Accreditation: A Common Way for Schools To Improve Uniquely

There is a need for schools to find ways to improve that allow the school’s “culture” to guide the improvement process. Some accreditation processes may be helpful to schools who want to improve by allowing schools to do it their way! One example of the accreditation agencies that support unique school improvement pathways is the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). They have a comprehensive FAQ page that I have copied below for the reader to consider:

The following Frequently Asked Questions may be useful to school administrators, teachers, and the general public regarding accreditation.  The professional staff is available to respond to questions in more detail.

Do the Standards reflect a particular educational philosophy?

The Standards reflect current research on “best practices.” There are strong parallels between the Standards and both the National Association of Secondary Schools’ (NASSP) groundbreaking document Breaking Ranks and Breaking Ranks II, and the principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Despite the apparent similarities, neither served as the guiding document for the new Standards. In that virtually all reform and standards movements develop their conclusions and recommendations from a common database of research, similar philosophical strands can be found in the guiding principles of the various organizations. For instance, almost 75% of the indicators in the Standards are reflected in some fashion in Breaking Ranks. A bibliography of relevant publications is included on this website under Tools for School Improvement:  Readings and Links.

What does the term “school-wide learning expectations” mean?

This term refers to the observable and measurable skills that are the priority learning goals that have been identified by the school community that a school hopes to see manifested in all of its students. These learning expectations may be related to specific learning goals identified by the state or may be the important learning goals of a given community. The realization of these school-wide learning expectations serves as the empirical proof that the school has been able to achieve the essential learnings identified in its mission statement.

Why do the Standards have such a strong emphasis on school-wide learning?

There are a number of indicators (the declarative statements that help to define the individual Standards) that point the school’s curriculum in the direction of integration of learning, emphasis on depth over breadth, and the coordination of curriculum among all academic areas. As well, a number of the indicators relate to student achievement of school-wide learning expectations. Similarly, a number of the indicators require procedures and a school organization that encourages and creates opportunities for reflection, collegiality, common planning time, and collaboration across the entire school community. These indicators have been developed in response to identified “best practices.” In other words, if these events are happening in a school, student achievement is probably occurring at a high level because research tells schools that these practices work. The emphasis on school-wide learning is designed to create an atmosphere in which all school personnel, regardless of their curriculum area or supportive role, take responsibility on a broad scale for creating a set of conditions where students have the strongest opportunity to succeed in achieving the school-wide expectations.

Can schools have discipline-specific school-wide learning expectations?

Yes, they may as long as they are expected of or apply to each student in the school. For example, a school can have a school-wide learning expectation in the area of mathematics, art, or foreign language as long as all students in the school are expected to take enough courses in those areas to develop skills to achieve the school-wide learning expectations.

Why is the Commission asking schools to review and understand the Standards long before the self-study?

The Standards adopted in 2000 for the schools undergoing self-study in the years 2000-2004 and that were then refined for schools undergoing self-study in the years 2005-2011 represent a significant departure from the Standards that were in place during the years 1995-1999. Because the new Standards, both the 2000 and the refined 2005 versions, tend to lean more toward examining processes and practices and less toward measuring inputs, schools would be well-served to develop a strong sense of what the new Standards require as opposed to assuming they will be replicating what was being sought during the last decennial cycle. The new Standards have an increased emphasis on student learning and the ways in which schools demonstrate student progress.
The success of the self-study depends substantially on the ability of each member of the school community to view the school through the prism of the Standards and the particular demands they place on schools to be mission-driven, equity-based, personalized, collegial, and reflective. Focused discussions leading to a deeper understanding of the directions of the revised Standards prior to the start of the actual self-study will serve schools well.

Why is the Commission asking schools to revise their mission statements and learning expectations well in advance of the self-study?

The emphasis of the Standards can be seen from a reading of the first several indicators in each of the Standard areas. The statement of mission and expectations for student learning of the school is the cornerstone upon which the indicators in the Standard rest. Without an internalization of the mission and expectations and a commitment to the essential learnings they embody, and the embedding of those values and learning expectations in the curriculum, instruction, assessment practices, management, support and the allocation of community resources, a school will find itself hard pressed to understand the goal of the self-study process, let alone be able to ensure adherence to the Standards themselves. Based on the experiences of over two hundred and fifty schools that have used the 2000 and 2005 Standards to guide their self-studies and their decennial visits, the Commission has concluded that the schools that are best served by the Standards and those that are most successful in meeting the needs of their school communities are those who developed and adopted a mission and expectations that were responsive to the Standards in advance of the formal commencement of the self-study.

Why do schools need an accountability system like accreditation if they are already being held accountable to the state and to the federal government?

To varying extents, state and federal assessments and mandates deal with students achieving competency at some minimum level of achievement or at a particular grade level below the terminal grade. Similarly, to varying extents the assessments deal with averages and norms rather than with feedback specific to the needs of individual students. State and federal standards also do not begin to address areas outside of core academic areas and do not pay any attention to the civic and social domains which shape a significant part of our member schools’ endeavors.
Well beyond what is being requested by state and federal assessments, the NEASC Standards provide significant scrutiny of a school’s processes and practices related to teaching and learning and the support of teaching and learning. As such, accreditation is about the best practices of the educators in the schools and the support systems around them. Accreditation examines not only the work of the students but also examines the nature of the contributions of the school staff.

Why is the Commission insisting that schools have local assessment processes to determine student achievement of school-wide learning expectations? Why can’t achievement of such expectations be measured by performance on standardized tests?

There are two modes of standardized tests. The most prevalent at present are state mandated (MCAS, CAPT, NECAP, and SAT in Maine) tests. For the most part these tests are limited in scope, either limited to a finite range of curriculum areas (English/Language Arts or mathematics, for example) and/or are based on mastery of skills at a level well below what schools establish as their own targeted requirements. The use of nationally normed examinations (Stanfords, ERBs, SATs, APs) does not always provide an accurate picture of where individual students are on the learning curve nor does it define what students must do to remedy their shortcomings. Additionally, such nationally normed exams are not necessarily aligned with the particular curriculum in place at a given school. Well-designed local assessments are aligned with local (as well as state) standards and provide data specific to the needs of each individual student. There is a movement in some states toward holistic requirements such as senior projects, capstone projects, portfolios, etc., which would encompass simultaneously an assessment of a broad range of student competencies and yet be adaptable to the needs of specific students.

Why has the Commission insisted that schools assess the achievement of school-wide learning expectations with rubrics?

The use of school-wide rubrics to assess the level of achievement of a school’s targeted and valued skills ensures that students and their parents know what is expected of them and know what they need to do to improve. When students have multiple opportunities across the content areas and/or across courses to practice and achieve the school’s expectations for achievement, they can see incremental progress. In many instances they can see the connections across the disciplines, an important aspect of improved learning. In addition, teachers can adjust their curriculum and their instructional strategies as they use the rubrics to assess the achievement of the school’s essential learnings.

Why can’t the achievement of the school-wide learning expectations be assessed simply with course grades?

Course letter grades provide little information to a student or a parent about how to improve, and usually do not provide enough useful information to teachers for them to make decisions about instructional strategies.

Why is it important that the rubrics be school-wide?

The phrase “school-wide rubric” means that an established rubric will be used to assess the learning demonstrated by all students in the school. In the case of a school-wide learning expectation that cuts across a number of disciplines, such as writing, the use of the same rubric to assess writing skills across the school’s curriculum – by the English teacher who teaches students how to improve their writing, by the science teacher who asks students to demonstrate effective writing in a lab report, and by the social studies teacher who asks students to apply writing skills as they discuss political primaries and caucuses – serves to ensure the consistent reinforcement of skills across a number of disciplines. In the case of a school-wide learning expectation that is by its nature specific to a particular discipline or just a few disciplines, such as the demonstration of scientific thinking, fluency in a foreign language, or mathematical reasoning, the use of the same rubric to monitor and assess the achievement of identified skills ensures that all students will have a shared understanding of the concepts and quality of learning expected of them.

Do the Standards require that schools be totally heterogeneously grouped?

The Standards state (in Indicator #5 of the 2005 Standard on Leadership and Organization):
Student grouping patterns shall reflect the diversity of the student body, foster heterogeneity, reflect current research and best practices, and support the achievement of the school’s mission and expectations for student learning.

The Standards do not mandate grouping patterns, specifically heterogeneous, for schools. The extent to which a school is heterogeneously/homogeneously grouped is largely a local decision. There currently are accredited schools that group exclusively heterogeneously; there are schools that group academic core subjects homogeneously but group electives heterogeneously; there are schools that group heterogeneously at one grade level, e.g., in grade 9 academies or clusters, but move to a more homogeneous model in later grades. There are an unlimited number of grouping permutations being practiced by accredited member schools. Nevertheless, the Commission Standard does clearly encourage heterogeneous grouping as a method of ensuring high standards for all students and equal opportunity for all students to be engaged in a rigorous curriculum.

Do the Standards require that schools have advisor/advisee programs?

The Standards state (in Indicator #9 of the 2005 Standard on Leadership and Organization):
There shall be a formal, ongoing program through which each student has an adult
member of the school community in addition to the school guidance counselor who
personalizes each student’s educational experience, knows the student well, and assists
the student in achieving the school-wide expectations for student learning.

The Standards do not mandate a particular model for ensuring the personalization of a student’s educational experience. Schools do not have to have an advisor-advisee program. However, they must develop and employ strategies to ensure that all students are well known by an adult member of the school community. This emphasis on personalization is a theme that runs throughout the standards. There are a number of accredited schools that have formal advisor/advisee programs. Additionally, some schools provide the required personalization through a teaming model either through career academies or clusters. Some schools have developed smaller learning communities (SLCs) that provide a built-in structure for personalization. Some schools provide structured time for small group meetings between staff members and groups of students. Member schools have been creative in trying to meet the goal of personalizing the educational process for their students and ensuring that all students are known well.

Just who constitutes the Commission?

The Commission is comprised of 26 members:

  • 18 high school administrators, three from each of the six New England states
  • 2 middle-high administrators elected at-large
  • 3 central office administrators, each member representing a specific state as determined on a rotating basis with each state represented in alphabetical order for a period of six years
  • 1 non-administrator from a member school
  • 1 public member who is from a district which has at least one member school and who is currently not an employee of an educational system
  • 1 at-large educator

Members may serve a maximum of two consecutive three-year terms. The chairperson is elected by Commission membership for a two-year term. Commission members are nominated by member school principals and may self-nominate. A Nominating Subcommittee of the Commission brings nominations forward for vote by the entire Commission. Any openings on the Commission are made public and announced to the member schools.

Who makes the decision on the school’s accreditation status?

The entire Commission votes on the accreditation status for every school. The 26-member Commission is primarily made up of principals but includes superintendents, one at-large educator, one non-administrator from a member school, and one public member, all of whom are drawn as proportionately as possible from the six New England states. Prior to the vote of the Commission, each school’s report would have been read and discussed by a subcommittee of 5-6 Commission members. The Commission staff member assigned to the school and the Commission Director would also have read the school’s report and provided input. The decision on accreditation or accreditation with warning status is made within that subcommittee of 5-6 and then is endorsed by a vote of the full Commission. Schools requesting postponements, requiring a Commission-directed visit, being recommended to be placed on or off probation, or being recommended for termination are discussed at length by the entire 26 member Commission following a preliminary discussion in one of the Commission subcommittees. Although Commission staff members participate in discussions, the final recommended actions are framed and voted upon by the twenty-six members of the Commission. Commission staff members do not vote.

Who identifies the commendations and recommendations in the notification letters?

In the case of schools being reviewed directly following their decennial visit, the vast majority of the highlighted recommendations, those specifically mentioned in the letters, are identified by the chair of the visiting committee based on input from the visiting committee members. The individual Commission member who is assigned to follow the school through the decennial process may propose other highlighted recommendations, as may the other members of the 5-6 member subcommittee of the Commission that reviews the decennial report. Commission staff members may suggest additional commendations and recommendations as well.

In the case of notification letters coming from Special, Two-Year, and Five-Year Reports, the commendations and recommendations are identified by the Commission member assigned to follow the school through the decennial process with input from the other members of the 5-6 member subcommittee of the Commission. Commission staff members may add additional commendations and recommendations. In some letters, particularly those following Five-Year Progress Reports, a small number of boilerplate recommendations are included.

If accreditation is unique for all schools, why are some recommendations in notification letters the same for some schools?

It is important to know that of the sum total of recommendations to which a school may be asked to respond over the decennial cycle (decennial visit, Two-Year Progress Report, Five-Year Progress Report, and any requested Special Progress Reports) the vast majority would consist of recommendations specific to that school’s strengths and needs.
There are some recommendations that appear automatically in some notification letters, particularly in those letters sent to schools following the Five-Year Progress Report. Those common recommendations tend to be formative and are intended to guide schools to a course of action that will provide for a smooth transition in adapting to the new Standards by which the school will be judged for the first time as it enters the new decennial cycle.

Additionally, some recommendations quote almost verbatim from one or more of the indicators. Two schools that happen to be experiencing some difficulty in adhering to the same Standard may find that they share some commonly worded recommendations; however, in those cases, the recommendations are the same because they are responsive to difficulties with a given Standard that are the same in those particular schools. In all cases, however, each school responds in a fashion that best suits their own needs.

Are more schools on warning or probation as a result of the 2000/2005 Standards and visit protocol?

At any given time approximately 100/110 schools are on warning out of a membership of approximately 655 schools. That number has not changed substantially since the adoption of the new Standards. Similarly, at any given time 20/25 schools are on probation. The most common time that schools are placed on warning is coming off the decennial visit. What has changed since the adoption of the new Standards is the nature of the activities in which schools are engaged in response to the recommendations. The recommendations tend to be much more process oriented than was the case under the old Standards. Usually, barring some particularly intransigent problem dealing with facilities or finances, schools do work their way off warning status within a relatively short period of time in the years following the decennial visit. The list of schools on warning is in constant flux. “Warning” is not a public status; the Commission does not publish a list of schools on “Warning.” Schools on “Probation” can be found on this website. Schools that are on probation typically have problems that take a number of years and considerable resources to resolve.

Where can I go for help if I don’t understand something in the Standards?

Each school is assigned to one of the four Commission staff members, the Director, the Deputy Director, and two Associate Directors. The assigned staff member can respond to any and all questions. They often visit with schools experiencing difficulty and are usually available by telephone, e-mail, and FAX. If the assigned Commission staff member is not readily available, another staff member can usually provide a ready response.

The Explanation of the Standards is also a useful document in helping schools to work towards adherence to the Standards.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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