NCATE Debates Key Changes in Accreditation
Washington--The organization that accredits the schools of education that produce most of the nation's teachers is considering changes that could result in excluding some of the 550 teacher-training programs that have already received accreditation.
Meeting here last week, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education debated the most recent draft of a proposal that outlines the first phase in a year-long effort to reform the organization from top to bottom.
The commission's total-reform effort comes in response to a period of external criticism and internal wrangling over accreditation standards and procedures that have been attacked in recent years by members of its own council and other higher-education organizations as arbitrary, inconsistent, and redundant.
Although similar reform efforts of the early 1980's failed, ncate officials are optimistic about the success of the most recent proposals because council members have finally realized ncate "could be better,'' said Richard Kunkel, executive director of the organization.
During the past two years, several colleges of education have withdrawn from ncate and others threatened to withdraw if reforms were not underway by last year.
Addressing the most recent draft of the ncate "redesign" last week, members of the council focused their discussion on proposals to raise standards for accreditation. Mentioned were a requirement that teacher-training institutions adopt a minimum funding formula and that programs require admissions standards for students (such as minimum grade-point averages and standardized-test scores) and exit testing, perhaps using a national examination that would be developed by ncate.
If the accrediting standards proposed in the draft manual currently under consideration by the ncate council are approved, "some" colleges of education that have received accreditation probably would not be re-accredited, Mr. Kunkel said.
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make--accepting fewer, better colleges. I don't think the council should be frightened by that," he said.
Although such proposals generated debate during the meetings, an informal survey of the 26-member ncate council shortly before the meetings ended revealed that representatives were "surprisingly" close to agreement on most issues, according to Mr. Kunkel.
The council is the voting body of the accrediting organization, formed in 1954 by associations representing state departments of education, institutions of teacher education, the teaching profession, and local boards of education to accredit colleges of education.
ncate comprises and is supported by 19 organizational members and is one of the largest specialized accrediting agencies in American higher education, accrediting approximately 550 institutions. ncate officials estimate that more than 80 percent of American teachers and school support personnel graduate from programs accredited by ncate.
The complete reform of ncate, from its mission and its relationship with regional and state accreditation agencies to its standards for accreditation and internal procedures for determining which colleges of education will receive the ncate stamp of approval, is less than one year away, Mr. Kunkel said.
The draft of the standards manual that was under scrutiny at this month's ncate meetings is the first phase of implementing the reform, he said.
Beginning with the mission statement in the proposed standards manual, ncate departs from current policy in several significant ways.
The proposal expands on the agency's goals of improving "teacher education in the United States ... and [assuring] the quality of programs of professional education," focusing more heavily on the organization's role as a "consumer-protection agency".
In the draft of the proposed standards manual, the mission statement now states that:
"National accreditation of professional education units ensures that youth are served by professionally and academically qualified personnel. It assures the public that ncate-accredited programs meet national standards of quality. It lends professional status to programs. It provides a basis for certification of individuals and reciprocity among states. It provides consistency and continuity of programs across states. And it supplies information about professional education programs to the public."
To supply the public with such information, ncate officials are considering an expansion of the council's "Annual List of Accredited Programs" to include "quantifiable" information on each of the programs it approves. The published information could include such items as the institution's student/teacher ratio, the level of education of faculty members, admissions standards for students, and graduation requirements.
The proposed standards manual also includes a standard for making sure that education schools have adequate funding; a specific and detailed funding formula is recommended.
Gathering such data and setting minumum requirements in these areas are key factors in the reform of ncate's accreditation process, officials said. Not only has such information not been available to the public, but ncate has not required the institutions it accredits to provide it.
One criticism of ncate has been the "rubber ruler effect," according to William F. Grady, a member of the ncate council representing the Association for Educational Communications and Technology--that standards for accreditation can change with the review committee doing the evaluation or the size and reputation of institution under scrutiny. To address that criticism, the proposed accreditation standards call for the development of measurable standards for quality.
But the extent to which measurable criteria are used in determining accreditation is still a concern to some members of the ncate council. 'Bite the Bullet'
"It is inappropriate to translate some items of merit into quantification," said O.L. Davis, dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas, Austin, and the representative of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. "I like more quantification, but there must be a happy mix."
"Quantitative information gives you a base of information, but does not reveal quality and should not be the basis for decisionmaking," added Joanne Whitmore, assistant dean at Kent State University's College of Education.
But notwithstanding the issues raised by setting measurable standards, Mr. Davis said he thinks the council is simply going to have to make difficult decisions that will result in clear standards and cutoff points for meeting the requirements.
"They're arbitrary, they rule people out, but we have to bite the bullet on this," he said.
Currently, there is only one quantifiable ncate standard: It requires that one-third of an undergraduate's academic program for a degree in education be in arts and sciences.
Rigorous Pre-approval Process
Another proposed change would require colleges of education to provide far more information and meet more requirements than is the case under current standards. Such "preconditions" would have to be met before ncate would consider making an on-site evaluation.
In addition to the current requirements that a college of education have regional accreditation and state accreditation (in states that have accreditation programs) and nondiscriminatory employment and admissions policies, the proposal would mandate that:
The college of education provide written policies and procedures upon which its operations rest.
The college keep abreast of emerging evaluation techniques and regularly monitor and evaluate, both internally and externally, its operation, scope, and offerings.
The college assess the basic skills of education students through stan-dardized tests and other measures prior to admission to the program.
The college assess the academic and professional competencies of education students at exit from the program through multiple evaluation methods.
Full-time faculty in the professional-education faculty hold the terminal degree.
'Frightened' By Change
Many of the changes suggested in the proposed manual have been introduced before, without success.
In the past, the council has been "frightened" by change, particularly change that could cut into the number of fees-paying colleges of education accredited by the council, according to Lyn Gubser, the former executive director of ncate, who served from 1978 to 1983.
When Mr. Gubser resigned last year, one of his major frustrations at ncate was, he said, "the backlash against our efforts to improve the standards."
"I'm very disappointed in the support I've received at ncate from some of the people who have for many years occupied the spotlight of our profession," he said at the time. "They are not really serious about quality education, only maintaining a 'good-ole-boy' [accrediting] organization." (See Education Week, March 23, 1983.)
Similar standards to those under consideration today were proposed to the ncate council in 1981, but were abandoned in the wake of negative reaction to the requirements that colleges maintain specific student/faculty ratios and funding levels for their programs.
During the past five years, ncate has denied accreditation to at least one program in nearly one out of every five colleges of education that applies for accreditation, according to Mr. Kunkel.
One member of the council told the group that in light of the education-reform movement sweeping the country, it is possible that ncate will be called upon next for an accounting of its activities.
"Pretty soon, people will be saying the fault is not with the colleges of education but with the national organization that accredits them," he predicted.
The current discussions of proposals to change the accreditation standards of ncate are part of a two-year redesign of the program that began in 1983, Mr. Kunkel explained.
The goal of the council has been, during the 30 years since it was established, to improve the quality of teacher education in the United States and to act as a "consumer advocate," he said, ensuring the quality of programs of professional education it accredits.
But in January 1983, citing concerns about the current ncate accreditation system, the committee on accreditation alternatives of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education presented the council with an alternative accreditation system designed to improve the effectiveness of the agency in carrying out its goal. aacte has eight voting members on the ncate council.
Criticism of ncate
"The magnitude of concern among institutions of higher education and the erosion of confidence among other important groups about the usefulness and validity of teacher-education accreditation provides the rationale for a careful review of the ncate process," the aacte committee wrote in its proposal.
At the time the committee presented its proposal, several state systems were in the process of assessing the value of ncate, presumably, the proposal stated, to decide whether further participation was warranted. In addition, several colleges in Wisconsin had withdrawn from ncate shortly before the January meeting and "a document proposing a Wisconsin consortium for improving professional-education-preparation programs as an alternative to ncate was released," the aacte committee said in its proposal.
ncate officials also were waiting to see whether or not the Association of Colleges and Schools of Education in State Universities and Land Grant Colleges would recommend to its members that they withdraw from ncate.
Based on a survey of its membership, in 1978 the association had recommended that its members remain in ncate for a period of five years and, if reform of ncate did not occur, a new voluntary national accrediting association be established for the land-grant institutions. The association was scheduled to make its final decision on future participation in ncate in February 1983, only a few weeks after the aacte proposal was presented and the reform movement was set into motion.
Areas of Concern
The aacte committee expressed concern over the composition, size, and training of the visiting teams that conduct on-site evaluations of teacher-training programs, stating that "institutions frequently question whether team-member backgrounds are appropriate or sufficient for the types and levels of programs being reviewed.
"Quite frequently, teams appear to lack an understanding of the type of institution they visit," the committee reported.
The committee also pointed to a 1981 study of ncate conducted by the Michigan State University Institute for Research on Training that found "weakness and inconsistencies in the ncate process and in council decisions [for accreditation]."
In addition, the committee questioned the "appropriateness" of ncate standards, and criticized the standards for not focusing on "those elements most closely identified with quality in teacher education ... for example, student/faculty ratios."
Solution to Problems
Based on the committee's recommendations, that summer the ncate council voted 21 to 3 to:
Shift accreditation from individual programs to departments, schools, or colleges of education as a whole.
Replace the current seven-year evaluation cycle with an annually updated "databank" that would include such factors as an institution's student/teacher ratio or the number of courses taught by faculty below the level of assistant professor, combined with less extensive campus visits.
Create a relatively small, specially trained board of examiners to conduct such campus evaluations.
Revise standards for accreditation.
Develop a close working relationship with state accreditation officials.
Since that meeting, ncate committees have been working to implement the changes. Last week's meetings marked the first presentation of a draft of the reforms as they would appear in ncate's standards manual. A final version of the standards manual will be available within eight months, Mr. Kunkel said.
Following an 18-month trial period, required under ncate bylaws for any changes in policy, the standards would become the formal policy of the council.