Once Status Symbol for Schools, Accreditation Becomes Rote Drill

By Jessica Portner — March 26, 1997 | Corrected: February 24, 2019 9 min read

Corrected: This article and accompanying box about the regional school accreditation agencies contained a number of errors about the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The box misstated the percentage of public high schools in the region with neasc accreditation, and the article misstated the number of public high schools on probation with the association. More than 95 percent of New England public high schools have NEASC accreditation; 20 are on probation. The article also incorrectly implied that the NEASC is a member of the International Council of School Accrediting Commissions.

Principals describe accreditation visits like a trip to the doctor: a routine examination that provokes unmatched anxiety.

The six regional associations that have been granting seals of approval to the nation’s public schools since the late 19th century wield considerable influence with local teachers, principals, and superintendents. But their examinations are often little more than a nuts-and-bolts inventory.

Established a century ago by university scholars to make sure schools employed competent teachers and maintained hygienic facilities, the accreditation stamp of approval was once a status symbol.

Now, it’s a club almost any school can join.

About 19,000--or 95 percent--of the nation’s public high schools, and one-sixth of the elementary and middle schools, are accredited by the associations, officials estimate.

Yet for all their local clout--administrators say they routinely rely on the agencies’ reports for a green light on how they operate--the groups are largely forgotten by the policymakers and reformers pushing for higher academic standards, new testing policies, and demonstrated school improvement and change.

Moreover, the accrediting agencies are ultimately operated and policed by the school officials they monitor. Schools pay dues that go for staff salaries, educators run the boards of directors, and local administrators serve as accreditors for nearby schools.

“We are groping for how to influence what really matters in teaching and learning,” said Susan Fuhrman, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “And what they look at is often superficial--it’s not the deep kind of monitoring that is results oriented.”

“For schools, it’s terrible to flunk, but I don’t know how important it is to say you’ve gone through the process,” she said.

Innovators to Caretakers

The associations actually started out as a tough audience.

In the 1890s, college professors gathered in New England to discuss the essential ingredients of public education.

At the same time the booming railroad industry was standardizing bolts for rails and inventors were patenting new medical equipment, association founders like Woodrow Wilson, then a professor at Princeton University, were formulating the frameworks of public schools: grade levels, curriculum, credits, and minimum hours for core academic subjects.

But shortly after they laid this groundwork, the groups essentially became caretakers of the system.

The associations kept tabs on the little red schoolhouses that dotted the United States. They certified colleges and private schools as well. More recently, they were enlisted by federal officials to accredit schools on military bases in Europe, South America, and Asia.

As the agencies expanded their reach from east to west and then abroad, their leaders began to focus less on the quality of teaching and learning and more on a minimal checklist of equipment and policies.

What’s more, state leaders began to encroach on the associations’ role soon after A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. The influential report, which painted a picture of poorly performing schools, spurred many states to set higher standards and dispatch their own evaluators to check schools’ progress.

“They used to be the Lone Ranger,” John A. Lammel, the associate executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said of the groups. “But now that states have taken a greater initiative in setting standards, accreditation groups have lost some of their clout,” he said.

In addition, private groups in several states, such as New Jersey and California, have launched monitoring programs in the past decade.

“Progressive school leaders say there needs to be a different way to check performance,” said JoAnn Batroletti, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. “We need to show an analysis of school success.”

Exhaustive Review

While their influence has waned in national education circles, schools usually greet their evaluators like visiting dignitaries.

“We rolled out the red carpet, there’s no doubt about it,” Larry Leatham, the principal of Ogden (Utah) High School, said of the evaluation team’s visit three years ago. Twenty-five evaluators from the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges scoured the 1,600-student school for nearly a week.

The group interviewed teachers about their curricula, quizzed staff members about dropout statistics, and inspected the district’s buildings to make sure they met mandated health and safety codes. Such wide-ranging inspections are the norm. Accreditors check everything from the instruments in the science labs to the arrangement of the library’s card catalog.

The inspection, common for half a century, comes strictly from what is known as the accreditation Bible--the sixth edition of the National Study of School Evaluation. It requires schools to provide detailed documentation on a broad set of topics.

Most associations allow schools to choose more rigorous evaluations that begin to focus more on school improvement, but the majority of schools opt for the sixth edition’s inspection of what is known in the field as “staff and stuff.’'

By the time the paperwork and visits are over, schools often feel as though they have realized a huge accomplishment. Most associations deliver the good or bad news in a report to the school within a few weeks of their visit. After schools review the evaluation, which can run hundreds of pages, they hand it over to district officials. Winning accreditation, principals say, certifies that they are on the right track.

“You’re under the microscope, and sometimes it’s a little bit scary,” Mr. Leatham of Ogden High said. But being scrutinized once in a while--most on-site reviews occur every five to 10 years--is vital to reassuring parents and making sure colleges are accepting of a school’s work, he said. Without the accreditors’ seal of approval, he said, “school enrollment would drop because there’d be no advantage for a student [to attend an unaccredited school] if they have college plans.”

Close-Knit Groups

Beyond tidying their file cabinets and equipment, most school administrators don’t have to fret about retaining accreditation. Nearly every high school in the nation has for decades belonged to one of the six associations. And once schools pass the initial accreditation test, membership is virtually irrevocable.

Fewer than 3 percent of the schools up for accreditation lose their certification each year, according to John A. Stoops, the past president of the International Council of School Accrediting Commissions, which oversees the regional groups. A school must first be put on probation by an association’s executive board. Unless the situation is dire--facilities become hazardous, teachers are uncertified, or the library is devoid of books--schools routinely get years to fix their problems.

“If the science building burns down, then they’d lose accreditation,” one association leader said. Schools are expelled only by a majority vote of a committee of their peers from throughout the region.

Agency officials are mindful of the dire consequences revocation of their seal of approval would have.

“You can’t take away the accreditation of a school and jeopardize those 1,500 kids from going to college,” said David Steadman, the executive director of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges.

And the accrediting groups are close-knit organizations.

Member schools pay between $300 and $1,000 a year in dues to their associations, money that along with dues from colleges makes up the bulk of the associations’ operating budgets. Local school officials often make up the accrediting groups’ boards of directors.

Observers say that many association leaders are reluctant to revoke a school’s accreditation because they see their role as providing a service to clients.

As a result, school evaluation visits may have the atmosphere of a professional conference. Schools often host the teams of educators that review their facilities. The schools pay visiting accreditors’ tabs for hotels, meals, and travel expenses.

And as often as not, administrators say, the accreditors arrive ready to help them plead their case for new equipment or other items that local educators want from their central administration--rather than coming in as strictly objective auditors.

Not surprisingly, most principals say their membership fees are well spent. Mr. Steadman, a former principal, said his association’s $325 annual dues are a bargain. “It’s less than the price of a football uniform,” he said.

Mr. Lammel of the NASSP is skeptical of the collegial relationship, however. “You have to question if the visit is based on the mission of the school and improved learning, or the wishes and dreams of a few school administrators on what they would like to have,” he said.

Raising the Bar

But the associations’ conservative stance on revoking a school’s license to operate is entirely appropriate, some education observers say.

“Accrediting bodies ensure that the basics are in place to run schools, and that’s important,” said Susan Rohan, an education specialist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency based in Gaithersburg, Md.

Many people both inside and outside the accrediting groups say they have the potential to complement the variety of national, state, and local efforts to help schools focus on improved achievement.

“The public is interested in documenting schools’ effectiveness instead of putting some rubber stamp on them,” said Pamela Gray-Bennett, one of the directors of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

To become accredited in New England, schools are quizzed less about what they have than about how they are meeting their own goals to improve the quality of their students’ performance.

Like a strict teacher, Ms. Gray-Bennett seems almost proud of the fact that 100 of the 700 high schools in her region are currently on probation.

One school in Lawrence, Mass., lost its accreditation this month for “lacking a clear mission” and failing to have an adequate curriculum or assessment system. (“Teachers Who Understand, Believe, and Care” Feb. 12, 1997.)

In the past few years, most of the regional associations have begun to prod schools to choose such forward-thinking, improvement-oriented evaluations. Prompted by business and education groups, some association leaders have begun working on plans to eliminate the sixth-edition inspection altogether.

“We don’t like to take criticism, and everybody wants to look good,” said Robert Petix, the principal of Westfield (N.J.) High School, whose accreditation was renewed two years ago. “But we ought to be held to higher standards,” he said.

Many association officials agree, though they realize that bringing their dues-paying members along may be an uphill battle.

“We are revising all our protocols to examine how schools move, instead of how they stand,” Mr. Stoops of the international accrediting council said.

“I don’t want to make accreditation an elitist type of thing,” added Bruce Anderson, who serves on the executive board of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges. “But if schools can’t move up to that bar, so be it.”

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