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NCATE Offers Multiple Reaccreditation Paths

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 23, 2009 6 min read
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Education schools will no longer be forced to follow the same paths to reaccreditation.

As part of the first major overhaul of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education’s system in nearly a decade, schools might commit to working toward a higher level of performance on NCATE’s six standards. Alternatively, institutions can propose and undertake a major research project or partner with a school district to further the knowledge base on effective teacher preparation.

At the same time, NCATE will reduce the amount of paperwork and data schools must submit for review as part of reaccreditation.

“This is not a minor tinkering,” James G. Cibulka, the president of the group, said in a recent interview. “It is a major redesign to accomplish some ambitious, but essential, goals.”

The plans have already won applause from some high-profile figures in teacher-education circles, including some critics.

The redesign “hits on a lot of the right issues,” said Arthur E. Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, who released a 2006 report lambasting the quality of most education schools and recommending that NCATE be replaced with a new accreditation body. (“Prominent Teacher-Educator Assails Field, Suggests New Accrediting Body in Report,” Sept. 20, 2006.)

“I also think it’s bold, to the extent that NCATE is a membership group and has a board of people who aren’t necessarily unhappy with what existed before,” he added.

Recognizing Differences

The Washington-based NCATE, which accredits about half the nation’s schools of education, last overhauled its standards in 2000 to focus more heavily on candidate performance. Colleges of education must, for instance, assess their candidates’ progress through the preparation program and use the data to improve their offerings.

That change was a necessary step to shifting the focus of the accreditation process from inputs—such as coursework hours required and candidates’ access to libraries—to outputs, such as candidates’ effect on student achievement, Mr. Cibulka said. But it also led to some unintended consequences, such as a focus on compliance.

“The process encouraged our accredited institutions to plan for a visit once every seven years and to think they were done, and it didn’t do enough to encourage programs to tackle the complex challenges facing P-12 schools,” he said. “It tended to encourage institutions to hide problems. We need quite the contrary impulse.”

Richard L. Schwab, the dean of the Neag School of Education at theUniversity of Connecticut, added that the prior system did not always recognize differences in mission, capacity, or strengths among the diverse institutions that prepare teachers, which include private undergraduate colleges, masters’ degree-granting institutions, and research universities.

“What happened before with the one-size-fits-all system is that it aimed at the middle,” Mr. Schwab said. “It didn’t really help anyone as much as it could have.”

The different pathways try to respond to those issues. Under the first pathway, a school can earn reaccreditation by engaging in a cycle of “continuous improvement.”

Currently, programs must be deemed “acceptable,” the second of three escalating levels of performance, on each NCATE standard. Under the redesign, schools seeking reaccreditation would submit data over time showing how they are striving for the “target,” or highest level of performance, on the standards.

Moving to the target level on the clinical-fieldwork standard, say, would require programs to expand student-teaching to yearlong experiences and to integrate teacher-candidates into professional-learning communities in schools.

Schools that are receiving accreditation for the first time must meet the standards at the acceptable level, but commit to reaching the higher levels on future accreditation cycles, Mr. Cibulka indicated. Under the other reaccreditation pathway, deemed the “transformation initiative,” institutions could propose and undertake a major research project or a partnership with a local school district to address the specific needs of that district.

The projects must be designed to build the field’s knowledge base of effective teacher-preparation practices, and will push especially the research institutions toward applying their expertise in local communities. They could work, for example, to try

to address the problem of high rates of attrition in challenging urban environments.

NCATE will permit consortia of schools to apply for the transformation initiative to allow the schools to pool their resources and benefit from collective expertise.

The group is already piloting some model examples of the transformation initiative. The University of San Diego, for instance, will investigate the relationship between the sequencing of coursework and student-teaching, and candidates’ scores on the state’s performance-

based credentials test.

Schools that seek reaccreditation through the transformation pathway also must continue to meet NCATE’s six standards—candidate knowledge and skills, an assessment system, field experience, diversity, faculty qualifications, and unit governance—as they implement their projects.

All schools will also face fewer paperwork requirements. Data reporting will focus on outcomes, rather than on processes.

“[The redesign] takes out a lot of the bureaucratic baloney, and is going to hold us accountable for actually walking the walk,” said Mr. Schwab, the Connecticut dean. “That’s a big-change leap from the old days of NCATE when they’d count the number of books in the library and look at the syllabuses you taught.”

The redesign will not immediatelyaffect NCATE’s six accreditation standards. But Mr. Cibulka said he anticipates changes soon to the standard governing clinical-fieldwork experiences. A task force is poised to begin reviewing that issue.

Other standards could be tweaked, too, as data from the transformation initiatives raise questions about their adequacy.

Mirroring Federal Policy

Additionally, the new reaccreditation process dovetails with federal priorities for teacher education. Last year, Congress retooled the Teacher Quality Enhancement grants—the main federal program supporting education schools—when it reauthorized the Higher Education Act. Grantees must now work in partnership with a nonprofit or a district, and the law favors the teacher-residency model.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has promoted a “value added” approach for focusing on effective teacher-preparation programs. Mr. Cibulka said institutions could implement that system, which tracks the graduates of preparation programs into classrooms and analyzes their students’ test-score growth, under the transformation pathway.

The redesign, said Mr. Levine of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, also demonstrates that Mr. Cibulka, who became the president of NCATE just over a year ago, has managed to push the venerable group in new directions and to make good on his promise to use the accreditation process as a lever for institutional reform.

He cautioned, however, that the true mettle of the redesign has yet to be analyzed.

“I think you have to give them a round of applause from where they’ve come and congratulate them,” Mr. Levine said. “Now, [the plan] has to be translated into action, and that’s going to be the real test.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as NCATE Offers Multiple Paths to Reaccreditation

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