Leading School Accreditor Sees Expansion Opportunity Under ESSA
AdvancED—the nation's largest pre-K-12 accrediting organization—is working to vastly expand its school improvement contractor operation to help states meet their commitments under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Its suite of new online classroom-observation tools, consultant services, and teacher and leadership training is independent of the nonprofit's bread-and-butter work of awarding or withholding its seal of approval for 27,000 of the nation's elementary, middle, and high schools.
But the potential for an accrediting organization to become both a judge and a service provider under ESSA's new era of school accountability has alarmed some school accountability researchers. They worry such an unregulated organization could use the heavy stick of accreditation to nudge states, districts, and schools into buying its growing list of school improvement services.
At least four states—Kentucky, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Wyoming—have already taken up AdvancED's offer of expanded services to some degree, signing contracts ranging from $250,000 to $1 million this year.
• Nonprofit pre-K-12 accrediting organization
• Founded in 2006 when the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement merged. (The Northwest Accreditation Commission joined the organization in 2012.)
• Accredits more than 27,000 schools in more than 70 countries.
• Has some 195 employees, along with 18,000 volunteers, to conduct peer review.
• Annual revenue of $29.7 million in 2014, up from $21 million in 2010.
The nonprofit organization's expansion comes as states scramble to meet ESSA's requirement that they assess the needs of all schools that get federal money and come up with ways to intervene in and turn around the lowest performers. The law goes into effect this fall.
The school accreditation process, which scrutinizes a slate of factors such as students' perception of their learning environment, teachers' classroom lessons, and school board governance, is usually separate from state accountability systems and is not directly required under ESSA.
It's a high-stakes process, however, and some form of accreditation is typically mandated under state law. AdvancED's accreditation, in particular, often signals to colleges and universities that aspirants' high schools have met a series of standards in areas such as governance and leadership, teaching and assessment, and how they use results for continuous improvement.
The loss of accreditation can be economically ruinous for a community. The Clayton County, Ga., housing market, for example, tanked, and thousands of students transferred, when in 2008 a division of AdvancED, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, pulled that school district's accreditation. It was restored in 2009, and the district is currently accredited.
Yet AdvancED officials say their work in the accreditation field has them well-positioned to both diagnose schools' most-pressing needs under ESSA and to provide a host of services to help meet those needs.
"States don't have the capacity, quite frankly, to play all these roles that have been placed upon them gradually over the years," said Mark Elgart, AdvancED's president and CEO and a former math and science middle school teacher. "We're in schools more than anybody else, we know their schools, and we're a great resource to help them understand their schools. This is our contribution back to the education community."
That pitch resonated with officials in Wyoming's education department.
"We need to have one coherent system so that we know all of our schools and our state are working toward the same goals, which is ultimately improving schools," said Dicky Shanor, the department's chief of staff.
The state recently replaced its accreditation model with AdvancED's and will, under ESSA, require all its schools to receive accreditation from the organization. "We use their indicators, their software, and programming to really create our own accreditation system based on their continuous-improvement model," Shanor said.
The prospect of such a broadly expanded role for a high-profile accreditor raises eyebrows among some who have studied accreditation, accountability, and business ethics.
"That's where I think we get perverse incentives in the accountability system," said Rebecca Jacobsen, a researcher at Michigan State University who studies school inspection systems across the world, including AdvancED's. "You're going to want to say [schools are] doing well to maintain your contract. Who's really minding the store there? It may work against the ultimate goal, which is most important: educational opportunity rather than improving your profit margin."
Nonprofits have an ethical obligation to set up firewalls between potentially conflicting revenue generators, said Patricia Harned, the CEO of the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, a research group that publishes best practices for nonprofit organizations.
"Nonprofits exist for the purpose of the mission," Harned said. "They operate like businesses to survive and thrive, but we exist for the social good. The other real risk is when your stakeholders think there's a conflict of interest, they walk with their feet."
Defining the Mission
In Elgart's view, however, his organization's expanded school improvement services are not primarily a revenue stream but an extension of AdvancED's nonprofit mission to help schools do better.
Elgart readily admits that the company's accreditation process hasn't been perfect and said the organization is currently overhauling the process. Next month, it will increase its annual membership fee for all 27,000 schools that participate in the process from $750 to $900, and will include a series of school improvement and classroom-observation tools. Next year, the organization will post a list of its best and worst schools and change the language it uses to show more clearly whether a school has measured up to its standards.
By 2021, AdvancED, which is based in Alpharetta, Ga., would like to increase the network to 50,000 schools worldwide for either school improvement or accreditation.
"Schools are demanding that we stay with them," he said, pointing out that 7,000 schools in the organization's network get improvement services and not accreditation. "We don't see it as a conflict, but rather an absolute imperative so that they can benefit from the process."
Heather Kinsey, AdvancED's deputy chief of strategy, said it does not force struggling schools to buy its consulting services and the fact that its evaluators are volunteers assures that evaluations are uninfluenced.
Previously, when those AdvancED's evaluators—an army of 18,000 unpaid teachers, principals, and other education professionals—identified weak points in schools' governance or academic models during the accreditation process, the organization would suggest to district and state officials outside vendors that could help the school fix trouble areas. But AdvancED soon realized it should provide those services on its own, said Kinsey.
"What we've heard consistently from schools and districts," she said, "is, 'I don't take my car to a car mechanic who's an expert and then turn around and find another mechanic to fix the problem. ... You have the expertise, you have the research base. Can you help us?' "
The organization is selling a package to states that includes putting all their schools through the accreditation process as well as a diagnosis of a school's needs and consultation for schools that fall behind academically. The package fills the "needs assessment" and school improvement portions of the ESSA law, the organization has told states. Its web tools also collect data states need to provide the federal government.
Making Its Pitch
AdvancED has made its pitch in a widely circulated white paper, in a series of recent state school board presentations, and at an ESSA accountability symposium in Chicago last summer attended by state department officials from 29 states.
North Dakota, in the ESSA accountability plan it submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in May, said it will outsource most of its accountability systems to AdvancED, folding all its schools into the organization's five-year accreditation process and adopting its school improvement model.
Wyoming in June 2016 signed a two-year, $1.6 million contract to have AdvancED handle both school improvement and accreditation.
In Kentucky and South Carolina, AdvancED already handles a portion of the school turnaround work, and those states are considering whether to continue their partnership with AdvancED under ESSA.
Depending on how many state departments ultimately end up outsourcing their school improvement work to AdvancED this summer, the organization stands to become a large private player in school accountability, a politically fraught and crucial corner of education policy.
Since going online in 2015, its classroom-observation tool has been used to conduct more than 400,000 observations, and AdvancED has already managed to draw sweeping conclusions, comparable by state, about student engagement, teaching practices, and school morale. The organization has hired researchers and partnered with universities to more closely study the data.
'Free Up the Process'
Elgart bristled at the suggestion, mentioned by some critics, that the organization should be regulated.
"You've got to free up the processes to help these schools improve and adapt to each and every context differently," he said. "That's where the government will always struggle. It can create the expectations, but don't regulate how to meet that expectation."
Shanor, in Wyoming, said if the state sees a conflict of interest in the coming years, it will just end its contract with AdvancED.
"We feel like we have control over this process," he said.
State department officials in Indiana, Kentucky, and South Carolina who have worked with AdvancED say the organization's consultations for school turnaround work are objective, thorough, and effective in improving academic outcomes.
"The challenge is trying to facilitate things," Ronald D. Sandlin III, the senior director of school performance and transformation for the Indiana board of education.
The state's accountability system has identified dozens of schools in recent years in need of comprehensive support, and the state doesn't have the resources to provide that support on its own, Sandlin said. "Our state department is lean, and AdvancED already has the relationships across the state of Indiana," he said.
After conducting a three-day review of a school in a state's bottom 5 percent of schools, reviewers meet one on one with state officials to go over their findings and provide training.
"It's a natural progression for them," said Kelly Minick, a regional support coach for the office of school transformation at the South Carolina education department who has worked with AdvancED in several school turnaround settings. "School turnaround is tedious and ever-changing. We're dealing with human capital, and that's a challenge in itself. They've provided us with evidence and data to start that process and we feel like we're a step ahead of the game."
Vol. 36, Issue 36, Pages 1, 21Published in Print: June 21, 2017, as Accreditor Latches Onto ESSA Bandwagon