College & Workforce Readiness

Teacher-Prep Accreditation Group Seeks to Regain Traction

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 23, 2016 8 min read
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When it was conceived in 2010, the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation was supposed to unite the teacher-preparation programs behind new expectations, showing once and for all that the embattled field could get its own house in order.

It hasn’t worked out that way—at least not yet.

Over the past three years, CAEP has experienced high staff turnover coupled with internal divisions about how to interpret its more rigorous standards. Teacher colleges have pressured CAEP to revisit its accreditation framework; the group has already changed one standard. And CAEP has yet to earn recognition from the U.S. Department of Education.

While acknowledging those stumbles, CAEP officials say they have turned a corner. The group has dramatically improved training for its reviewers and streamlined its governance structure. More than half the states have signed up to use CAEP protocols or reviewers to evaluate teacher-prep programs. And this fall, there’s no more grandfathering: All programs seeking accreditation must meet the new standards.

Much more is at stake than the future of a relatively obscure process. Those watching CAEP’s troubled start fear the message it will send if the field cannot ultimately rally around an accreditor, as nearly every other profession has done.

“I just worry that it will affect the teaching profession,” said Donna Wiseman, the dean of the school of education at the University of Maryland College Park. “One of the ways we’ve made a case that we produce high-quality teachers is that we go through this accreditation process with standards everyone has agreed on.”

That’s a goal to which Christopher Koch, CAEP’s president since last fall, also aspires.

“I think CAEP can absolutely get there,” he said. “It’s going to be a factor of the quality of product. I want a program to go through this and say, ‘You know what? That was tough, but it was really validating in some areas and will clarify where we need to get better in others.’ ”

Philosophical Differences

National accreditation of teaching programs is voluntary in many states. Some 840 providers currently hold accreditation. Colleges seek it because it provides at least one indication of professional quality. States’ support it because their own review processes are often weak and political, and an independent review can help force action.

CAEP’s evolution mirrors one of the busiest and most intense periods of policy scrutiny on teacher preparation.

Who’s Using the CAEP Standards?

Providers accredited under new CAEP standards: 10

  • Alcorn State University (Miss.)
  • Florida Atlantic University
  • North Carolina State University
  • Southern Utah University
  • Valdosta State University (Ga.)
  • Missouri Southern State University
  • Stetson University (Fla.)
  • State University of New York at Fredonia
  • University of Montana-Western
  • Montana State University–Bozeman

Providers on probation under new CAEP standards: 3

  • Concordia University (Minn.)
  • University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
  • Southwestern College (Kan.)

States that have signed partnership agreements with CAEP: 27

Ala., Ark., Calif., Del. Hawaii, Ind., Kan., Ky., La., Maine, Mass., Mich., Mont., Neb., N.H., N.J., N.C., N.D., Ohio, Okla., Ore., S.C., S.D., Va., Wash., W.Va., Wyo.

States that require accreditation of teacher-prep providers: 21

Alaska, Ark., Del., Ga., Hawaii, Ky., La., Maine, Mich., Md., Miss, N.C., N.D., N.J., N.Y., Ohio, Ore., S.C., Utah, W.Va., Wyo.

Source: Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation

Fed up with a seeming lack of quality control in teacher preparation, the Education Department is poised to release deeply unpopular accountability regulations. The landscape of teacher prep itself has grown more diffuse, with charters and nonprofits now running their own training. And the competition for new talent has intensified as enrollment in teaching programs declines.

CAEP was formed in 2010 from the merger of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, or NCATE, and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, or TEAC. NCATE judged programs on a set of standards; the far smaller TEAC favored a more analytical, reflective approach.

The groups formally became one in 2013. Later that same year, CAEP unveiled its new expectations for program accreditation—a more ambitious, potentially more difficult, and undeniably more controversial set than any before.

But implementation of the standards has been hampered by the two different accreditation philosophies that CAEP’s predecessors brought to the table—and an unwillingness among former TEAC staff members in particular to embrace CAEP’s new system, according to interviews and documents obtained by Education Week.

CAEP’s initial governance structure seems to have been a major problem. In a nod toward flexibility, it allowed colleges to meet the new standards via the very different procedures that NCATE and TEAC had used, and set up two corresponding commissions to oversee accreditation decisions. But the commissions ran virtually independent of one another, had disparate rules and policies, and wound up balkanizing staff members rather than focusing them on a united path forward.

Cleaning House

The lack of clear vision spilled over when CAEP began to push the new standards out and pilot them with selected volunteer colleges.

According to Lonn Maly, the dean of the college of education and science at Concordia University, in St. Paul, Minn., the visiting CAEP representatives weren’t clear on how to apply the new standards. And the group’s final accreditation decision didn’t align with the feedback reviewers had given beforehand.

“The team didn’t seem fully prepared, I don’t think we were fully prepared, and I don’t think the [accreditation council] was fully prepared,” Maly said. “I think there were five us there that day, and all of us came out a bit bewildered.”

Some of that, of course, simply reflected the newness of the expectations.

“I think it’s clear when you’re transitioning to something so new and different that there are going to be bumps in the road,” said Valerie Martin Conley, the dean of education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, an early adopter of the new standards. But CAEP officials own some of the blame, too.

“I know we haven’t been fast enough, in all honesty,” said Stevie Chepko, CAEP’s senior vice president of accreditation. “But part of that lack of early response was getting two cultures to agree about what we should be doing.”

If CAEP’s first two years in business exposed the fractures in the new organization, then last year was about cleaning house. In May 2015, CAEP’s board of directors dismissed the group’s founding president, former NCATE chief James G. Cibulka, over staff objections. Former TEAC leader Frank Murray would also depart by the year’s end.

And in December, the board took steps to dissolve the two-commission structure and created one body to handle all future accreditation decisions, essentially giving Koch the leverage that Cibulka had lacked to craft one way forward.

Standards Tested

The internecine drama has overshadowed some of CAEP’s more recent successes, CAEP officials say.

For one, it’s working to beef up reviewer training so that the standards are applied rigorously and uniformly across institutions. And the pilot accreditation visits have produced much useful information on the standards that tripped up programs—and where CAEP will need to focus its technical-assistance efforts.

“We think we need to do more development on programs’ using data to make their case that each standard is met; we think there is a data-literacy gap,” Chepko said.

In some areas, CAEP’s standards are bumping up against political matters outside its control. Take its Standard 4, which requires colleges to document how the teachers they prepare help improve student learning once they are in K-12 classrooms.

Most states cannot link teacher and student data back to specific colleges. And the current political fears around the uses of education data make expanding those links unlikely. For now, CAEP will accept colleges’ plans for collecting such information on their own.

CAEP has also made one significant revision to its Standard 3, on admissions.

Originally, each college would have had to admit a group of candidates with an average 3.0 GPA, holding scores averaging in the top half on nationally normed achievement assessments. The benchmark was to have increased gradually. Under the rewrite, however, candidates have until graduation to meet the requirements, and the testing benchmark will remain at 50 percent.

The use of exams to gauge candidate qualifications generated enormous pushback from universities.

But Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said she was disappointed to hear that CAEP had revised its “courageous” admissions standard. “But by no means is it surprising, given the tremendous resistance it faced from so many of the teacher-prep programs,” she said.

While acknowledging that the new standard is more “permissive,” Koch believes it “still allows us to have high expectations and allows for students to gain skills while they’re in teacher training to do the job.”

And the move has been supported by other observers, including some who initially supported higher entry standards.

“Raising entry requirements to teacher-preparation programs is a blunt-force approach that is likely to have damaging impact in areas struggling with teacher shortages, particularly rural areas,” said Ben Riley, the executive director of Deans for Impact, an Austin, Texas-based group that pushes for teacher preparation backed by research.

A Difficult Balance

All that leaves CAEP approaching an important milestone this fall, when more than two dozen colleges will be told whether they meet the 2013 standards.

CAEP, in theory, has higher expectations than its predecessors. A program is put on probation if it fails any of the five standards. Some institutions have seen the writing on the wall already.

“We’ve had institutions withdraw because they didn’t like standards 3 and 4, and that’s OK,” Chepko said. “This is what we measure. It’s what we believe in.”

But it’s a tricky balance between making a process prestigious and making it so daunting that few colleges aspire to the challenge.

“The board is pretty united that we need to hold the line on this stuff,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and a CAEP board member. “And the question for me always is: Is there a way we can provide assistance that will help these programs be approved?”

All of which suggests that CAEP’s standing in the field remains fluid and uncertain. Koch, for one, thinks it is improving.

“I think people are worried about our capacity being willing to do this, and more institutions leaving, and I have those worries, too,” he said. “But I think we’ve been really listening and responsive to what we’re hearing.”

Indeed, 27 states plan to use CAEP to inform their own quality control. And several of the early adopters say CAEP’s communications have notably improved.

“They just seem more organized now. And when they talk to us, they seem to be talking with one voice,” Maly of Concordia University said.

But there are still skeptics. Count Delena Norris-Tull, a professor of science education and the CAEP coordinator at Montana State University, among them.

“It’s a huge amount of data you have to collect to meet all these standards,” she said, “and I think a lot of universities are just going to say no, they can’t do it.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Prep Accreditation Group Seeks Traction


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