Accountability Confusion

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One of the most critical accountability relationships within a profession is the accreditation of the higher education programs that prepare its members. Teaching is no exception. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, or NCATE, is a half-century old. It reflects the expertise, the experience, and the views of all the interrelated constituencies of teacher education, including America's teachers' organizations, teacher-educators, state and local policymakers, the public, content specialists, and other specialized professional organizations.

Suddenly, there is a new kid on the block. A Teacher Education Accreditation Council, or TEAC, has been formed. ("Alternative Accrediting Organization Taking Form With Federal Assistance," Jan. 21, 1998. ) It has received grants from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education and from an anonymous private foundation to get it going. It is searching for its first president.

Caveat emptor!

Just what is TEAC? It calls itself an accrediting body, but let's look at the differences between it and every other such body.

  • Standards. The Teacher Education Accreditation Council's literature and its presentations make much of the fact that TEAC will not have standards; instead, it will offer criteria that institutions are urged to use to help measure themselves against their own aims and intentions. A closed circle? You bet. Where is any sense of commitment to a profession extending beyond an institution's own boundaries?

The antipathy that TEAC manifests in its oft-expressed abhorrence of any institutional obligation for compliance with external standards is particularly curious given the national demand for standards in the educational reform debate. If accreditation is not about standards, it is not about anything.

I will cite just two examples of teacher education standards to underscore my point. The only place where TEAC mentions diversity is in respect to the diversity of institutional types in higher education. In America, however, teacher education programs must confront the diversity of students in our schools and prepare teachers to work effectively with all children, not just some. To have no standards on this matter and claim to accredit teacher education--in other words, to allow individual institutions to avoid this reality of teaching and learning in America's schools--is irresponsible on moral, intellectual, and professional grounds.

Second, teacher education is in the early stages of a fundamental transformation. Until now vested exclusively in higher education, it will become fully collaborative with practitioners, schools, and school districts. Collaboration takes time. It costs. It means establishing bridges between different modes of knowing. It challenges traditional ways of measuring faculty growth and productivity. It entails alterations in modes of developing and sanctioning programs at the local level. NCATE's standards speak to these matters. TEAC institutions will be able to finesse addressing matters like these simply by omitting attention to them in their own statements of aims.

  • Governance. The Council of Independent Colleges, an organization of college presidents, has been the sole organizational impetus behind TEAC. TEAC's new brochure is virtually silent on how the accrediting council is to be governed. A foundation proposal on TEAC's behalf notes that it is to be "free of any organizational ties and special-interest groups," and be "nonpoliticized" by reserving no seats for particular organizations or individuals. TEAC's proposal asserts that "the emphasis of the group's governing body would be on institutional involvement and participation by college and university presidents. The membership of the board would be structured to represent the membership of the group." It is no surprise, therefore, that the first board is heavily weighted in the direction of presidents.

The Council of Independent Colleges' use of terms like "nonpoliticized" and "special interest" is emotional and transparent. Are we to assume only presidents are interested in institutional integrity, and members of a profession are not? Are we to assume presidents are always nonpolitical and have no special interests?

From the often-beleaguered perspective of college presidents, one can perhaps understand the impulse that led to the creation of TEAC. It is an impulse that should have been controlled. With a little thoughtful examination, one sees that professional accreditation is not done at the hands of some distant other. It involves all the key parties in a profession asking institutions to live up to the promises implicit in the institution's decision to establish and maintain professional-preparation programs.

One can have sympathy for America's college presidents. Of course they should be heard, and regional and national institutional accreditation is their arena. But professional accreditation is a different set of interests, equally valuable to the society. As a former dean, special assistant to one president, and the son of another, I concur in the importance--nay, the desperate need--of internal accountability mechanisms in American higher education. They are not a substitute, however, for equally powerful professional accreditation standards which speak to the specialized knowledge and the shared and sustained moral commitments of professions to particular societal needs. These matters can only be defined by the members of the profession organized for that purpose. NCATE involves all of these teacher education and related groups. TEAC fails on that score.

  • Cost. Proponents of the new accrediting group argue that they will not be "dragged into" criticisms of NCATE. On the other hand, they have made assertions that undergoing NCATE accreditation could cost an institution $200,000 out of pocket. Such claims are inflammatory nonsense. Any unit that expended such resources would have to be either fiscally or managerially incompetent or have been so seriously deficient in its own internal accountability measures prior to review that it would, in fact, take a huge effort just to document its programs meet ncate standards.

Of course, there is a second dimension of cost that may be bothering some TEAC proponents. Hiring sufficient and variously qualified faculty members to reflect the specializations requisite to teacher preparation may be a problem. The technology investment requisite to preparing teachers for tomorrow's schools may be daunting. Clinical programs require costly clinical pedagogies. Collaborative efforts with schools and teacher practitioners entail new time, cost, and governance demands in teacher education. If institutions can define these needs away simply by omitting them from their programs, internal accountability for them is deftly finessed.

  • Integrity. As disturbing but in a different way, TEAC proponents have argued that when institutions do not measure up to existing NCATE standards, "they just lie." That charge is a multipronged insult. It demeans the institutions being accredited, the review processes NCATE has so carefully constructed, tested, and systematically trained its examiners to employ, and the capabilities and performance of examiners on site. If I may be forgiven a military metaphor, TEAC's insult also "calls in fire on its own position." If institutions are wont to lie, how would any new accreditation procedure escape that propensity?
  • Internal accountability. TEAC makes much of the importance of internal accountability. It acknowledges a debt to a recent essay by Patricia Albjerg Graham, Richard W. Lyman, and Martin Trow, a surprisingly (given the eminence of the three authors) unbalanced treatment of the complex accountability obligations of America's colleges and universities. As far as the essay goes, of course, it makes good sense. Increase internal accountability. Pay more attention to teaching and learning. For accreditation, adopt an audit stance toward the processes of internal accountability. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the literature reviewed and/or the background of the authors' advisers, the essay gives only the lightest attention to crucial external-accountability obligations of America's colleges and universities.
If institutions can define needs away simply by omitting them from their programs, internal accountability for them is deftly finessed.

TEAC grounds its belief in the principle of internal accountability on the institutional diversity in higher education. Who would argue this point? In fact, the principle is already honored by NCATE. In the 1980s, NCATE shifted its focus from program approval to unit approval precisely to underscore the importance of such processes for assuring that a unit's programs are strong and adjusted as needed. In this instance, TEAC's claim is a distinction without difference.

One additional comment and a question. My personal effort to learn more about the Teacher Education Accrediting Council underscores another flaw in its creation: the lack of open dialogue. A memo I sent last fall to two key figures on the TEAC criteria committee was not even acknowledged. Written materials on TEAC's principles and purposes have prominently displayed confidentiality notices. (This contrasts sharply to the "y'all come" strategy followed whenever NCATE redesigns its standards or processes.) The Council of Independent Colleges' office promised me relevant materials but failed to deliver. The presidential-search firm's promise of a copy of the publicly advertised prospectus was not honored. This lack of public disclosure and responsiveness is strange for an enterprise supposedly committed to accountability.

The CIC realizes that I am not in agreement with its purpose. Is this why there was no response? Do those who disagree with TEAC simply not exist? Is this the type of organization the teaching profession or the public wants to ascertain quality? NCATE is open to thorough professional discussion of the issues engendered by accreditation standards. I cannot say the same about TEAC.

The central question remains. How can this new entity purport to accredit professional-preparation programs for teaching when it has no standards, no mechanism for developing standards, and no connection to the organizations constituting the profession?

Hendrik D. Gideonse is the university professor emeritus of education and policy science and the dean emeritus of education at the University of Cincinnati.

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Pages 38, 52

Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Accountability Confusion
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