Will Accreditation Survive COVID-19 and Racism? | Sanje Ratnavale | 6 Min Read

What do parents and students do when they want to find out about a school’s quality? What do teachers do? Exactly what they would do when they book a trip or a vacation. Check social media.

The COVID-19 summer of 2020 was a sad case in point, as accreditation leaders had to contend with the reality of public shaming on social media by black students of their experiences at schools nationwide. Was this problem picked up by accreditation protocols or by school accreditation visits? Did any of the accreditation recommendations unearth a lack of inclusivity, racism, and inequity? There was no way for accreditation leaders to obviate responsibility because it was not confined to a specific school or even type of school. It was their problem.

What else did 2020 and COVID-19 uncover about accreditation? Top of my list was not the unfortunate technology issues, but, as a striking example, that schools really believed they were doing project-based learning when they were not: this exposed a significant difference between their stated missions or high-level public statements and their actual practice of substituting final projects in place of tests. How so, exactly, and why should it matter to accreditation? The OESIS Network surveyed 153 schools in April 2020 on what they needed most for school closings when remote learning had to be deployed in the future: the results from that Report were clear in the table below:

Schools had been convincing themselves that summative projects at the end of a unit or quarter were actually project-based learning. These projects were relatively easy to accomplish without changing the curriculum or sequence or playing around with the timing of delivering standards of content. So as the school year wore on and Zoom fatigue set in with kids complaining about screen time, backaches, boredom, lack of engagement, and depression, we heard of so many school administrators that tried to bring in PBL.  Unfortunately, they gave students no real agency, no track of self-directed inquiry, and they lacked an assessment framework that looked at skills because the project was still assessed on content standards rather than cross-curricular competencies or outcomes. From an accreditation perspective, there was a gap between what schools said they did and what they were actually doing.

PBL cannot be done on the fly; it requires planning and execution, and it requires proper assessment rubrics or frameworks. Students engaged in PBL are very self-directed, creative, freed from the high-anxiety cycle of summative testing through formative assessment and immediate feedback. They can do it with their peers both online and in-person, they can manage the technology that comes naturally to them rather than waiting for teachers to learn new tools, and they can begin at starting points that interest them, where they know they possess skills and knowledge. Equity is as much at the center here as the student; not the teacher nor the content nor the need to follow the sequence nor the summative control that the traditional program embeds. What could be better during the day to day at school, and when a disruption of this scale occurs?  

How exactly is this the fault of accreditation? Many schools say they are communities of inquiry-based learning with project-based environments. However, inquiry-based is evident little more than in Socratic seminars or discussions or summative projects or field trips. Inquiry-based learning requires driving questions where the student is freed from the content sequence to explore project outcomes. If there had been more of the latter, then the schools that are now finding students checking out might have real options to deploy that fit with their inquiry-based missions.  Accreditation is not holding schools accountable to their stated missions and statements of practice because they are not highlighting the gaps between the two.

At its core, accreditation is an assessment umbrella with contradictions. The standards are deliberately broad to allow school individuality, and therefore can never be correlated with any kind of performance indicators. The review is done by peers with a proclivity for mutual congratulation rather than authentic feedback. Such feedback is compromised by the fact that these peers are unpaid, and roles may soon be reversed when their own school faces accreditation. Reliance on high-level statements of intent, anecdotal evidence, and an emphasis on inputs rather than outcomes all combine to provide a toothless exercise in assessment. Siloes of excellence are still the norm, and functions like technology are not discussed and evaluated as integral parts of an equitable learning experience.

COVID-19, here again, showed the limitations of accreditation in the case of diversity. If there had been a budget and program connection then the financial-aid budget would have been matched with an inclusivity budget and set of indicators that recognized the needs of people of color to feel included, safe, and respected. Except there rarely is an inclusivity line item in the program or other budget areas.  You simply don’t have to show that your money spent matches your high-level statements of practice or philosophy or rhetoric, because program and finance are different parts of the siloed accreditation process. 

Whilst the rest of society lives in a world of data, accreditation standards hold schools to the lowest forms of accountability for the sourcing, analysis, and utility of the data in their services. Some accreditation organizations like the NEASC Commission on International Education have moved away from many of these deficiencies, but they are the minority.

There is a collective groan that comes when schools have to go through this tiresome rigmarole, but that is not what motivated me to write this article. I honestly believe that accreditation has held back rather than improved schools, and embedded inequity. The examples above on PBL and inclusivity may be the tip of the iceberg. As with our seat-time correlated education system, schools tend to think the huge busy work that an accreditation entails means they are excellent for a while, once they get the inevitable rubber stamp. If schools were to count the hourly cost of this exercise in addition to the country club fees required (as high as $20,000-$30,000), they might consider a better alternative: think of it more like a business license (the costs of school accreditation can be as low as a thousand dollars a year) and redeploy the saved time and dollars.

In the years ahead, parents, who have now had a crash course on the underbelly of education, will be looking for more quality. Social media has a way of organizing, validating, and aggregating opinions on quality. New security and privacy processes like blockchain have ways of verifying these assertions. It won’t be long before the “TripAdvisors,” “Glassdoors” and Reddit armies of the internet, turn their gaze on the journey of education at schools. Those social media “outcomes” (as in 2020) will offer little hope for accreditation. Sunshine has always been a great disinfectant. And that may be a good thing.

You may also like the other articles in this series:

Next in Series: “Accredit Learning or SchoolAdvisor.Com Will” by Peter Mott, former NEASC Accreditation Commission Leader, and “Reboot the Visitation Team” by Nat Coffman, HOS, Prairie School (WI).

Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2013 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools (with now over 600 participating in our research, conferences, cohorts, PD platforms, career placement and consulting): the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He noticed that independent schools lacked both a highly collaborative national network for faculty and a pedagogical growth mindset, as many of the associations moved over decades to governance, leadership or accreditation focus and a celebration of supposedly timeless inputs. In 2019 Sanje helped found and launch a new initiative called PIVOT, a non-profit partnership between IMS Global and OESIS, which aims to help schools advance 21st-century designs of digital transcripts: comprehensive records that capture more student learning from competencies to skills and more.He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years and CFO for seven years. Sanje has taught Latin and History at the High and Middle School levels: his educational career spans both British (Windlesham House School in Sussex) and American (Marlborough School in LA and Sierra Canyon School in LA) independent schools, schools that are boarding, single-sex and co-ed institutions respectively. He was one of three founding administrators and the financial architect of a brand new greenfield non-profit independent school built on the outskirts of Los Angeles into a K-12 institution with 850 students, a 35-acre campus and $80 million in assets during his seven-year tenure: Sanje led the raising and management of $60 million for the project from investors. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University {B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence) and the British independent school system (Harrow School). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.

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