The Meaning of Accreditation
Accreditation of public schools by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) indicates that the educational institution has conducted a self-evaluation of all of its programs and hosted a visiting team to evaluate the institution in terms of its own stated educational goals and the Standards for Accreditation.
The Standards for Accreditation are a research-based set of practices and concepts that provide guidance to schools on all aspects of the education — academic, civic, and social — of the young people under their care. The Standards are considered to be living documents and are reviewed and revised as necessary. The process of review includes surveys of all member schools, specific consideration of feedback provided by schools that have recently undergone an Accreditation visit, an appraisal of recent, relevant educational literature, and in-depth discussions. As needed, third parties, including consultants, are contracted to conduct relevant research to inform the revision of the Standards. The Standards tend to be reflective of current trends in research on public education without espousing one particular mode of thought.
The awarding of Accreditation signifies that the school has met the Standards for Accreditation at an acceptable level and is committed to both maintain those Standards and to improve its educational program by implementing the recommendations of the visiting team and the Commission. Continued Accreditation is dependent upon a school demonstrating ongoing, reflective progress to improve teaching and learning and the support of teaching and learning.
Membership in and Accreditation by NEASC is similar to membership in professional organizations such as the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association. In each case, a commitment toward continual self-evaluation, a pledge to self-improvement, and a desire to maintain the Standards for Accreditation are necessary.
The Value of Accreditation...
Value to Students and Families
Students are most affected by Accreditation since they are the central focus of the educational process. Accreditation assures them that their needs are being met through a quality educational program, that a vehicle exists to correct deficiencies in the school program, that their transfer credits will more likely be accepted should their family move, and that college representatives have the assurance of the quality of their preparation. Their confidence in their school and teachers, their attitude toward academic work, and their personal development are all fostered by seeing their school invite, and respond to, constructive criticism. Alignment to the Standards also ensures the singular focus of school resources on students’ achievement of valued learning expectations that address academic, civic, and social competencies articulated in the school’s public statement of core values, beliefs about learning, and 21st century learning expectations.
Value to Local Citizens and Taxpayers
Accreditation of a local public school by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges assures that tax money is supporting a school facility and programs that have been judged worthwhile by a visiting team of evaluators, both in terms of the school’s stated core values, beliefs about learning, and student learning expectations, and in terms of the school’s alignment to the Standards for Accreditation. Through the process of Accreditation, the citizen is advised of the strengths, needs, and long-range plans of the school. Finally, the reputation of the community benefits from Accreditation since the retention or the loss of Accreditation has a demonstrable effect on local property values. It is quite common for principals of member schools to receive inquiries from potential homebuyers or renters in a given community seeking information about the nature and quality of programs in that community’s schools. In addition to requests for information about the breadth of curricular and co-curricular programs, and about standardized and state test results, those inquiries often include specific questions about a school’s Accreditation status. Assumedly, a lack of Accreditation would discourage individuals so informed from pursuing residency in communities whose school lacked accredited status.
Value to School Board Members
School board members are ultimately responsible for the quality of public education in their town. Accreditation assures the citizens that the board’s educational policies and plans related to accredited schools are sound.
The self-study phase of the Accreditation process also provides an ideal opportunity for an individual board member to gain a comprehensive knowledge of the school as it undergoes the process of evaluation and Accreditation. If changes are needed, the Accreditation process highlights them.
The Accreditation process also provides the school a process that involves the entire school community in an introspective analysis of the nature and quality of school programs. The Standards for Accreditation and the self-study process encourage the reflective behaviors that all organizations must embrace to be able to maintain their vibrancy and efficacy.
Value to Building Administrators and Teachers
The school’s administration and teachers enjoy the professional pride of working in an accredited institution. Accreditation provides both a personal and professional opportunity to work in a collegial, reflective manner toward educational improvement. The Accreditation experience affords the opportunity for the administration and faculty to conduct and to receive a rigorous analysis of present conditions with a specific emphasis on teaching and learning and the support of teaching and learning so that needed changes may be carefully planned and implemented following a reasonable timeline. Not only do individuals develop a new perspective on their own positions, but also a view of the institution as a whole which affords a better understanding of their role in the operation of the school. The Accreditation process affirms the efforts of teachers and administrators by virtue of their having voluntarily subjected their professional endeavors to review and judgment by a team of their peers, using the demanding Accreditation Standards to measure the quality of those endeavors.
Results of a NEASC survey involving schools that hosted a visiting team provided positive and thoughtful responses. Cited among the most significant findings related to the impact of Accreditation on the quality of a school’s educational program were: improved instruction; enhanced teamwork and collegiality; increased focus on current research and best practice; improved organization effectiveness and long-range planning; expanded professional development programs; and increased involvement of parents and community members in the school, including their support for school initiatives. Included among narrative findings from the respondents on the benefits of the Accreditation process were: the positive impact of the Teaching and Learning Standards for Accreditation in transitioning a school to a standards-based, student-centered educational program; the stimulation of professional dialogue engendering positive change; the commitment to increased levels of academic challenge and improved student achievement; and the provision of a system of continuity that promotes educational quality among member schools.
Value to System Administrators
The Standards for Accreditation provide a template for school review and improvement that can be combined with local, state, and federal initiatives focused both on compliance with mandates and on restructuring efforts. The Standards themselves are reflective of “best practices.” Although strongly based on core concepts of accountability, equity, collaboration, personalization, and student engagement, the Standards provide latitude for individual schools to design programs and services specific to the needs of their stakeholders.
The Standards provide a template that is adaptable to local use. They provide for a cyclical review of all aspects of school programs and mandate both consistency with the school district mission and coordination of curriculum with other district schools. The Accreditation process provides a rich opportunity to integrate system programs and processes during the self-study phase of the decennial cycle, assess their effectiveness as part of the on-site Accreditation visit, and continue to effect changes throughout the follow-up phase of the cycle.
The Accreditation Methodology
Accreditation is the oldest and most traditional of the Standards-based systems of accountability. A study of the regional Accreditation process conducted by The LAB at Brown University1 found that the NEASC Accreditation visit, the “signature event of Accreditation,” is built upon a legitimate and valuable methodology for learning how well a school functions. This methodology, which is centered on a dynamic of inquiry, involves a visiting team of peers generating knowledge about practices in the school and then drawing conclusions about how well they align with the Standards for Accreditation. The visiting team also identifies commendations and recommendations for what the school should do to improve.
The attendant follow-up procedures are designed to ensure that all valid recommendations are acted upon in a timely fashion. The Commission expects that within five years the vast majority of the recommendations in the Accreditation Report will be completed or have a program/plan in place that will bring them to completion within a reasonable time. The Commission’s general expectation in judging all reports is that the school will continue to make “reasonable progress” toward meeting the recommendations. This process of self-renewal provides for continuous reassessment in light of both changing school and community needs and advances in pedagogy and school administration/organization.
1 Thomas A. Wilson. Visting Accreditation: Strengthening the Regional Accreditation Process. Providence, RI: Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University, 1999.
In summary, the goal of Accreditation is to maintain a quality education for the entire student population. Accreditation ensures that through a mutually agreed-upon process there has been a third-party examination by peers of the extent to which a school aligns with the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation. The results of that assessment are then made publicly available as an indication of the quality perceived and attested to by objective professional educators.