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Sep 22, 2006

Accreditation and ambivalence

I have just returned from the NCATE conference in Washington, and am trying to figure out what do I think about this and other accreditation processes. It is strange to be ambivalent, considering that I have been involved with NCATE for a few years now, and have even published a paper about these things. Yet I find myself to be uncertain.

On one hand, it is an opportunity to talk to colleagues about what we do and how to improve things. No one I know has said that his or her institution came out worse off after the NCATE accreditation. I also know that there is plenty of mediocre curriculum design and teaching that goes on in the Academe. It is full of very smart and honest people, but without a push, we tend to teach whatever we like, and avoid each other if at all possible. Things do not change for decades; courses often remain isolated. Sometimes we teach the same thing several times in several courses; sometimes we leave huge gaps in our students’ education because everyone thought someone else is covering this and that.

I admire NCATE’s insistence on the diversity component of accreditation. The truth is, in many smaller, especially private religious colleges, the only non-white face often belongs to an NCTE diversity coordinator. The search for evidence also deserves credit. The world of education is largely based on myth, with little or no evidence behind much of what we’re doing. One does not have to believe in all data, and be careful about what passes as “scientific” research, but let’s face it, much of what we do in Higher Education is based largely on totally arbitrary assumptions. What is a good class? – Usually one that feels good, where students were engaged and interested. Did they learn anything? Did that anything fit into some sort of a larger plan? Did we assess what they have actually learned? Are they using any of it in their own classrooms? We really know very little about these things, and don’t seem to care much without an external push.

However, several things disturb me about the accreditation push; some of which I cannot yet pun my finger on. First, it produces the data for the sake of data. The standards are way too many, and to cover them all, we are forced to come up with incredibly broad rubrics and other assessment instruments that become unreliable. Let’s face it, we graduate what, 400 or so teachers each year, and grade all their portfolios a few days before graduation. Am I supposed to believe that each of these students received a well thought-out grade on dozens of elements of dozens of standards? And of course, everyone passes. This makes little sense, and yet this seems to be the only way to get accredited.

In general, there does not seem to be a way of meeting all these standards without a great deal of pretending. A big part of it is the time constraint. What smaller schools do not have trouble doing, becomes a large obstacle to a school of our size. So, instead of having an honest discussion about how to improve, we often discuss the creative ways of compliance. Compliance itself is not a bad thing: all industries have to comply with various safety, quality, environmental regulations. I am not convinced meeting NCATE standards will actually guarantee high quality of the outcomes. Incredibly, the organization built around evidence has little evidence to show that the things it recommends actually works. It does look and sound very good, and very convincing. However, we in education used to believe other plausible things that turned out to be wrong: for example, that class size matters a lot, that kids’ socio-economic background is the major contributor to achievement, etc. I am just afraid a few years down the road some one will show that aligning curriculum, gathering data, and using the data to improve instruction actually do not improve much of anything. I don’t know this, this is just my worry.

There is also something very totalitarian, communist about the accreditation process. Again, I have written about this, and won’t repeat myself, but it just feels sometime very oppressive. It feels like designing your own prison cell.

We will still do it, and I will do my best for us to pass. Yet I think we should only do what makes sense for us, and then report whatever we think will get us through.


  1. Anonymous8:46 AM

    Designing you own prison cell--I like the idea. I'd want a spa and a wet bar.

  2. Yes, but the cell has to meet certain standards. In other words, you can design, but someone else will approve.

  3. Anonymous9:54 AM

    NCATE is a joke and a waste of time and money. It is nothing more than a racket to make money. . .