Teacher-Preparation Programs Again Have a Choice of Accreditors. But Should They?

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Once again, teacher-preparation programs have a choice of two accreditors if they want a national stamp of approval.

After nearly a decade with a single national body for accreditation—which was formed by a merger in an attempt to unify a diffuse field—there are now two accrediting groups judging programs on how well they prepare their teachers. And two years after the newer, smaller Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation arrived on the scene, it has released its first batch of decisions.

Nine programs so far have received accreditation under AAQEP’s standards as of this summer. That’s a far cry from the 238 programs accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which began issuing decisions in 2016.

But it’s a sign of yet another sea change in the accreditation landscape. CAEP was founded on the bedrock that it’s important for the field to rally around a single set of standards. Even so, many faculty members from teacher-prep programs welcome the competition in the complicated, messy work of earning accreditation.

National accreditation is voluntary in most states, but about 900 of the country’s roughly 2,100 different providers participate. (Most of them are traditional schools of education at colleges and universities.) States also have their own review processes.

“Teacher preparation wants choice, and they want choice in the way they are going through this process,” said Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, an associate professor and the director of the graduate special education program at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., who has done extensive research on teacher education.

She pointed to the fact that more than 80 programs are already seeking accreditation through AAQEP—and many of those had previously gone through the process with CAEP or one of its predecessors.

While CAEP still dominates the accreditation market, President Christopher Koch said he expected to lose some institutions when AAQEP formed. AAQEP doesn’t require institutions to provide many of the data points that CAEP asks for, including the outcomes for the K-12 students who are taught by programs’ graduates. Because of its data requirements, CAEP has developed a reputation for having a strenuous accreditation process.

But, Koch said, having a unified set of rigorous standards is important for the field, which is grappling with declining enrollment and teacher shortages that have led to some states loosening requirements to teach.

“If you’re given choices, and one of them is easier, and no one is requiring you to do it, and money’s tight, aren’t you going to do something that’s easier?” he said. “It doesn’t help the profession, it doesn’t help teachers, and it doesn’t help children to be able to shop around.”

A Turbulent Storm

The teacher-preparation field has long struggled to come up with a definitive answer for how accreditors should ensure that programs are preparing teacher candidates to be successful in the classroom—or even whether there should be a single answer.

When two rival accreditors united to create CAEP in 2010, many teacher-educators were optimistic about the chance to come to a consensus on what makes quality teacher preparation. But as CAEP made changes to its process, some faculty soured. For instance, CAEP initially offered three separate routes that programs could take to meet the standards, but later narrowed those down to just one pathway.

“A lot of us in teacher education have felt over time that going back to just one [national accreditor] really made it a little more challenging,” said Debbie Rickey, the associate dean of the college of education at Grand Canyon University, a private school in Phoenix that withdrew from the CAEP accreditation process and recently received accreditation from AAQEP.

Her institution is facing several challenges, she said, including a statewide teacher shortage and a growing trend of students leaving the state to teach. AAQEP’s approach to accreditation—with its emphasis on programs’ local context—resonated more so than CAEP’s, Rickey said.

“It showed us that they were looking at accreditation with a little different lens,” she said. “It’s much more about professional conversations and context.”

Indeed, AAQEP places programs that are expected to complete the accreditation process around the same time in a cohort, and encourages providers to have monthly calls with their cohort to share innovative strategies and offer feedback.

Meanwhile, CAEP’s standards are centered around accountability. Stringer Keefe said that over time, it began to “look like they’re seeking compliance instead of embracing a collegial approach.”

And the accreditor has had a turbulent history: Programs balked at some of the standards, there was internal leadership churn, and then, in one damning moment, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education’s board of directors passed a resolution in 2015 citing a “crisis of confidence” in CAEP.

“They failed to convince the public and the field that professional accreditation was a good thing, that it could contribute to program quality, that it could raise the value of teacher preparation—and I think that created the opening for a new accreditor,” Stringer Keefe said. “The rise of AAQEP happened in that storm.”

Different Approaches

Mark LaCelle-Peterson, AAQEP’s founding president, said he thinks programs are attracted to the process because of its collaborative nature, and the sense of mutual support. Teacher-educators, he said, want to be able to explore different approaches to improve their programs.

In one notable example, Teachers College, Columbia University—the first and largest graduate school of education in the country—switched from CAEP to AAQEP and is in the early stages of the accreditation process.

“The issue for us fundamentally is that CAEP is a very top-down compliance approach, whereas AAQEP is much more about peer-review—there is really a much more holistic approach to meeting standards,” said Kelly Parkes, an associate professor and the chair of the teacher education policy committee at Teachers College. “We need an accreditation process that would allow us to be flexible and sensitive to our context and our needs. ... As a leader in teacher preparation, ... you need to have room to have innovation and try [it] out for a year or two, ... rather than being cookie-cutter.”

While there are no specific benchmarks or metrics listed in AAQEP’s standards, CAEP’s set of standards focus on evidence and outcomes. For example, a program’s enrolled cohort must have at least a grade point average of 3.0 and hold scores averaging in the top half on nationally normed assessments, like the SAT or an equivalent measure of mathematical, reading, and writing achievement, by the time they complete the program. (That standard was initially an admissions requirement, but CAEP changed the timeline after pushback from the field.)

CAEP also asks programs to provide data showing that when their graduates enter the classroom, their own students are performing well, and that school districts are satisfied with the teachers that programs are producing.

This spring, CAEP accredited 42 providers, including Duke University. Susan Wynn, the director of the program in education at Duke and an associate professor of the practice, said the accreditation process was “like being turned inside out”—but the hard work was valuable.

“I know it’s taken a few years for [CAEP] to get to this point, but in my mind, they’ve given a great deal of thought, attention, and research to these standards, and I feel like it was an extremely worthwhile process,” she said. “I feel like it provided the structure and format for us to be deeply and critically reflective about what we do as a program.”

Even so, not all states have robust systems in place to collect the kind of data CAEP requires, and several institutions have struggled to meet those standards. A common complaint among teacher-educators is that obtaining some of the required data is outside of their control.

AAQEP’s standards do not require specific data points because states have varying degrees of data-gathering capability, LaCelle-Peterson said.

“Whatever data is there absolutely has to be looked at, but if your state doesn’t happen to provide data back, then the question is, ‘Well, what are you doing to get information?’” he said, adding that some programs are working on innovative solutions to better keep track of their graduates. For example, he said, one program has started issuing LinkedIn invitations to every graduate in an attempt to better keep in touch.

AAQEP’s process “makes it more of an invitation to say, ‘Hey, [get] whatever information you can get, and get as much as you can,’ ... but the chief value is in how you can use that information to improve what you’re doing,” LaCelle-Peterson said.

That approach resonated with Sara Levy, an associate professor of education and the assessment coordinator for Wells College, a private liberal arts college in Aurora, N.Y. The institution was previously accredited under the standards of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, one of the bodies that formed CAEP. (Notably, AAQEP’s LaCelle-Peterson used to lead TEAC, which favored a looser, inquiry-based process.)

When it came time to renew Wells College’s accreditation, Levy was concerned about being able to meet CAEP’s standards. The program only graduated seven teachers this year, she said, which made it difficult to provide the quantitative data CAEP was looking for. And New York state does not share K-12 student outcome data with institutions, Levy said.

“Not every institution is going to meet the same standards the same way with the same data,” she said.

Wells College is now going through AAQEP’s accreditation process, with an expected decision year of 2020.

Hard Work

Koch said he understands the challenges many institutions have in pulling together the data CAEP requires. But it’s doable, he said. Some CAEP-accredited programs have collected evidence by other means, including case studies of program completers.

“We’re not saying it’s easy,” he said. “It’s an effort—I think continuous improvement and accountability is an effort.”

And it’s important for the field, Koch said, for the standards to be rigorous. He pointed to stubborn achievement gaps and persistent rates of illiteracy among high school graduates.

“If there’s ever a time in United States history where it’s important to be certain [of program quality], this is it,” he said. “It’s not a time in which we should be squeamish about that.” Still, some teacher-educators balk at the suggestion that the AAQEP process isn’t as rigorous as CAEP’s.

“I think at first, we thought, ‘Oh, OK, they’re giving us more latitude rather than a check-the-box kind of thing,’ ... but it was even more rigorous,” Rickey said. “We had to really be accountable to ourselves, and we’re probably harder on ourselves. ... Those stinkers—they probably knew what they were doing, because it took us to a different level in terms of being able to look at ourselves and ask that question: Are we doing what we say we’re doing?”

Parkes from Teachers’ College put it this way: “Rigor doesn’t necessarily need to be met with a benchmark or a score or a number. ... I think those who are preparing teachers well have many, many forms of rigor in their program, it’s just not perhaps the very narrowly defined rigor of CAEP.”

Meanwhile, the two accreditors will continue to battle for market share. Koch said CAEP has tapped researchers to conduct a review of its standards, which are about six years old, and see if there are any adjustments that need to be made. AAQEP is in the initial stages of seeking recognition from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a national body that approves accreditors and has already recognized CAEP.

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