Despite Rocky Road, Ed. School Accreditation Effort on a Roll

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After the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education revised its standards in 1995, it printed what appeared to be enough copies of the guidelines to last through 2000.

But that was before the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, in a long-awaited report, insisted on accreditation for all schools of education and declared that states can most effectively ensure quality control over teacher preparation by partnering with NCATE.

With the demand created by the release of that report last September, copies of the standards "ran out two months ago," said NCATE President Arthur E. Wise. The minor predicament, in fact, is a major indicator of the upsurge in interest in the nonprofit, nongovernmental body that accredits teacher education institutions.

The Washington-based ncate, which has had a long and often contentious history, appears to be gaining momentum in its effort to link up with states for the process of approving teacher education. State-NCATE partnerships have grown from 14 in 1989 to 40 this year. In 14 of those states, a school that wins NCATE accreditation automatically earns state approval. And 20 of those states are now using NCATE standards to judge even those institutions that do not seek NCATE accreditation, which is voluntary.

NCATE officials contend that these partnerships offer a win-win deal for states: an opportunity to reduce costs and eliminate redundancy in parallel approval processes, as well as assurance that the teacher education institutions will be subject to the highest professional standards.

Yet, NCATE has not exactly drawn applause from all quarters. For one thing, not all state education officials are prepared to let it enter program-approval territory.

And for another thing, a significant number of teacher training institutions fear that the NCATE standards have been fashioned to address only one teacher education model. Some of those critics are trying to create a new accrediting body that would serve as an alternative to NCATE.

Eliminating Redundancy

From the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, the accreditation body was under pressure to change by its constituents, who questioned its relevance. It was the rare institution that NCATE rejected. After years of work and political maneuvering, a fragile coalition approved a restructured NCATE in 1986.

The revamped agency had a broader constituency, a revised training program for the teams of volunteers that visit and review the institutions, and a new set of standards that were intended to be more rigorous.

Because it had so toughened its standards, however, a significantly larger proportion of schools and colleges were failing. At the same time, a number of higher education officials began questioning the value of the organization and discussed the possibility of creating an alternative body.

In 1994, under the leadership of Mr. Wise, NCATE took the lead on pulling together much of the effort to professionalize teaching. It launched a $2 million "New Professional Teacher Project" to link the quality-assurance mechanisms for teaching--accreditation, licensing, and advanced certification--and tie them in with emerging content standards for student learning. ("Signs Abound Teaching Reforms Are Taking Hold," April 5, 1995.)

Then last fall, the accrediting body got what may be its biggest boost from the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a privately organized panel of which Mr. Wise is a member. The panel's report called for accreditation as one of the three "legs" in the "three-legged stool of teacher quality." The other two are licensing, under the auspices of the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium; and master certification, as established by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

The commission report also urged state education agencies to "reallocate scarce resources from program approval, which is redundant with accreditation, to the administration of high-quality licensing tests that measure actual ability to teach." ("Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push," Sept. 18. 1996.)

Some states with which NCATE has been working feel that this recommendation makes sense. In Arkansas, one of only two states that require NCATE accreditation in order for its institutions to win approval, administrators believed that requiring NCATE accreditation "would be not only a way of giving credibility to our programs but holding them to a national standard," said Elaine Scott, a member of the state school board. "We didn't want to develop the state system you'd really have to have in order to get the oversight."

But in Texas, where officials are working toward setting up an NCATE partnership, there's no interest in giving up control that the state now has. "Doing that would be relinquishing some of the statutory authority, and we're not willing to do that," said Mark Littleton, the executive director of the Texas State Board for Educator Certification. "We would like NCATE to be a partner, but we do have our statutory and legal obligations to conduct program approval."

The Council of Chief State School Officers made that point clear in a March statement on the national commission's recommendations. "We support the standards of NCATE and the belief that programs and institutions must meet strong standards, but these need not be enforced by one accrediting agency," said one part of the statement adopted six months after the report came out. "State agencies can also apply such standards. The important point is the quality of standards met, not which agency enforces them."

Mr. Wise suggests that the CCSSO, which has worked closely with NCATE as a constituent member, apparently wants some wiggle room. "What I think they want to recognize is that the authority over teacher education is the state's authority, and I think they don't want to be seen as pushing any state in this direction if they prefer not to collaborate with us," he said. "The statement indicates that [they] do support the NCATE standards and processes, but want to leave room for some states that do not want to implement the commission's recommendations to the fullest degree."

Institutions Divided

NCATE is actually a coalition of 30 professional education organizations, including the two major national teachers' unions and many of the subject-matter groups, such as the National Council of Teachers of English. It is supported by dues from institutions, fees paid by the constituent groups, and foundation grants.

A total of 527 of the country's 1,314 state-approved teacher education institutions are either accredited or are preparing to work within the NCATE system. Although the number is roughly the same as four years ago, NCATE predicts that an increase is imminent. Several well-respected institutions, such as Harvard University's graduate school of education and Teachers College, Columbia University, where the national commission was based, are not accredited by NCATE.

Accredited members pay between $1,300 and $2,500 annually depending on the size of the institution. Every five years, they must also pay for a team of reviewers to travel to the institution, an expense that runs in the neighborhood of $2,500 to $3,000. Some higher education officials, however, have complained that the actual cost of preparing for the visits runs into the tens of thousands.

For many institutions, the expense is worth it. The college of education at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, for instance, has been accredited ever since NCATE has existed. "It's a fact that we point out proudly to prospective students in promotional and marketing kinds of efforts," said Jerry H. Robbins, the dean of the college. "We believe that our public is looking for various external measures of quality in deciding where to go to school, and we feel like being able to say that we have the national accreditation in our field is something that helps bring people to us."

Not all schools of education are convinced that NCATE accreditation is the way to go. In fact, a number of educators are trying to set up an alternative accrediting agency, to be known as the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.

The charter board for that effort is set to meet June 30 for the first time, and its leaders aim to have the first few pilot institutions go through the alternative process as early as next spring.

Allen P. Splete, the president of the Washington-based Council of Independent Colleges, which has been working for several years on this project, said that the effort was not anti-NCATE. Instead, it represents a much-researched attempt at a "viable and vigorous" alternative to NCATE, he said. The educators involved, who are from both public and private colleges and universities, want a system that is less focused on specific requirements and more focused on the quality of teachers produced, he said. The new council will be open to all institutions.

Marilyn J. Guy, the assistant dean for faculty life at the NCATE-accredited Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and a member of the committee that is working to draft standards for the new group, said that she wants standards that allow for more diversity. "We want institutions to use their own tradition, to develop a teacher ed program that makes sense at their own institution," she said. "One of the things that's important to the new process is a very strong belief that diversity is a part of the strength of our whole higher education system."

Donald Warren, the university dean of the school of education at Indiana University, presides over eight campuses that are NCATE-accredited and serves on the committee to create the new group. He contends that there is no reason why there has to be only one accrediting body. "The point is to have some voluntary or external body that helps the institution look at its programs with fresh eyes," he said. "The danger with having a single accrediting agency is that there is at least the tacit suggestion that there is only one way to prepare people for a profession."

Mr. Wise, however, disagrees with the notion that more than one accrediting agency is appropriate. Indeed, it flies in the face of what he has preached for years--that in order to elevate teaching into the ranks of the professions, individuals must undergo the same rigor to enter it as do other professionals such as doctors. He also suggests that some schools feel they can't meet ncate standards and are looking for an "easier alternative," a charge the schools deny.

NCATE's work represents part of a larger effort to bring teacher-quality mechanisms in line, Mr. Wise said. Before the blossoming of the NCATE partnerships, he said, all the players were off in different directions. "While we're very far from having a fully operating interdependent system," he said, "we do have a system where all the parties are talking to each other and attempting to find sensible ways of working together."

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