Is Accreditation Worth the Trouble?
Suppose someone were to walk into your office or classroom right now and say, "OK, stop what you're doing and spend the next week reflecting on your work, talking to your colleagues, and writing about it." Admit it, once you got past the interruption of your routine, maybe a few inconveniences, you might find the exercise a great luxury, yielding new wisdom and enthusiasm for what you do. At its heart, in my experience, that is what a strong accreditation program seeks to do for a school.
In questioning the value of accreditation, an article in these pages recently focused on the accreditation processes of the six regional accrediting groups. ("Once Status Symbol for Schools, Accreditation Becomes Rote Drill," March 26, 1997.) It might be helpful to look at parallel accreditation programs that have been established by 14 independent school associations on behalf of their member schools.
First, a couple of definitions: Independent schools are distinct from other schools in that they are primarily supported by tuitions, charitable contributions, and endowment income rather than by tax or church funds. These private schools are not-for-profit, are governed by a board of trustees, and, to be a member of the National Association of Independent Schools, must be accredited by a state or regional association.
The independence of an independent school derives from the fact that each is a unique community with its own mission--a private institution with a public purpose. To serve these schools' needs, a number of state and regional independent school associations have developed accreditation programs, based on a process of peer evaluation, which honors the individual character of each school while determining if schools meet the association's standards.
There is another important layer. In 1989, at the request of its member independent school accrediting associations, NAIS established the Recognition Program, through which the organization observes, evaluates, and recognizes accrediting processes and demonstrates that accountability for accreditation extends beyond an accrediting association's own board of directors--a source of some concern in the Education Week article. That's where my experience comes in.
As an observer and evaluator of a number of independent school accrediting programs, I have learned that they are interested above all in standards of educational excellence. One independent school groups states as a goal "to ensure that the public interest is well served by member schools' adherence to the principles of quality education." But they also provide standards for areas of operation particular to independent schools, including governance, adherence to mission, admission policies, financial viability, and fund-raising practice.
Tedious checklists, if they exist at all in the independent school accrediting processes, are far from central to the evaluation of schools. Of primary importance to the school and the evaluators are the self-study and the evaluation visit.
Guided by a good self-study instrument, a self-study provides more than a snapshot of the school's current status, or a laundry list of practices. Instead, it leads the school to look at its mission and purpose and to reflect on how it is meeting that mission, and where it wants to be in five years or more. In the view of one teacher I spoke to recently, the self-study process gave her an opportunity to come out of the classroom, to think more broadly about her work in the larger context of the school's educational mission, and to work collaboratively with colleagues across the curriculum and across school divisions in ways that the school day and school calendar do not normally provide. The process breaks down the isolation imposed by the classroom.
With a carefully assembled evaluating team, one that reflects the particular focus of a school (for example, for a progressive school, the team would include educators familiar with the values and practices of progressive education), and with a thoughtful team leader, the evaluation visit will enrich far more than interrupt the work of the school. The head of the school may share hopes for the future of the school with the visitors, asking them to apply a special lens to their observations, with the goal of nudging the school forward to new growth. The visit gives the school community an opportunity to exchange ideas with peers from other schools, who will often affirm the good work they are witnessing and offer in the final report suggestions for greater success.
Acommon theme among all independent school groups is that an evaluation's primary purpose is to determine whether a school is adhering to its own goals: In the words of another NAIS member association, its purpose in accreditation is to "assist the school in better realizing its objectives, to support rather than inspect, and to enhance the school's unique character rather than impose a common design."
Far from being "rubber stamps," independent school accrediting programs serve three very important purposes. They have a gatekeeping function for independent school associations, they have an accountability function by certifying the quality of the school for parents and other institutions, and they represent the support we extend to one another, at our very best, as a community of educators.
Worth the trouble? Without a doubt.
Selby Holmberg is a vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools, with headquarters in Washington, and directs the NAIS Recognition Program.