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Regional Accrediting Organizations and School Reform

This week I wrote a story about AdvancED, the mammoth accrediting agency that has drawn some critical attention for censuring school boards that don't match its standards for good governance.

Critics say that the private organization, which schools and districts join voluntarily and pay for with membership fees, has an unwelcome influence on local board politics. Mark Elgart, the organization's CEO, says that these cases are only a tiny fraction of what AdvancED does—but they get attention because they involve fractious board politics.

Of course, I'm always left with good information in my notebook that I'm unable to get in the story because of space constraints. One interesting side issue to the AdvancED story is the role that regional accrediting agencies play in school quality, and the role they might play in broader educational reform efforts.

These organizations aren't new. The oldest, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges was founded in 1885, and the other accrediting agencies were formed over the next few decades.

But for some reason, the organizations are not really a part of the educational reform agenda, said Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, when I interviewed him for the article.

Rothstein devoted a chapter to accrediting agencies in his 2008 book Grading Education. In the book and in his conversation with me, he said that accrediting agencies would have to change some of their practices to be real players in the school reform arena. First, accreditation is not mandatory, and it would have to be to play a role in school reform. Someone other than the schools being evaluated would have to pay for the organization's costs, because Rothstein feels there's a conflict between being tough on schools and accreditors not wanting to anger their member schools.

Accrediting teams currently visit schools every three to 10 years, so reviews would have to come more often under the system that Rothstein envisions. And the evaluating teams themselves would have be to be well-trained, to ensure that the assessments are valid. Finally, accreditors would have to shift from looking at "inputs" like teacher-student ratios and the numbers of books in the school library. Instead, they need to focus on student outcomes, he said.

Those changes would be extensive, but the organizations have decades of experience in visiting and evaluating schools. Rothstein said there has been only a "very low-level" of talk about accrediting agencies and school reform. But "more and more evidence has accumulated about the dangers of accountability by test scores alone," he said.

It does make me wonder if, as the federal government seems to be moving away from stringent test-based accountability under No Child Left Behind, could the accrediting agencies provide some important qualitative data? I'd love to hear thoughts from school leaders or teachers who have gone through an accreditation evaluation.

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