Revamped NCATE Posts Highs, Lows In Tides of Teacher-Education Reform

By Karen Diegmueller — February 26, 1992 20 min read

For the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the past year has been one of marked highs and lows.

NCATE last year took a major step forward in its quest to create a national accreditation system, for example, when it forged an unprecedented agreement with Florida.

In November, though, it suffered a setback when the West Virginia state board of education rescinded its mandate that teacher-education institutions be NCATE-accredited.

Meanwhile, Texas institutions, limited by state law to 18 credit hours of teacher education courses, continued to bow out of NCATE.

But the accreditation agency was riding high once again when the Council of Chief State School Officers passed a resolution late last year pledging to aid in the establishment of a common national system of accreditation.

Then, two weeks ago, the tide again shifted against NCATE when the Council of Independent Colleges authorized its staff to explore the creation of an alternative accreditation system.

That pattern of advances and setbacks is illustrative of the divisions within the education community about the value of the revamped body since it began accrediting institutions under a new set of standards in 1988.

Those divisions were sharply evident at last year’s annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, where educators voiced strong frustration over the agency’s recently increased fees and the high failure rate of institutions unable to meet the agency’s tougher standards.

NCATE had seemed headed for a quieter time at this year’s AACTE meeting, being held in San Antonio this week. But then the Council of Independent Colleges announced its intention to establish an alternative system. (See related story, page 15.)

For those involved with NCATE, the complaints and challenges are an inevitable part of the effort to create a more effective system for evaluating teacher-education programs.

“The fallout that we’re reading about and heating about now was very much expected ... as we built the [more rigorous] system,” said Richard Kunkel, the former NCATE executive director who guided the agency through its redesign.

“The reason why it is happening is because the system is toughening up,” he said. “It’s operating out of strength rather than weakness.”

Others suggest, though, that the value Of NCATE can only be judged by its impact on institutions and, ultimately, on new teachers.

“There is always going to be a tension between the institutions and any accreditation body,” said Marilyn Guy, the incoming president of AACTE. “But the bottom line is, does this process make a positive difference in the way we prepare teachers. Does it make a difference?”

Producing Better Programs?

For Marilyn J. Harring, the dean of education at Purdue University, the answer is clear: NCATE produces a better program.

In preparation for NCATE, Ms. Harring said, she met weekly with the schools teacher-education council, where “some of the most important conversations I ever heard about teacher education occurred.”

“There are many things that could occupy my attention,” she said. “Nothing is more important to me than our NCATE visit.” But Cecil Miskel, the dean of education at the University of Michigan, takes the opposite view. His school withdrew from NCATE last year.

“Seeking accreditation is a very expensive, arduous kind of process,” Mr. Miskel said. “It takes a lot of faculty time and other resources, and you balance that off [against] the benefits of belonging.”

“In my estimation, there are not very many reasons that Counterbalance all the effort that it takes to belong,” he said. “I just don’t believe meeting all [the standards] will actually produce a better school of education or teacher-education program.”

At this juncture, most institutions are on Mr. Miskel’s side, apparently believing they do not need accreditation or cannot meet the standards. Of the 1,200 institutions that prepare teachers, only 500 submit themselves to the accreditation process.

A Common National System

Nevertheless, Arthur E. Wise, the president of NCATE, and his supporters think they are on the road to building a common national system of accreditation to guarantee the quality of teaching.

Under such a system, institutions that did not make the grade would have to improve or stop preparing teachers because states would no longer license their graduates.

Few educators dispute the ability of some of the more prestigious institutions to prepare competent teachers even without NCATE accreditation.

“It’s easy to put your finger on the good ones [that are nonaccredited] and the bad ones,” Mr. Kunkel said. But, he added, it is difficult to identify the institutions at the margins.

Mr. Kunkel contends that the prestigious institutions have contributed to the problem.

“They are really hurting the profession,” he said. “Regardless of their value, they are creating a shadow that other institutions can hide under.”

To rectify such situations, NCATE has to convince state policymakers and educators that this is the way to improve education.

“When we agree on common national standards, we will strengthen our collective power to insist that these standards be met,” Mr. Wise wrote in a recent NCATE newsletter.

“We will buttress ourselves against the kind of legislation that has occurred in Texas, because there will be a common agreement nationally that what we stand for is real and important. Divided we can fall one by one, but when we all unite, we tell the story in a way that compels policymakers to listen.”

No More ‘Paper Chasing’

Few policymakers would have listened before the redesign. As far back as 1978, the accreditation body was under pressure to change.

State officials questioned the relevance of this voluntary organization, and, at one point, the c.c.s.s.o. was preparing to defect.

“The process [involved] a lot of ‘paper chasing’ that didn’t result in the kinds of stringent oversight we wanted,” said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Within the profession, the Association of Colleges and Schools of Education in State Universities and Land Grant Colleges and Affiliated Private Universities gave the body an ultimatum: Change or an alternative accreditation system would be developed.

Institutions were concerned about the participation of state-government officials, and various constituents within the teacher-education community were suspicious of each other, according to a forthcoming book by Hendrik D. Gideonse, an education professor at the University of Cincinnati.

A 1980 study by Michigan State University researchers found that, although the agency did a reasonable job in ferreting out serious problems, the standards were vague. Moreover, institutions had effective control over the membership of the site-visit teams that would evaluate them.

Higher Fees, Less Power

After years of work and considerable political maneuvering, a fragile coalition approved a restructured NCATE in 1986.

The remodeled agency had a broader constituency, a revised training program for the teams of volunteers that would visit and review the institutions, a state-recognition board to work with state officials, and a new set of standards that were intended to be more rigorous.

To implement the kind of accreditation process envisioned under the redesign, NCATE sought an infusion of new money last year. Mr. Wise asked for an increase that would double institutional fees over a two year period. By next school year, the fees will range from $1,000 for programs with 50 or fewer graduates to $1,800 for programs with more than 500 graduates.

Many educators, worried about their budgets, were angry. But what seemed to gall them more was the realization that the increase marked the first time the AACTE constituency had lost an executive-beard vote.

With only one-fourth of the votes on the beard, the teacher-education institutions could no longer ensure that their voice would prevail. Now, the other three constituencies-teachers’ unions, state policymakers, and learned societies-could wield more power.

While some members of the education community recognized that the break was a necessary one if NCATE was going to establish credibility, others viewed it as akin to taxation without representation.

Consequently, issues of governance and fees are still unresolved. As Ms. Guy Of AACTE pointed out, between the fees of individual institutions and her group’s constituent dues, the institutions cover about 65 percent of NCATE’S budget but get only 25 percent of the vote on the executive beard.

The governance issue could heat up again if NCATE seeks higher constituency dues. Voluntary contributions have been insufficient.

Keith B. Geiger, who serves as the chairman of NCATE, recently sent out another letter to constituent groups asking for voluntary contributions. “There is no question dues are going to have to be increased,” said Mr. Geiger, the president of the National Education Association.

Constituent dues range from $6,000 for some of the specialty groups to $100,000 for AACTE.

“AACTE is on record as moving very cautiously about wanting to double its financial commitment, especially at a time when the policy arena is very active,” said Gary D Fenstermacher, the outgoing president of AACTE. Institutions “are asking all the time what they’re paying for.”

Rigorous Standards

Since NCATE began judging institutions on the basis of the revised standards in the fall of 1988, it has reviewed 207, or about 40 percent of the 499 institutions on its roster.

Under the new standards, two thirds of the institutions have been accredited outright. Nearly a quarter, 23 percent, have failed, while 10.6 percent have been accredited pending specified changes.

The reason for the relatively high rate of problems, suggested Donald W. Jones, a Ball State University professor who is studying the new process, is that many institutions have been caught unawares.

“The rigor associated with many of [the standards] is a shocker,” Mr. Jones said. “It has taken a few years for the profession to understand what is happening.”

San Jose State University, for example, was devastated when it lost its accreditation in 1989. “To be told you’re not of national quality is very hard,” Dolores A. Escobar, then the new education dean at San Jose, recalled. “It was quite a blow.”

Initially, she said, the school was in a state of anger, then denial. Then it did a self-assessment, which found that, in some areas, the school had not done a good job of presenting itself, while, in others, there was room for improvement.

“The deciding point was this, whether we wanted to make cosmetic changes to pass or whether we go in depth to make the changes we really wanted to make,” Ms. Escobar explained. “We decided on the latter,”.

As San Jose prepares for a second site visit, it knows far better what to expect and has spent conservatively $145,000 to carry out the process.

Working Through Problems

Jimmie Applegate, a professor of education at Central Washington University, believes that NCATE was partly at fault during the initial implementation phase. “Everybody understood this was to be a developing process,” he said. “There were a lot of problems to begin with, which are now being worked through. There does not appear to be now what I characterized as an almost perverse pride in failing institutions.”

The maturation includes a change in the “folio-review process,” which required institutions to submit up to thousands of pages of documentation about their programs to the specialty-areas study board.

“The most negative part of our examination was folio review,” said Mr. Kunkel, who is now the education dean at Auburn University. “It is so slipshodly done that it is destructive.”

In September, the NCATE executive board voted to streamline the process, limiting the folio and accompanying documentation to 126 pages.

“It was clearly out of hand,” Mr. Wise said. “This is one step we have taken, and there will be others in the future.”

What will not change, at least for now, are the standards.

Mr. Wise said any modifications will wait until all of the institutions undergo their first accreditation round. At the current pace, that will take another two and a half years.

Institutions have had the most difficulty meeting standards for faculty qualifications and assignments and knowledge base. Over all, they have fared best in the student category.

Institutions also have been cited consistently for weaknesses in such areas as excessive teaching loads and curriculum design.

Time and again, the institutions have been cited for failing to provide adequate assistance to beginning professionals and failing to conduct follow-up evaluations of graduates.

Institutions have been cited least often in their ability to ensure that graduates completed their prescribed programs and that the content of specialty-studies curricula was well-planned and required a high level of competence.

Cultural Diversity

The criterion calling for cultural and gender diversity among faculty, however, stands out for both the number of units cited for weakness and the number of units that complied with every other criteria but this one. Ninety-eight units have been found to have insufficient diversity, and 21 failed only to meet this criterion.

Cultural diversity posed a problem for institutions throughout the standards, in categories relating to faculty, students, or curriculum.

Multiculturalism has evolved into one of the major conflicts between institutions and the agency.

“I fear we won’t be accredited, but for the wrong reasons,” said one educator who voiced the concerns of many of his peers, particularly those from Midwestern institutions.

“Our dean has worked as hard and as intelligently as anyone I know to recruit both minority faculty members and students,” said the educator, who asked not to be identified. Yet, out of a tenure-track faculty of 130 at that school, fewer than 5 are members of minority groups.

“It gets to the heart of some fundamental values,” Mr. Wise responded. While the student population becomes increasingly diverse, the teaching force is overwhelmingly white and female at the precollegiate level. At the college level, the teaching force is largely male.

“It is incumbent upon colleges of education to do what they can to provide a multicultural perspective,” Mr. Wise insisted.

The agency and institutions have also locked horns over resources. Some educators complain that their institutions cannot meet the more rigorous requirements given their financial situation.

One dean of education in New Jersey said she knows her school will never pass the faculty-load standard of 12 or fewer credit hours per semester, due largely to limited resources.

The complaint is particularly widespread among smaller institutions, although the available data do not support the contention that smaller institutions’ failure rate is disproportionately higher than that of larger institutions.

Knowledge Base Stressed

Even if institutions are unable to meet the diversity or resource requirements, they normally are not denied accreditation on one of those bases alone. Varying weights are given to standards.

NCATE places the greatest import on curriculum design, faculty qualifications and assignments, governance, and resources. Should an institution fail to meet any two of those standards, it is likely to be denied accreditation, according to Donna M. Gollnick, the vice president of NCATE. Even then, Ms. Gollnick added, it depends on the degree to which they are unable to meet the standards.

Undergirding the entire process is the knowledge base--essentially the content and design of curricula for general, specialty, and professional studies.

Some educators, however, have philosophical differences with the knowledge base because it draws substantially on professional studies.

“We feel a good grounding in discipline and a broad general education are good preparation for teaching, and NCATE and some others don’t see eye to eye with us,” said Allen P. Splete, the executive officer of the Council of Independent Colleges.

The expanding commitment that institutions must make to pedagogy to comply with the standards “endangers general-education requisites, which are the bedrock of liberal-arts colleges,” Mr. Splete said.

Other educators question whether the standards are valid.

A paper by a group of Ohio State University researchers led by Donald R. Cruickshank, the coordinator of the teacher-education program area, indicates that 11 sets of standards have been published by NCATE since 1957, albeit some with only minor revisions.

Fifty-five percent of the criteria have withstood the test of time, according to the study, which goes on to show how criteria have gained and lost favor over the years.

The crux of the paper, however, is to question whether the criteria are scientifically valid and to suggest that the time has come to subject them to the appropriate tests.

Mr. Wise, on the other hand, argued that an empirical study such as the researchers propose would be virtually impossible to conduct, since it would require a “control” group of schools to agree to produce a generation of students while consistently violating the NCATE standards.

Several other studies, moreover, indicate that the standards are generally accepted.

In his study, Ball Staffs Donald Jones posed a variety of questions to the institutional coordinators of the accreditation process.

“Consistently, it is seen as an improvement even by institutions that failed,” Mr. Jones said. Moreover, his preliminary data indicate that the majority of respondents would undergo the process again and recommend others do so.

In another study, Kenneth D. Moore and Scott Hopkins of Cameron University concluded that teacher educators viewed the 18 NCATE standards as viable despite having difficulty implementing them.

Standards Applied Evenly?

Even though many educators are satisfied with the standards, they still express exasperation with the consistency of their application.

That is the responsibility of the beard of examiners, whose five- and six-member site-visit teams conduct the physical inspections of the institution. Their recommendations are forwarded to the unit-accreditation beard, which makes the decision to accredit or reject.

The site teams have been faulted for failing to pay attention to faculty comments, demanding gifts from the institutions, and exhibiting disrespect. Most often, though, the complaints center on the consistency with which the teams apply the standards.

“We thought they ought to be spending more time on preparing and training teams,” James Appleberry, the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said.

Mr. Wise said most site visits go well. “Ninety-eight percent go smoothly, but this is a human institution,” he said. “We rely on volunteers nominated by our constituent organizations. It’s clear that every once in a while there is a problem.”

NCATE had hoped that many of its concerns about the site teams would disappear with the old system. New teams are given longer, more in depth training and are selected differently. (See related story, page 12.)

The new teams are also significantly smaller in size, leading some to wonder if the newly designed teams are able to do as thorough a review as the older, larger groups.

The unit-accreditation beard also frequently overturns the site-visit teams’ recommendations.

At its last meeting, for instance, out of the 3 7 units that had been reviewed, the U.A.B. overturned 30 recommendations affecting 18 units.

The result has been that some institutions that expect to be accredited based on site-visit reviews later learn that the opposite is true.

Is NCATE Necessary?

Some institutions wonder if they need NCATE at all.

In 1985, Salisbury State University discontinued NCATE accreditation, in large measure because Maryland officials convinced the university that it was an unnecessary expense, said Doran Christensen, the dean of education at the university. "/have to ask the question, what good does NCATE accreditation do for me? I can get my teachers licensed in Maryland and other states,” Mr. Christensen continued.

Nonetheless, Mr. Christensen said he will recommend that his institution return to the NCATE aegis. "/do believe that national accreditation is essential,” he affirmed.

If institutions do not fool the need to be accredited by a national agency, then NCATE has to look to the states to prod them. Unless states are willing to agree to some sort of joint review with NCATE, many institutions are likely to balk at the idea of undergoing separate accreditation processes.

To help resolve some of the differences between the states and the accrediting body, NCATE has formed a joint COmmittee with the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification.

Since Mr. Wise took over as head of the agency in 1990, 5 states--Georgia, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, and Massachusetts--have sought and received recognition, bringing the number to 24. Recognition implies that NCATE approves of the program standards sot by the state.

“The reality is there has not been a mass movement toward NCATE standards in the last few years,” Mr. Wilhoit of NASBE said. “There are a lot of policymakers sitting back and making sure it is going to be a serious, rigorous process.”

Even if NCATE proves itself, Mr. Wilhoit continued, state beards are likely to want to retain ultimate responsibility for ensuring the competency of teachers.

The formal relationships between the states and the agency do not necessarily mean the institutions are forced to undergo NCATE. Only Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina require NCATE accreditation; Florida and Georgia require it only of their public institutions.

West Virginia required it across the board until November, when the state hoard of education voted to withdraw the NCATE requirement and create an alternative accreditation route.

But Mr. Wise and some West Virginia educators doubt the state beard will be able to offer a viable alternative to national certification.

Some in West Virginia suggested that political pressure had been a factor in the board’s decision. Wilrner S. Cody, until recently Louisiana’s superintendent of education, agreed that politics plays a role in states with dual accreditation systems.

In Louisiana, private institutions undergo state approval. As a result of behind-the-scenes lobbying, one private school was able to manipulate and circumvent the state approval process for nearly 10 years, during which time it graduated a lot of teachers, Mr. Cody said.

New State Challenges

Meanwhile, NCATE faces a different challenge in Texas. State lawmakers there, mindful of the criticisms of teachers’ colleges in recent years, have restricted the number of professional courses for an undergraduate degree.

The law led 10 Texas institutions to withdraw from NCATE. “We never had a beef with NCATE; we didn’t fool we could moot [the standards] within an 18-hour lifetime,” said Richard L. Simms, the interim dean of the University of North Texas.

While the decision to withdraw did not lead to a drop in enrollment, Mr. Simms’ phone did start ringing off the hook. “I personally had to deal with scores of anxiety-ridden parents about this,” he recalled. “They were rightly concerned.”

“It’s important for teacher education to have national standards,” Mr. Simms said. “Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming too provincial.”

Texas Tech University has decided to stay with NCATE despite the state-imposed limitation. Even if the institution is denied accreditation, Charles W. Smith, the dean of education, said, it will have been a fruitful exercise.

“What you end up doing is a careful, detailed self-study, moving you toward a higher-quality program,” he said.

Now some states, including Maine and Arkansas, are considering rising outcome-based measurements to license their teachers.

Such a step could certainly change the NCATE equation. If teacher candidates passed whatever outcome-based performance assessments presented them, institutions could point to the assessments and say they no longer needed to go through the NCATE process because they had proof they were preparing competent teachers.

State policymakers do not necessarily rule out a role for the agency in this scenario. “What I would hope is we could work with NCATE as a pilot program, or they might want to work with us to see how this experiment plays out,” said Jane A. Amero, the chairman of the Maine state beard of education.

Nor does Mr. Wise believe they are incompatible. “It’s not likely that we can ever assure the public that a teacher is qualified to practice if we skip over the quality-control steps that every other established profession insists upon.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1992 edition of Education Week as Revamped NCATE Posts Highs, Lows In Tides of Teacher-Education Reform