Accreditation, Accountability, and Continuous Improvement
Accreditation, Accountability, and Continuous Improvement
By Laura Lefkowits
Accountability, as practiced these days under the No Child Left Behind Act and various state systems, purports to be about improvement. But we all know that improvement requires more than just measurement. The scale tells us that we need to lose weight – it doesn’t tell us how or even why we need to slim down. Without an analysis of our eating patterns, the amount of exercise we get, or even, the ways in which we might use food as an emotional crutch, the number on the scale is pretty meaningless. So too is the case with the results we get from annual standardized testing. The scores let us know if we’re hitting the mark or not and, under NCLB, we know which groups of kids are making it and which are not. This is useful information but insufficient when it comes to moving the line on the scale.
Although it has received much less attention than accountability, accreditation has become an important school and district improvement tool over the last decade. Accreditation is a voluntary method of quality assurance developed more than 100 years ago by American universities and secondary schools and designed primarily to distinguish schools adhering to a set of educational standards. In recent years, accreditation has been transformed from an exercise centered almost exclusively on inputs to a research-based process for the comprehensive evaluation of an institution's effectiveness.
Using a set of rigorous protocols, accreditation examines the whole institution—the programs, the cultural context, the community of stakeholders - along with student performance data to determine how well the parts work together to meet the needs of learners. The process is fully aligned with the goals of school improvement that challenge educators to commit to continuously push beyond the line of current competence, to frame and ask new and deeper questions, and to realize more than the completion of a management plan.
Accreditation is an enriching experience for participating institutions, because they benefit from the transformative power in the process. Indeed, it is not the outcome but, rather, the process of accreditation that yields the greatest return on investment for institutions. Honest self-evaluation of an institution’s vision, strategies, priorities, leadership, programs and resources against a set of standards and associated indicators is unparalleled in its ability to uncover and bring into sharp focus special challenges and opportunities that, when addressed, often lead to significant improvement.
As Congress works to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and as state leaders design and implement significantly enhanced systems of accountability, there is much that they can draw upon from strong accreditation processes to drive continuous improvement through next-generation accountability systems. This can be done through the unification or close alignment of both processes – accreditation and accountability – or through the incorporation of a number of the essential elements of accreditation.
Accreditation and Accountability
Today, there are a number of similarities between accreditation and accountability:
- Both systems have schools and local education agencies as their primary units of focus;
- Both require the development and implementation of plans meant to result in improvement;
- Both put a premium on transparency, accessibility, and use of information and data; and
- To boost effectiveness, both utilize some level of external monitoring of improvement plan implementation, particularly for those that are in the lowest tier(s) of performance.
For all of their similarities, however, key distinctions remain:
- In practice, accountability systems frequently put much more significant focus on school improvement than district improvement, often leaving district leaders out of the school improvement process altogether. Accreditation, when done right, treats schools and districts as core components of a system.
- School improvement team efforts tend to focus their reviews on the data that are used in making accountability determinations, without the benefit of a more comprehensive, objective, causal analysis. This causal analysis, known as diagnostic review, is the centerpiece of the best accreditation practices today.
- And more recently, accountability system investments have placed a primacy on intervening in the persistently lowest performing schools, whereas a high-quality diagnostic review as part of an accreditation process is a powerful tool when put to regular use in all schools and districts. When used correctly, diagnostic review can highlight problems early and lead to targeted interventions that may prevent the school from ever becoming low-performing.
Accreditation in Practice
AdvancED, the parent organization for multiple regional and international accrediting bodies, accredits over 30,000 schools and districts in 70 countries across the globe. A set of research-based standards, describing the conditions that are necessary for educational institutions to achieve quality student performance and organizational effectiveness, form the foundation of the accreditation process. The standards encompass purpose and direction, governance and leadership, teaching and assessing for learning, resources and support systems, and using results for continuous improvement. Accompanying indicators and performance levels for each standard describe practices and systematic methods of driving excellence in student performance and organizational effectiveness. The standards are systemic and address major themes across all of them such as continuous improvement, stakeholder involvement, alignment, and equity. No one standard or set of indicators and performance levels is complete without considering all as a collective whole.
As critical as the standards are to determining institutional effectiveness, beginning in 2012 these will no longer be the sole determinant of accreditation status. Student performance data, including (but not limited to) scores on state standardized exams, and stakeholder satisfaction data, based on student, teacher, and parent survey results, also will be taken into account. This more holistic approach helps to further align accreditation with accountability and places an appropriate emphasis on the importance of student outcomes when evaluating institutional quality.
All institutions participating in accreditation through AdvancED engage in the following process: