by Frank B. Murray
The logical requirements for an accreditor’s standards—that is, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the determination of program quality— are not currently being met. This is because the standards currently in place typically are vaguely worded principles. Yet, even when they are bright-line specific, they satisfy the requirements for only necessary, but not sufficient, conditions because the programs below these bright lines are still often of acknowledged high quality. It is not that principles masquerading as standards are a weakness in accreditation, but it is all that the field is honestly capable of formulating.
The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC, Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2008), for example, proposed the following statement as one of its “standards” for school administrators:
Standard 6: An education leader promotes the success of every student by understanding, responding to, and influencing the political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context. (p. 15) This admirable statement cannot be acted on and enforced by the accreditor until the field knows how much, or what kind of, promoting, understanding, responding, and influencing on the part of the school administrator is sufficient to satisfy this ISLLC requirement for accreditation and recognition.
This ISSLC “standard,” despite its wording, does not really require the candidate for the degree or administration certificate to actually have influenced “the political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context” or even to have “promoted the success of every student,” but only to have been prepared by the degree program to do so. Thus, it is really a standard about preparation, not accomplishment. It is also probably the case that the public would be more interested in whether all the school’s students were in fact successful than whether the school leader promoted, understood, responded, or influenced something that might lead to their success.
“Standards” as Principles
Like ISLLC, most accreditors actually write their “standards” as principles that require further definition and specification. Their true standards would be the usually unspecified operational definition of their principles. The states solve this problem for their curriculum principles/standards by mandating a standardized test for their abstractly worded curriculum “standards”; the test becomes the de facto true standard or operational definition of their curriculum standards.
What many standard-setters write as a standard is just the topic, feature, dimension, or attribute of what they value. The point at which no understanding of the subject matter becomes complete understanding of it is unspecified, despite vaguely worded stand-in rubrics for degrees of understanding. The standard, the acceptable level of understanding or point or bright line on the dimension or scale of understanding, that separates acceptable levels from unacceptable levels, is still needed.
However they parse the “standards” they enforce, accreditors’ overriding goal is to have standards that are both necessary and sufficient for quality. These would be standards that, if met, would be essential in the proof that the program or institution was of acceptable quality. The evidence an accreditor must have, however, to reach this ambitious goal requires two preconditions: (a) that there be no instances of low-quality programs that are above the accreditor’s standard, and (b) that there are no cases of high quality programs that are below the accreditor’s standard.
At the moment, the state of the art in accreditation permits the former, but not the latter. What we have are accreditation standards that may be necessary, but regrettably are clearly insufficient, for quality, owing to the fact that there are many examples of high-quality programs that fall below a typical accreditor’s standard of, say, staff compensation adequacy, classroom design, library size, range of student services, structure of institutional governance, faculty credentials, standardized admission cut scores, license test-score pass rates, program length, mode of delivery, and so forth. For this reason, most accreditors cannot enforce standards that prove high quality; at best they have standards that are merely consistent and correlated with high quality. While they can often satisfy the conditions for showing that their standards are necessary for high quality, they invariably fail to find the evidence needed for showing their standards are sufficient for high quality and proof positive of high quality.
“Standards” as Assessment of Quality
This is an enormous obstacle to accreditors because their overriding and paramount obligation is to use their standards to make an accurate assessment of quality. To complicate the matter further, while most accreditation principles are universal, such as graduates should understand their major subjects, the accuracy of accreditors’ assessments of their principles inevitably means that the programs must give their own interpretations of the meaning of the accreditation principles that match more closely the true quality of the program as it was tailored and shaped by a program’s unique characteristics, mission, educational goals, and stance on what constituted quality. An accurate assessment of quality requires the accreditor to understand the program’s interpretations of the principles and the operational definition or the evidence the program possessed that support them. These are the claims of quality the program is willing to make publicly about its quality.
For example, Standard #4 of the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC, CCSSO, 2011) standards requires that:
The teacher understands the central concepts, tools of inquiry, and structures of the discipline(s) he or she teaches and creates learning experiences that make these aspects of the discipline accessible and meaningful for learners to assure mastery of the content. (p. 13)
Apart from the fact that there are two distinct ideas in this standard and that a teacher candidate could excel on one (understanding the central concepts, etc.) and be weak on the other (creating learning experiences, etc.), the standard is open to different interpretations of the “central concepts.” The University of Chicago, for example, has two integrated science survey courses—one with the central concept of “evolution” and the other with “orders of magnitude” as the central concept—each one providing a framework for all the natural sciences. Other institutions have “the divine plan” as the central explanatory concept for the natural sciences. The central concept of history has been construed as a simple “chronology,” the “recreation of the past,” “the structure of the past,” “an explanation of the past,” or “a predictor of or guide for the future,” and so on. Obviously, the evidence that can be cited in support of InTASC Standard #4 entails the program’s interpretation and stance on what the central concepts are of the many possible central concepts that are promoted by scholars of the discipline.
“Standards” Supported by Evidence
The accreditor’s verification that the particular interpretation of the standards and principles was supported by the evidence gives the public and prospective students a more accurate and complete account of the program’s quality than if that account were simply given in terms of a single definition and standardized metric of the universal accreditation principles themselves. The public would know more than that a teacher education program’s graduates, for example, could teach caringly and effectively, an obvious universal principle, if they also knew that the graduates sought social justice for their pupils, or aspired to be public intellectuals, or adhered to a set of religious, professional, or political tenets, or were just focused on test scores on one of the two common core assessments.
Along the same lines, they would know more than that the graduates knew pedagogy, another universal principle of quality teacher education, if they knew also that the graduates had constructivist, progressive, Montessori, maieutic, developmental, competency-based, or behavior modification orientations in their teaching. Thus, the accreditor’s obligation to fully inform the public about the program’s quality is better served and more accurate when the programs have the freedom to make their own claims about their true quality and have the accreditor verify the program’s evidence for the claim and vouch for its truth.
This approach has the further benefit of giving the accreditor realistic and truly useful work to do, work that is solidly within the accreditor’s true range of competence. Educational quality, despite everyone’s assertion that they possess and know it, remains a highly contested and elusive entity that turns out to be well beyond the current expertise of the academy and most accreditors to conceptualize in a form that earns consensus. However, what is within most accreditor’s competence to determine is whether the program or institution’s claims about itself are trustworthy and verifiable.
Accreditation can at least provide third-party assurance that the promises and claims institutions and programs make about themselves to the public are true. Seeing accreditation standards as really about only the evidence for the accreditor’s principles and program’s claims may have a long-term strategic outcome of showing higher education’s value by bringing forward and developing persuasive evidence that graduates from accredited programs are competent and able to take their place as citizens and contributing members of the body politic.
Frank B. Murray is H. Rodney Sharp Professor at the University of Delaware, was dean of its College of Education, and was founding president of the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC). He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and the American Educational Research Association. He was invited to the KDP Laureate Chapter in 2009.
Council of Chief State School Officers. (2008). Educational leadership policy standards: ISLLC 2008 as adopted by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. Washington, DC: Author. Council of Chief State School Officers. (2011).
Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC) model core teaching standards: A resource for state dialogue. Washington, DC: Author.