A Glorified First Date — The Accreditation Visit | Nat Coffman | 4 Min Read

This article is the third in a series of educator commentaries on the independent school accreditation process. The first article was Sanje Ratnavale’s “Will Accreditation Survive COVID-19 and Racism?” The second was Peter Mott’s “Accredit Learning or SchoolAdvisor.com Will.”

In more than 30 years in independent schools, I have only been asked once by a prospective parent about our accreditation and it was a simple yes or no question resulting in no follow-up for an affirmative answer. With more than 20 accrediting groups and many financially successful unaccredited schools, what does being accredited really say about a school?

Accreditation has long been considered a necessary and important part of operating an independent school. The key components include the self-study, the visit, the visiting team report, the accreditation committee’s review, and the required follow-up. All of the parts are based on ensuring a minimum subjective quality standard is met, that the school’s self-study is accurate, and in best-case scenarios — that the whole school community is aligned with and fully living their stated mission with an eye towards growth and improvement.

Like anything involving a one size fits all approach and a significant human element, the process is deeply flawed. Each part is flawed in its own way. The self-study is scarred by trying to apply the same broad standards to every school regardless of context, the need to share the report with strangers, our natural desire to put our best foot forward, and the committee-driven process of producing the study. If done with humility — the self-study has the potential to be a positive growth experience, but putting your school’s flaws on display to be evaluated by strangers is a risk few are willing to take.

The visiting team report is fractured at best when produced by a dozen or more harried individuals and then submitted for approval to a second set of volunteer strangers totally out of context. Over the multi-year process, the accreditation committee changes and the follow-up actions are often disconnected from the original intent and context of the report. The accreditation committee is also hampered by a lack of understanding of the context of each school, the ever-changing context of society (pre and post-George Floyd as an example), and periodic meetings with multiple schools on the agenda. 

In between the self-study and the report heading to the accreditation committee is the three-day visit. I have been on visiting teams with many outstanding professionals across multiple accrediting agencies and I have also been with team members who:

  • have never heard of the school they are visiting
  • were too busy to do any preparation before the visit
  • are totally new to the accreditation process (with little understanding of the purpose and in many cases no previsit training)
  • have no formal education in the area they are evaluating
  • have no independent school experience outside of their own school
  • have been asked to review a portion of the school with which they have no experience
  • hold a significant bias against the mission of the school (i.e., military school, religious school, or for-profit school)
  • empathize with and act on behalf of disgruntled ax-grinding employees
  • come from a wealthy school and don’t understand why an expensive program they have at home isn’t happening at the school they are visiting
  • are political zealots whose views diametrically opposed the school’s stated beliefs
  • come from a totally different geographic and demographic context but are not able to recognize it

Yet, they are expected to visit classes, meet with stakeholders, evaluate evidence of outcomes and curriculum maps, assess the accuracy of the self-study, and write a report that provides commendations and helpful recommendations for growth and improvement in a visit that lasts at most three days… Really?  That’s how we measure the success of our schools?

Where is the objectivity? Where are the clear value-added measurables? Where are the professionals with the time and skills to accurately evaluate a school?  Experience and training matter. We are in the business of education and our accreditors often lack any formal or specific education or training with the exception of short team leader training and a few accrediting organizations that provide a half-day of visit training. Is that really sufficient?

Context is everything and we need to develop a new process that allows for an in-depth understanding of the area surrounding the community, the school’s stakeholders, the school’s goals, and the school’s metrics for success. A good start might be professional evaluators who work with a school over years and build the trust necessary for true transparency and growth. Or maybe — we need to scrap the whole process and let the consumers decide.

National Accrediting Agencies

Regional Accrediting Associations

Regional Associations of Independent Schools

You may also like the other articles in this series:

Nat Coffman

Nathaniel W. Coffman, Ed.D., Head of School & President, The Prairie School (WI), “Our students thrive in college and as adults because they are highly skilled, self-motivated learners who know how to succeed both individually and as a part of diverse teams. They know how to take action, build relationships, collaborate and communicate.”

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