the rest are satisfied.

"It took me a while to catch on. Once I started to... I realized what it was all about," says Kathleen M. Stroh, an education specialist from Connecticut who was nominated by the American Federation of Teachers. "By the end of the week, I was anxious, but I felt prepared."

None of the issues provokes as much discussion as does multiculturalism. Trainees express uncertainty about how to judge institutional compliance on diversity standards as well as sympathy for those that have tried unsuccessfully to recruit minority students and faculty.

They are told to look at ratios but not to make them the deciding factor. "There is no magic percentage there," Ms. Gollnick says.

They are also told to look for certain clues. Expect more diversity in Miami than in Grand Forks, N.D., Ms. Gollnick says, and examine faculty-meeting minutes to see if it is a major discussion item.

Regardless of how much they sympathize, they mast report an institution if it does not meet a standard, the instructors caution repeatedly.

That is one of several broad themes the participants are schooled in throughout the proceedings. They are also counseled to err on the side of finding a standard unmet, because it will be better for the NCATE panel responsible for a final decision on accreditation to overturn the site team's decision and find in favor of the institution, rather than the other way around.

As Ms. Gollnick reminds them, "Part of the role you will play and NCATE will play is to push institutions to do better."

As much as possible, the training is designed to resemble the actual site visit.

During a real site visit, the team first meets on Sunday night, when members release their initial ratings on the criteria. They meet gain on Monday evening to see if the ratings have changed after they have had a chance to check the documentation room and interview administrators, faculty, and students.

On Wednesday, team members write reports for each of the standards. "Everything has to be resolved before teams leave the site," Ms. Gollnick says.

A Practice Site Visit

Before their visit to the University of Florida, the trainees have been broken down into small teams and have discussed their initial pre-visit findings. The team chairman has assigned them to interview certain people and to be responsible for gleaning information and writing the report for specific standards.

They are cautioned not to ignore the standards for which they will not be writing reports.

Unlike an actual site visit, in which one-on-one interviews are conducted, about six trainees sit in on each interview in Gainesville.

In general, the trainees ask pointed questions that elicit relevant information.

Most of the miscues are minor. For instance, some trainees take copious notes, while others do not unless their own questions are being addressed.

Only one obvious mistake is witnessed, when a trainee tells Dean Smith to "shut up."

Dean Smith gave the trainees high marks over all. "The questions that I got really tracked with the criteria for compliance," he said.

In some areas, "I could have been pushed harder," he conceded.

When the trainees return from the campus, the teams seclude themselves to discuss their findings and form a consensus for the final report.

To reduce the number of snags, these trainees will be meshed with veteran team members as they fan across the country this spring.

Lloyd C. Culberson, a high-school teacher from West Virginia, will be one, of them. "It's exciting; it's energizing," he said of the experience that affirmed some of his beliefs about teaching and led him to question others. "I'll come back [to the classroom] all fired up."

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