Accrediting Bodies Offer Improvement Guide
A national group last week unveiled a set of research-based indicators that school communities can use as they go into the accreditation process to gauge how well they're doing and how they can improve.
The guide, "Indicators of Schools of Quality," is part of a broader effort on the part of the six regional commissions that accredit public and private schools to become a bigger force for school reform. Some critics have contended that the accreditation process is too soft on schools and too narrowly focused on "stuff"--the number of books in the library, for example, or science lab equipment. ("Once Status Symbol for Schools, Accreditation Becomes Rote Drill ," March 26, 1997.)
To dispel that image, some of the regional commissions in recent years began prodding the schools they evaluate to think more about how they can improve--regardless of how well they may already be doing--and to focus on student work as evidence of their success.
The set of indicators introduced last week is designed to show schools how to go about doing that. With these criteria in hand, administrators can assess their schools' strengths and weaknesses, design an improvement plan, and document their progress in meeting those goals. The guides are intended to be a first step in a lengthy process that leads to recertification for schools.
"When they have to move to analyzing their instructional effectiveness, that's where schools have had a lot of difficulty in the past," said Kathleen A. Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the National Study of School Evaluation, which created the guide. Based in Schaumburg, Ill., her organization is the research arm for the regional accrediting agencies.
The indicators, which were three years in the making, were released here during a meeting of the NSSE's national board. They focus on schoolwide practices. A second volume, due out next year, zeroes in on indicators for all the major academic disciplines.
To gather and distill the research on best practices in education, the NSSE enlisted leading researchers in the field and the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, an umbrella group of 19 national subject-matter organizations that is based in Cincinnati. Alliance members, representing groups such as the National Council of Teachers of English, also helped infuse into the guide the groups' standards for student learning in their curricular areas.
"Is it fallible? Yes," said Herbert J. Walberg, a researcher from the University of Illinois at Chicago who took part in the effort. "Is it the best we have? Yes," he continued. "We have to view this as the beginning of a process for schools."
The document sets out student-performance indicators in six broad areas: learning-to-learn skills, expanding and integrating knowledge, communication skills, thinking and reasoning skills, interpersonal skills, and personal and social responsibility. In the area of learning-to-learn skills, for example, elementary-level language arts students would be expected to use multiple strategies to comprehend text, to stick to time lines on research projects, to describe techniques they used in a piece of writing, and to suggest ways of improving their writing.
The document's indicators for gauging the quality of the work of schools highlight assessment, curriculum, and instruction. Surveys, a data-collection guide, samples of the kinds of report that schools can draft, and guidelines for scoring their progress are also part of the package.
Forcing the Issue
The NSSE also plans to compile case studies of schools that have gone through the process to show how it plays out in real life.
It will be up to the individual accrediting bodies to decide how closely they will make schools adhere to this new level of expectations to win accreditation. Currently, only an estimated 3 percent of the schools up for accreditation lose their certification each year.
"What if a school schmoozes you through this?" asked Gordon Cawelti, a research consultant for the Arlington, Va.-based Educational Research Services who took part in the project. "There are just a lot of questions out there about making this as valuable a service as it can be."
But Kenneth F. Gose, the director of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges in Tempe, Ariz., and the chairman of the NSSE, said he believes the new guidelines will be heavily used.
"All the regionals now recognize we need to focus on student learning and enhancing performance."