Many current accreditation protocols have come under fire — for a number of legitimate reasons:
- the process is expensive
- ‘self-evaluations’ are labor-intensive, occur in largely disconnected silos (e.g., curriculum; leadership/governance; faculty/staff; operational systems, etc.), and produce mountains of paper — and little else
- peer assessment is hampered by implicit conflicts of interest (the assessor may become the assessed before long)
- accreditation has not fundamentally changed many schools; recommendations tend to be too general (“ensure that a system of monitoring the implementation of your mission and vision is in place”) or they address mostly procedural and policy-related matters
- accreditation standards are designed to accommodate as many extant curricula and approaches to learning as possible: as a result, standards inadvertently embrace the lowest possible common denominator; at their core, accreditation standards are agnostic and do not necessarily promote ‘best practice’ as identified by educational and neurological research
- few schools are denied accreditation once they have engaged with the process and, if truth be told, it is not in the accreditation agencies’ economic interests to withhold membership from schools seeking their approbation.
And so, the world teems with schools that proudly sport their accreditation agency’s logo on their website but which, upon close ‘inspection,’ perpetuate outmoded approaches to teaching and learning. They believe they are “inquiry-based” because they have adopted the IB PYP yet fail to see that “inquiry” does not mean that learners should be encouraged to ‘discover’ the truth or fact or opinion the teacher already has in mind. They believe they are empowering students with agency and choice because they offer “electives” or “extra-curricular” (note the implications of this term!) opportunities; they believe that a “personal project” (or an extended essay, for that matter) validates their commitment to project-based learning, and they call themselves “innovative” because they offer Robotics and Coding as either an elective or, worse, an after-school club. Such failings or, more charitably expressed, such misunderstandings may prompt a gentle recommendation to “give thought” to the matter, but they are not likely to constitute a deal-breaker when decisions to award accreditation are made.
More egregious perhaps is the tendency of most accreditation protocols not to challenge particular curricular models or a school’s prevailing assessment system — as long as the school can prove there is “formative” as well as “summative” assessment. As a result — and perhaps inevitably so, schools’ claims that they develop critical and creative thinkers, risk-takers, and global-minded citizens are often obscured by the accreditors’ efforts to document the school’s alignment with the chosen curriculum and assessment model. Because of the accreditation protocols’ agnostic nature and avowed hesitancy to offer prescriptive recommendations (unless they concern matters of health and safety), implicit contradictions between a school’s mission/vision and the particular curricular model it has adopted are rarely highlighted or given the focus they deserve in the accreditation process.
Is accreditation about attesting to whether a school is “in compliance,” as it were, with its curricular choice and has systems in place which allow the entity to function operationally? It is of course a truism that although certain “standard systems” are indispensable for schools to operate at all, the presence of such systems does not prove the presence of learning. Indeed, some of these “systems,” especially when they are not explicitly linked to the school’s educational mission and exist in splendid isolation, may inhibit rather than promote learning. Alternatively, should accreditation reflect a school’s awareness of and commitment to what we know about effective learning? Accreditation agencies are sure to claim, with a healthy dose of self-important conviction, that their protocols are designed to achieve the latter. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the reality on the ground does not always support this claim. The fact that, with very few exceptions, schools have not abandoned — or even called into question — their industrial-age paradigm (the content-heavy, rigidly standardized ‘sausage factory’ Yong Zhao has described) pointedly underscores the failure of accreditation to serve as a standard-bearer (pun intended!) for truly ‘best practice.’
So, what’s the alternative, a SchoolAdvisor model, such as the ‘TripAdvisor’ user-defined approach to traveling and dining where schools compete for ratings, stars, and complimentary comments? It is inevitable that social media will, sooner or later, impose their influence on school choice by parents as well as prospective faculty. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, but it would be well to bear in mind that finding a school that truly prepares our children for the grave challenges of the future is decidedly different from choosing a restaurant that pleases our palate or a hotel which aligns with our comfort expectations. Add to this the equally disconcerting truth that parents may base their choice on parameters with which they are already familiar and comfortable,’ e.g., college admission rate, SAT scores, curriculum recognition, etc. – and you end up with a self-replicating mechanism which actually helps cement the status quo. As with all things the ‘popular’ choice may not be the desirable or best option.
Unless accreditation providers recognize and respond to concerns about the legitimacy and usefulness of their protocols, social media will soon relegate them to irrelevance – and, in doing so, perhaps perpetuate ‘education’ rather than re-invent learning. There are models that have jettisoned the “agnostic” approach and do not shy away from articulating a learning paradigm that differs substantially from the norm and which does not accept “things as they are.” First and foremost among these is NEASC’s ACE Learning protocol (full disclosure: the writer was one of the authors of ACE), in which a plethora of “standards” (effect: see above) is replaced by 10 succinct and progressive Learning Principles. ACE aims not only to change the nature of the accreditation process itself but to introduce a new language of learning which emancipates willing schools (or learning communities as ACE calls them) from the fetters of the past. ACE invites learning communities to convert their “school” into learner-centered, learner-directed hubs of discovery, creativity, and autonomy in which learners engage with the great issues, unsolved problems, emerging questions, and unsettled disputes of our times. No doubt, a tall order.
A fundamental and perhaps irresolvable irony was not lost on the protocol’s authors: in order to encourage learning communities to leave behind the premises, assumptions, and practices with which they ‘complied’ for more than a hundred years, they are being asked to embrace a new paradigm with its own premises, assumptions, and practices. And so, the conundrum of granting agency and choice to learners and learning communities without ensnaring them anew in nets carefully woven by compliant mindsets remains. The ultimate question will therefore not be “Accreditation or SchoolAdvisor?” but, instead, how do we square the call for greater freedom in all things with the need to abide by accepted rules that enable civil discourse, dissent, and debate? And that is the essence, is it not, of what 21st-century learning ought to be about?
You may also like the other articles in this series: