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Published in Print: February 23, 2000, as Secondary Accreditation To Target Academics

Secondary Accreditation To Target Academics

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New England's public high schools will have to flex more academic muscle to maintain their accreditation under new evaluation standards that focus less on administrative minutiae and more on teaching and learning.

Beginning this spring, the Commission on Public Secondary Schools of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges will conduct more substantive reviews of the instructional programs of its 670 member schools, as many as 70 of them this calendar year.

Commission officials hope the change will help schools undergoing the once-a-decade review boost student achievement, and enhance the credibility of the accrediting body's endorsement.

"It was very clear that we were not focusing enough on issues of teaching and learning," said the commission's director, Pamela Gray-Bennett. "We decided that if we didn't, we should get out of the game."

High school accreditation, once a status symbol, has been criticized for more than a decade as little more than a nuts-and-bolts inventory of facilities and programs. Schools cannot risk losing it, however, without jeopardizing their students' college prospects.

Several of the nation's six regional accrediting agencies have taken steps to refocus their evaluation criteria on academics. But the NEASC, based in Bedford, Mass., appears to be a leader in the extent to which it will weigh instructional factors in granting schools reaccreditation.

"There's a trend toward a decreasing emphasis on facilities and so-called bricks-and-mortar credentials," said John A. Stoops, the executive director of the International Council of School Accrediting Commissions, a Coopersburg, Pa.-based agency that represents the K-12 commissions of the regional accrediting organizations. "In my mind, the New England association is on the right track."

Detailed Self-Study

In the New England group's newly revised self-study—which requires teachers and administrators to analyze essential elements of their school's operations as part of the reaccreditation process—schools will have to provide detailed descriptions of instructional goals and how they are being met.

The standards call for school officials to show evidence that they are setting high academic expectations for students in academic, civic, and social areas and assessing their progress; that the curriculum emphasizes depth of knowledge over breadth of coverage; and that teachers regularly discuss instructional issues and strategies with colleagues.

Instead of a cursory review of classroom practice, visiting teams of teachers and administrators will conduct lengthy observations of and interviews with teachers. Team members will also shadow students throughout the school day and review their work.

Some educators in the region are welcoming the changes.

"We're still going to take time to clean the lockers and spiffy up the building, like we always do,'' said Peter B. Sack, the principal of Swampscott (Mass.) High School. "But when the visiting team leaves, they will leave us with a host of recommendations that have more to do with teaching and learning than how many fire extinguishers are up to code."

Mixed Reviews

Mr. Sack expects a positive outcome from the review of his 700-student school. Swampscott High has a reputation for above-average achievement, and its teachers and administrators have been focused on improving student performance as part of the state's school improvement and accountability program.

But some other schools are not so upbeat. At North Country High School in Newport, Vt., administrators are expecting a less-than-glowing appraisal. North Country High, with at least a third of its 1,100 students qualifying as low-income, is on the state's list of low-performing schools. And in a region that has tended to resist change, many teachers have not embraced the new accreditation philosophy.

"[The self-study] is an incredibly cumbersome task when you're working with teachers who are not apathetic, but just one step up from it," said Jackie Young, a social studies teacher and co-chairwoman of the school's self-study committee.

But state academic standards have begun to motivate local educators to look more closely at curriculum and teaching, Ms. Young added. "If we can raise test scores by coordinating curriculum with state tests and combine that with [the teaching and learning focus] of the self-study," she said, "I suppose it sounds like it should be a magic recipe.''

The NEASC Commission on Public Secondary Schools, Ms. Gray-Bennett said, understands that some schools may not be able to shift gears immediately. But she does not expect a dramatic increase in the number placed on probation.

"They have to show reasonable progress," she said. "We will haunt them to do better.''

Vol. 19, Issue 24, Page 3

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