One of the more under-the-radar areas of teacher education is also one of the most divisive: accreditation. And as the field continues to evolve, the debate over how best to determine the success and quality of the programs tasked with producing classroom-ready teachers remains far from settled.
The national accreditation of educator-preparation programs, voluntary in most states, has had a tumultuous history. For more than a decade, there were two national accrediting bodies; they merged in 2010 in an attempt to unify a diffuse field. The resulting group, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, intended to raise the bar for teacher preparation but struggled to secure support. Seven years after the merger, the field was divided once more as the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation was formed, offering teacher-prep programs a new way to prove their effectiveness.
The goal of accreditation is for teacher-prep programs to demonstrate, through a variety of measures, that they are producing strong teachers who are well equipped to lead their own classrooms. But the two national accreditors differ on exactly how to demonstrate program effectiveness—and even on whether programs should have a choice in accreditation at all.
Fewer than half of the country’s roughly 2,100 providers participate in the accreditation system; most of those that do are traditional schools of education at colleges and universities. So far, AAQEP, which began issuing decisions in 2019, has accredited 33 teacher-preparation providers, while CAEP has accredited 423 providers since 2016.
Just last month, AAQEP announced it had received recognition from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which reviews the effectiveness of accrediting agencies. (CAEP was already recognized by the group.) AAQEP President Mark LaCelle-Peterson said the recognition will encourage more providers to come on board: “We expect next year to be even busier in terms of growth,” he said.
Already, CAEP’s president, Christopher Koch, says his group has lost “quite a few members” to AAQEP. He believes that letting providers shop around for which accreditor they want to evaluate their programs is damaging for an already-embattled field. National enrollment in teacher-prep programs has declined by a third over the past decade.
“We believe, still, a single set of standards for the profession is incredibly important, now more than ever,” Koch said. “This past year, with AAQEP’s emergence, we are hearing more and more, ‘We want choice; we want this or that.’ But we think that there’s a continuing erosion here for preparation and preparation standards in the wrong direction—that other professions wouldn’t do in similar circumstances, but somehow that’s OK for teaching. And that’s sending out messages that anyone can teach.”
Teacher-prep standards evolve
The two accreditors have very different approaches to determining the quality of teacher education. CAEP requires multiple measures of data to prove programs’ selectivity and effectiveness. AAQEP’s standards don’t include any requirements for specific benchmarks, and evidence is evaluated holistically.
“I think that CAEP has always really embodied teacher education’s era of accountability,” said Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, the director of graduate teacher education at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., who studies teacher preparation. “Their initial messaging was, ‘We’re going to raise the bar, we’re going to hold teacher education accountable. We’re the gold standard of accreditation. It’s a broken system that can be fixed in three easy steps: If we improve teacher education, we improve teacher quality, and then we improve student achievement.’”
But CAEP struggled to rally the field around its set of standards. For example, CAEP originally required programs’ incoming candidates to have an average 3.0 grade point average upon admission and hold scores averaging in the top half on nationally normed achievement assessments, like SATs. But after significant pushback, CAEP revised the standard to say that candidates have until graduation to meet the requirements.
Colleges also struggled with CAEP’s standard on program impact, which requires programs to provide all available growth measures—which could include value-added measures and student-growth percentiles—showing that when their graduates become teachers with their own classrooms, their students perform well, and that school districts are satisfied with the teachers that programs are producing. Some teacher-educators have complained that it’s nearly impossible to obtain some of that information because their states don’t collect it.
“Teacher-educators don’t disagree with the idea that they should be accountable, they disagree with the notion that these issues can be solved by quantifying the way we look at accountability,” Stringer Keefe said. “AAQEP emerged, in a sense, during a time of dissatisfaction around how CAEP was proceeding and developing. There was some disagreement that there should be a single accreditor, and that was never quelled. I think the competition will certainly stand.”
Since AAQEP’s emergence, she said, CAEP has “really softened its own language.” And indeed, CAEP has worked to respond to some of the more common complaints. In December 2020, the accreditor unveiled its new standards, which will go into effect in 2022. They are the second set of standards in CAEP’s history, revised due to a requirement in the organization’s bylaws to review the standards every seven years.
CAEP kept many of its demands for evidence—including the 3.0 GPA requirement—but removed the requirement that candidates score in the top half of those assessed on nationally normed achievement tests. Koch said that language was “distracting” from the standard’s intent. “People were hung up on the test scores,” he said.
Some in the field had argued that such a requirement posed a barrier to Black and Hispanic candidates, who tend to score lower than their white and Asian counterparts on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT.
CAEP also revised its standard on program impact to remove references to specific data points, such as value-added measures. Those data can still be used as evidence, Koch said, but they were never required, and providers had mistakenly thought they were.
“When we surveyed the field, … people’s impressions of what the standards were requiring versus what the wording of the standard was [were] very different,” he said. “And we tried many, many means of trying to educate them about them and what flexibility was actually there, but there were certain terms that people just can’t get around right now.”
CAEP also added more of an emphasis on technology, equity, and diversity in its standards. Providers are now asked to disaggregate candidate data by race, ethnicity, and any other categories that may be relevant for the provider’s mission, such as socio-economic status or the geographic region they’re from.
Accreditors balance improvement with accountability
As CAEP went through its standards revision process, Koch said there was a “balancing act” between flexibility and rigor. It’s important for the profession, he said, for there to be a tough—and, he argues, singular—set of standards for teacher-preparation providers.
CAEP has given probationary accreditation to 40 programs and denied or revoked the accreditation of nine programs. But AAQEP has accredited some of the programs that didn’t meet CAEP’s standards, Koch said.
“Continuous improvement is important—it’s one of our standards and it’s really key, but so is accountability,” he said. “I really can’t be convinced that giving everybody a pass and saying it’s all about continuous improvement without accountability is the right answer.”
LaCelle-Peterson said all programs that are accredited by AAQEP must demonstrate evidence of program quality. For instance, Alfred University in western New York had its CAEP accreditation revoked and was then accredited by AAQEP, but only after a two-year improvement process in which the institution made significant changes to its program, he said.
AAQEP’s accreditation process, LaCelle-Peterson said, is not easy—“our quality expectations are as high or higher” than CAEP’s, he said—but there is a lot of support.
Institutions pursuing accreditation through AAQEP are grouped into cohorts and have video calls monthly in which they share tips for meeting some of the standards, like how to get in touch with graduates to determine how they’ve adapted to their own classrooms. Those meetings have been particularly valuable during the pandemic, LaCelle-Peterson said, since institutions leaned on each other to figure out remote instruction and manage student-teaching experiences.
He added that the recognition from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation validates AAQEP’s approach.
“CHEA’s new standards really increase the emphasis on accreditation not stifling innovation but actually supporting it, and really respect local institutional context,” LaCelle-Peterson said. “I think our standards and our system are tremendously well set up for that. [We prioritize] outcomes and quality, [but it’s] not about standardizing the means you use to get there.”
‘It can be burdensome, [but] it’s necessary work’
The University of Maryland, College Park is one of 13 providers that earned accreditation from AAQEP last year, both for its initial teacher-preparation program and its graduate programs in reading, school counseling, and school psychology. The college of education had previously been accredited by CAEP and decided to make the switch because of the opportunities for flexibility and collaboration, said Ebony Terrell Shockley, the executive director of teacher education at the University of Maryland. AAQEP’s accreditation process was just as rigorous as CAEP’s, she said, but it was less rigid.
“It doesn’t mean you’re less rigorous because you’re choosing to look at a wide range of data that supports the variety of institutions you have,” Shockley said. “Everybody doesn’t have to meet the same standards in the same way to demonstrate proficiency or to excel across a particular standard. ... It is not just based on compliance, it is based on performance with multiple measures and multiple perspectives.”
Meanwhile, the college of education at the University of Utah is nearing the end of its first seven-year term with CAEP—its accreditation expires December 2023. (The program was among the first to be reviewed by CAEP in 2016, although it initially received probationary accreditation because it did not meet one part of the standard on program impact. The college received full accreditation in 2019. ) Mary Burbank, the assistant dean of the college of education, said the program has decided to stick with CAEP and pursue accreditation under its new standards.
“To be shifting gears when we have established patterns for data collection—it’s not only inefficient, it leaves the potential for gaping holes in the way we’re looking for program effectiveness,” she said.
And CAEP’s communication and support has evolved over the past several years as the organization has grown, she said. With the new standards, CAEP’s “awareness of the landscape of data collection” seems to be “much more realistic,” Burbank said.
Ultimately, she said, going through the accreditation process is an opportunity for teacher-educators to look systematically at how they’re preparing teachers.
“The intent of accreditation in my mind is always to improve programs and better prepare future teachers,” Burbank said. “It can be burdensome, [but] it’s necessary work. If the goal is to be reflective and better serve students and ultimately K-12 students, then that helps to manage the more technical pieces.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Complicated, Divisive Work Of Grading Teacher-Preparation Programs