The Case for Transformational Accreditation of Teacher Preparation Programs in “The Land of Steady Habits”

In this testimony I hope to motivate the Board to consider adoption of a continuous transformational model for the accreditation of colleges of education in Connecticut. 


Currently, the state uses an incremental approach that is sub-optimal in practice.

I speak with the authority of 32 years’ experience in K-12 and higher education, having survived five accreditations; two in New York and three in Connecticut. These entailed both state and NCATE processes. Connecticut, as you know, follows NCATE guidelines, and in my discipline, Instructional Technology, has even ratified the ISTE/NETS standards set endorsed by NCATE (though the latter are not yet enforced). I have served as a high school teacher, professor, departmental head, technology director at secondary and collegiate levels, and collegiate faculty president. That said, we turn to the argument at hand.

Incremental versus Transformational Accreditation

For clarification, the incremental approach to accreditation currently in practice entails a process of self-study and self-reporting, culminating in a site visit by a state designated committee charged to verify any claims put forth by the institution. Members of that committee may be called upon to make friendly visits to the academy in “sounding-board mode” in the months leading-up to their formal visit, whereupon they lapse into “review mode.” Site visits occur roughly once every five years and last about four days. A pro forma “follow-up” visit comes a year after the inevitable reward of reaccreditation.

In a transformational approach to accreditation, the review process would be continuous, vis-à-vis, not discrete. It would be akin to the AYP monitoring already underway in K-12 education, but more benevolent. Self-study cultures would be promoted more as a rhythm than a mandate.

The word “threat” is frankly more apropos than “mandate” as the principle motivation in the prevailing approach. It is telling that more faculty speak in terms of “losing accreditation” than upholding it—of being more reactive than proactive. One even likened it to a dissertation defense—smacking of a military response.

Perception versus Reality

One flaw that should immediately be apparent in the incremental approach is the gap in years between site visits. In the intervening epochs there is actually little impetus for change in schools of education. In today’s climate of over-work and under-compensation, the stereotype of the old professor with lecture notes on tattered yellowed paper is alive and well. Even textbooks are obsolete by the time they go to press.

This is partially attributable to the fact that most colleges of education are at Tier-2 institutions, where faculty research, if any, is pragmatic and rarely ground-breaking. Teacher educators are more consumers than producers of knowledge. They disseminate.

It should then come as no surprise that impending accreditation visits impose a heavy burden on us. There is often more concern over demonstrating compliance than effecting change. Tenured faculty, who are more apt to be in leadership roles, generally over-rule junior faculty. The latter have everything to lose in deliberations over what actually goes into the report, especially if their views, even if innovative, run contrarian to the prevailing order.

In an era of diminishing resources and declining enrollments, a “smoke and mirrors” approach prevails in institutional self-reporting—and I have heard that expression used a lot at different schools and states over the years. More revolves around what we have to say than do.

Even when change is mandated after a visit, the follow-up is tainted by the process and results in just another “smoke and mirrors” report done in-house. Perception matters more than reality.

The Policing Function

Much as the certification officer at each school of education monitors students’ preparedness for licensure and guides them in their accomplishment of that objective, a designated accreditation officer might monitor the institution’s compliance with state regulations for teacher preparation in a continuing change process. In effect, the policing of an institution’s functionality would be more distributed and integral at the operational level, rather than centralized, hierarchical and sporadic.

An ongoing policing role is necessary, as transgressions do occur in the allocation of resources, implementation of curriculum changes, and personnel actions, unbeknownst to the state. How are concerns to be arbitrated when the regulators appear at half-decade intervals?

The answer is that in extreme cases, faculty resort to litigation. In other sectors, labor attorneys routinely direct clients to the oversight divisions of industrial or trade regulatory agencies. In education labor law, the first recourse is the courts, as state boards of education are historically unresponsive to claimants.

In practice, policing cannot be done in house, as employees in this role would be colored by patronage. It cannot be networked across institutions in-state as they are competitors in the education market-space. I have witnessed this first-hand in the obligatory sharing-out of new program proposals for feedback by administrators of similar programs in-state. Ironically, they never strike us down, least we return the favor. So, the Board’s mandate for solicitations of this sort is pro forma in a Sartrean sense. Our adversaries are in effect our advocates in their passive inaction.  All administrators acknowledge this with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge when they issue new program announcements. It all harkens back to the pre-Horace Mann “Wild West” days of education.

Thus, the “accreditation officer” role would more aptly be handled as the point-person of a standards accrediting agency, outside the institution, such as CSAB in computer science, ABET in engineering or AACSM in business. Any program would be dead in the water were they to lose such accreditations. Engineering and Business departments know this, and use it as a scare tactic to leverage resources from their administrators. Education departments do not have this advantage, and are notoriously the poor step-children of universities. We can only hope that CAEP, resulting from the marriage of NCATE and TEAC, will inherit the historically transformational bent of the latter parent and thereby empower education.

The state’s incremental approach to accreditation is almost as ineffectual as the threat of a site visit by delegates of the NCTM, except that latter does not make site visits, and few truly understand the standards of their discipline.

To reiterate, what we need in ed schools is continuous oversight and recourse for corrective action from a non-affiliated school or government agency. That and a transformational approach to accreditation would better instigate change.

A final thought…

In my commute from Cambridge to New Haven, I see “The nutmeg state” emblazoned on signage when crossing the border into Connecticut. Up until 1951, our street sign slogan was “The land of steady habits.” Perhaps this is why the Regulations Concerning State Educator Certificates, Permits and Authorizations has remained un-ratified since 2010, and purports to go into effect on July 1, 2015. Is the steady habit of inaction at play? The title page of that document is shown on page 1.

We see the word “DRAFT” faintly watermarked on the cover and frankly, a number of ill-advised changes within. This is symptomatic of the Board’s need to move to a transformational model. “Draft-Regulations” is, after all, an oxymoron of sorts.

The software industry provides a good paradigm for you to consider. Several years ago Steve Jobs announced that Apple, the world’s most agile company, would move away from whole-number releases to fractional-number versioning of their products. This is the sort of transformational process we need in education, which doesn’t keep pace with the rate of change in technology, but ought to.

May I suggest a task force to address these issues?

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