Scrutinize the accreditors

Losing accreditation was something that the UAA School of Education did not expect. As far as UAA officials were aware, most indications pointed towards a breezy renewal of the school’s credentials by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. But CAEP slammed the hammer down hard, and without any warning. UAA was notified about the revocation just as the spring semester was starting. No probationary notice was given. The School of Education fell off its pedestal without so much as a wobble.

The reactionary firestorm is already in full swing, and for good reason. This is a disaster for students in that program. Some small Band-Aids have been presented. Students slated to graduate this spring and summer will still be eligible for teacher licensure, but their records will be from an unaccredited program. Students who aren’t able to graduate that soon will probably need to transfer elsewhere.

UAA is not blameless here. Many are asking how the School of Education failed to identify the red flags that CAEP apparently found. Other writers have rightly criticized the university’s handling of the fallout. But there is another angle that deserves scrutiny in this: the accrediting agencies themselves. These fearsome leviathans scour the country and render verdicts in favor of or against universities. Such decisions can make or break entire institutions, since federal financial aid is tied to accreditation.

Of course, some kind of regime is necessary to hold universities up to a standard and discredit those snake-oil colleges that promise worthless degrees to indebted students. So this article isn’t arguing to abolish accreditors like CAEP. Rather, this is to argue that their operations are imperfect and their judgments are punitive upon the same students that they wish to help.

For example, CAEP has a policy of only granting probation if the reviewee has failed one of five standards. Any more and an immediate revocation is imposed. This policy does not serve in the best interest of any student. A sudden judgment at the start of a spring semester does not allow for “continuous improvement” as CAEP’s mission statement claims. It only guarantees a nightmare for students and faculty in the School of Education. Is CAEP fully cognizant of the impact that its judgment had? A senior-year student who went through four years of accredited semesters only to have their final semester unaccredited might say no.

A probationary period would allow universities to correct errors. It would also give students more time to think about their options. They could transfer, change degrees, ride it out, graduate sooner or drop out, depending on what is possible and practical for their individual circumstances. Instead, CAEP’s sucker-punch means that everyone has to scramble to figure that out now. Given that many education students are also doing practicum and internship courses at the same time, you can imagine how stressful this is for them.

CAEP is just a dime a dozen though. There are many other programmatic and national accreditors that have serious flaws in how they operate. One criticism is that they tend to over-evaluate data inputs that aren’t always meaningful benchmarks for student success. An article in the Wall Street Journal notes that major accreditors are highly concerned with trivial things like the number of books in a university’s library.

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When accreditors over-emphasize data inputs, they often fail to recognize how difficult data accumulation can be. CAEP’s action report on the UAA School of Education cites insufficient or inconsistent data in several subjects. They are referring to the evidence that UAA compiled and submitted to CAEP. This means that the revoking of accreditation does not necessarily imply that UAA is producing unqualified teachers. Rather, it indicates that UAA failed to accumulate and organize data in a satisfactory manner. According to CAEP’s standards, UAA would have to submit enough evidence to prove that its graduates had a positive impact on their classrooms. That’s a hefty requirement for UAA to prove since many other factors contribute to classroom effectiveness besides the quality of UAA-alumni teachers. A change in public education funding is one example.

Pointing fingers is only productive insofar as knowing where to demand reform. Other voices at UAA are absolutely justified to hold administrators accountable for this mess. But we shouldn’t just assume that accreditors are infallible. We ought to scrutinize them whenever necessary. After all, who watches the watchmen?