School Accrediting Agency's Reach Questioned
Critics suggest group’s voice in district governance is too intrusive
A newly signed law in Georgia that gives the governor the power to remove school board members in a district that does not have full accreditation is bringing fresh scrutiny to the role of AdvancED, a private agency that accredits schools in that state and 48 others.
The target of the new law, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal last week, is the 48,000-student Atlanta public school system. In putting the district on probation earlier this year, the accrediting agency cited fierce infighting on the school board and a breakdown in district leadership.
The Georgia legislature passed a bill last year that gave the governor similar powers, but it applied only to board members elected after July 2010. The new law is retroactive to July 2009, which means all the school board members in the Atlanta district are subject to its provisions.
In a signing statement, Gov. Deal, a Republican elected last fall, said that using the power in the bill would be a last resort. “But with the future of Atlanta’s students hanging in the balance,” he said, “I believe it is better to be prepared with more options on the table than with less.”
The governor’s actions, which he acknowledges were influenced by the critical accreditation report, point to the growing influence of AdvancED, the nation’s largest accreditor of school districts and individual K-12 schools.
Some observers are asking, though, whether the accrediting agency has overstepped its bounds by getting involved in politics and governance matters that may not directly affect education—a charge that AdvancED leaders strongly dispute.
AdvancED has expanded across traditional regional boundaries for accrediting agencies, which are funded by schools and districts that voluntarily submit to the evaluation process. As the result of a 2006 merger, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based AdvancED now encompasses the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, known as NCA CASI and SACS CASI, respectively, and accredits more than 27,000 public and private schools and districts across the United States and overseas.
Discord in Atlanta
AdvancED, which accredits the high schools in Atlanta, reported in January that the decision to place the district on probation was driven by the problems among the board members.
The report said that when a review team visited the district in early December, it heard about board votes being taken without proper approval and continuing fallout from an investigation into allegations of cheating on state tests. The district’s spokeman said that the school board “embraced” the assessment and would work to make improvements. AdvancED gave Atlanta a September deadline to make changes.
These districts are currently under sanctions from AdvancED because of failure to follow the organization’s standards for governance and leadership.
Appling County (Ga.) Schools, 3,300 students, placed on probation August 2010. The accrediting team noted that some staff demotions appeared to be in “retaliation for expressing opinions and ideas contrary to those of the superintendent and board members.”
Atlanta Public Schools (high schools), 48,000 students, placed on probation January 2011. The evaluation team wrote that the “dysfunctional nature of the board can be seen in behaviors such as in-fighting, bickering, failure to adhere to the system charter, failure to follow in-house legal advice, failure to follow appropriate procurement procedures, and using valuable board-meeting time to promote private agendas.”
Burke County (N.C.) Schools (high schools), 13,400 students, placed on probation September 2009. “By fighting with each other, the board members have created an environment of chaos,” the report said.
Clayton County (Ga.) Schools, 49,400 students, placed on probation September 2008. The district is completing a two-year probation in April and will host a review team that will make an accreditation-status recommendation. Mark Elgart, the president and chief executive officer of AdvancED, said he anticipates that the accrediting organization will be able to lift all sanctions.
Coffee County (Ga.) Schools, 7,800 students, placed on probation June 2010. The report said that “the superintendent’s authority is routinely circumvented as board members address issues outside of their area of responsibility” and “micromanage people and situations under the authority of the superintendent.”
Randolph County (Ga.) Schools, 1,200 students, placed on probation May 2009. Among other problems, the board had split into factions that held their own meetings at different times.
Wake County (N.C.) Schools (high schools), 143,300 students, placed on probation March 2011. Five board members “launch[ed] a premeditated act that resulted in destabilizing the school system and community,” the visiting team reported.
Warren County (Ga.) Schools, 730 students, placed on probation January 2010. “There was ample evidence to support a finding that the effectiveness of the Warren county board was in a state of ‘perpetual paralysis,’ ” according to the visiting team’s report.
State Sen. Vincent D. Fort, an Atlanta-area Democrat who was against the newly signed bill, is among those who criticize the organization’s reach.
“It is this unelected, unaccountable group that is allowed to dictate how members vote and who they are,” he said.
An April 10 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that probed AdvancED’s actions in the district said that Mark Elgart, its president and chief executive officer, drafted a memo to the school board chairman, saying that he should step down and that his predecessor should regain the seat. The chairman did not do so. Three months later, the organization released its critical report.
Some who have grave concerns about the influence of AdvancED acknowledge that the recommendations in its reports are reasonable.
In Wake County, N.C., AdvancED asked to visit the school system after the board voted to dismantle a busing policy that was based in part on maintaining socioeconomic diversity in schools, a vote that caused communitywide consternation. The school board fought the visit before relenting and allowing the organization to send a team in February. The district’s high schools are accredited by AdvancED.
Chris Malone, a Wake County school board member, likened the interview process to “interrogations.”
“But at the end of this, I have to say, despite the blistering comments during the interrogations and the white-hot rhetoric that was in the report, the findings were nominal,” Mr. Malone said. “In four or five of the [required actions], any reasonable person might have come back and said that.”
Mr. Elgart rejects accusations that AdvancED is playing politics. Of the 6,000 districts it accredits, 10 percent are facing some sort of adverse action. Only eight have been sanctioned for “governance and leadership” issues, he said.
And in his view, the governance issues flagged by the agency go beyond robust debate. For example, the organization plans to visit the Montgomery County, Ga., school system, a 1,000-student district that is on its fifth superintendent this year. And the five-member board of the Randolph County, Ga., schools, a 1,200-student district the agency has placed on probation, had split into two factions, each holding separate meetings and voting on actions.
“In these eight, it’s not just debate, it’s destructive,” he said.
In the 13,400-student Burke County, N.C., district, the accrediting agency cited school board mismanagement as one of the reasons it was placing the district on probation.
Superintendent Arthur W. Stellar, who joined the system in September 2009, said the board has made great strides since it was placed on probation in 2009. “In terms of how we operate, the decorum, we may be slightly above average,” he said. “But [AdvancED’s] standards for the boards are slightly above that.”
In the abstract, he said, such standards are desirable, but they may be hard to meet in the real world.
Still, despite Mr. Stellar’s disappointment that the organization did not lift its sanctions after a December monitoring visit, “I have no great problem with the AdvancED process,” he said. “It is extremely time-consuming, and it’s pretty tedious, and they have pretty high standards. But it has helped us get better.”
Regional accrediting agencies have a history in the United States that reaches back more than 100 years. The oldest, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, in Bedford, Mass., was formed in 1884. The others are the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, in Philadelphia; the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, in Burlingame, Calif.; and the Northwest Accreditation Commission, in Boise, Idaho.
About a fifth of the nation’s schools are accredited, most of them at the secondary level, according to research gathered by Richard Rothstein, a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. Participation varies among states, he noted in his 2008 book Grading Education. For example, all schools participate in Alabama and Wyoming, but in Texas only 4 percent do.
There’s no legal requirement for the accreditors to stick to a geographic boundary, and many don’t, accrediting schools that are in other countries or programs that operate across state lines, for instance. But Jacob Ludes III, the executive director of the New England accrediting agency, says his organization doesn’t want to venture beyond its six-state area of focus.
“Our process is intensive, and it’s important for us to know these institutions,” Mr. Ludes said. The visiting teams “know these institutions. They know the idiosyncrasies within a community.” The organization wouldn’t be as helpful if its focus were national, he said.
In contrast, Mr. Elgart said that AdvancED’s wide scope gives his organization a stronger voice in advocating on behalf of its schools. AdvancED intentionally brings in evaluators who aren’t from the area, in a bid for objectivity, he said. The merger also allows the agency to provide more resources to its members, he said, because of its larger fee base.
Currently, losing accreditation means that high school students enrolling in colleges or being eligible for scholarships that are dependent on graduating from accredited schools may have a harder time. But complete loss of accreditation in a district is rare. The 49,000-student Clayton County, Ga., district, which lost its accreditation in 2008, was the first in the nation to face that sanction in 40 years.
Mr. Elgart said that most of the districts under sanction are in Georgia because residents became aware of AdvancED’s work after the Clayton County situation, and now come to the agency with complaints about school boards.
Force for Change
Mr. Rothstein has suggested that accrediting agencies could serve an important role in supporting school quality, if they became state-funded, mandatory programs with well-trained evaluation teams and strong tools that measure educational outcomes.
In some cases, those partnerships are already occurring: The Georgia education department, for example, has entered into a formal partnership with AdvancED in school improvement and peer review.
Such a program might be more expensive than the current accountability system, but “more and more evidence has accumulated about the dangers of accountability by scores alone,” Mr. Rothstein said.
Vol. 30, Issue 29, Pages 1, 20Published in Print: April 27, 2011, as Reach of School Accrediting Agency Called Into Question