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Another Failure for California Schools, Where ‘A’ Stands for Easy Accreditation

<i> Ruth Mitchell is the assistant executive director of the Center for Academic Interinstitutional Programs at the UCLA Graduate School of Education. </i>

Accreditation--a report card on the performance of a school in California--is the business of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges (WASC). The given purposes of accreditation are to foster excellence, encourage school improvement and assure the public that the school deserves its confidence as an educational institution.

But the WASC process has been suffering severe grade inflation during the six years I have taken part in the process. Rather than participate again, I have decided to work for a new model of school evaluation.

The WASC process includes a self-study by the school, a visit by a WASC-selected committee, and the issuing of a term of accreditation, on the visiting committee’s recommendation. Schools--private schools at all levels, public schools usually at the secondary level--pay an annual fee to WASC for its services. On a regular cycle--usually six years, but seven years for the high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and even 10 years for some school districts--WASC-member schools are accredited.

Beginning in the fall, the staff of a school undergoing accreditation evaluates programs and services according to the school’s own goals and objectives. The visiting committee, appointed by the WASC office in Burlingame, Calif., consists of a chairperson, usually a principal or superintendent, and from four to six other members who may be administrators, teachers, counselors, students, school board members, university faculty or administrators and State Department of Education staff.

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The following spring, the WASC visiting team spends four days observing the school and preparing its written report. Members collectively write and edit a series of commendations and recommendations--commendations are pats on the back, recommendations is the polite term for criticisms.

But they are never direct. The rules of the game direct the visiting team to point to the problem and leave it to the school to work out a solution. So the recommendations read like this: “The committee recommends that the administration and the department examine course offerings so that beneficial learning experiences are provided for the average and special-needs students.”

The report is read to school personnel at the end of the final day of the visit. Before the reading of the report, the team will have voted on an accreditation term--the full six or seven years, three years, one or two years--or none.

While statistics make only too clear how poorly many schools are doing, WASC is unlikely to remove accreditation or even give reduced terms unless things are dramatically wrong--if administrators, say, have gambled away school funds in Las Vegas. A random sample of a dozen schools in the low-performing category throughout the state turned up only one that had even a reduced accreditation term--and that was restored after six months.

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Full accreditation should be a reward for a school that is doing well. It should be rare to receive a full term, not the norm. Our schools aren’t doing well enough to get passing grades routinely. I have no desire to punish schools or make their hard job harder, but less than full accreditation is a potent message that commands attention and produces action.

Last year saw a second wave of public reports on the failing state of education in California, from the Business Round Table, the Assn. of California School Administrators and the Achievement Council. What they all say is that education is not doing the job needed for California to maintain its economic and technological pre-eminence, especially with our new majority of what used to be called “minority” students.

With WASC’s indirect procedures, a school’s problems can’t be openly identified. On the theory that the visiting accreditation committee is only verifying the results of the school’s self-study, egregious statistics seem to be either ignored or skirted if the school itself didn’t focus on them. I once visited a school where the 12th-grade class at the beginning of the school year was only half as large as the 9th-grade class.

Here was an alarming problem. This school was turning off or not serving almost half of its students. But the WASC committee would not draw attention to it. A superintendent on the committee declined to join in recommending a reduced term of accreditation: “I’m not here to deal with the problems of this district,” she said.

The rule that the visiting committee can only point to problems, not propose solutions, cuts off peer communication--a potent source of school improvement. On a WASC visit, committee members who deal with professional personnel development, as I do, can’t mention such programs to the school being visited.

Because the accreditation team is at the school almost a week, visiting members tend to be administrators; it’s hard for teachers to be away that long. Some teams include no teachers at all, or only part-timers. Such composition tends to shift committee focus away from curriculum and instruction. For many members, schools don’t seem to be primarily academic institutions, but rather athletic clubs or social-welfare facilities.

Chairpersons of the visiting committees are obsessed with formalism. Rather than focus on the content of commendations and recommendations, they concentrate on the WASC-correct form. I’ve had chairpersons hand out lists of WASC-approved verbs to put after the phrase “the committee recommends that the department . . . ": examine, investigate, consider, seek, explore ways to do whatever it is. When the lists of commendations and recommendations are complete, chairpersons tend to count them and ask for adjustments if it appears that we’re being too hard on this or that department.

I have served under six white male chairmen. They can be embarrassing: One never pronounced correctly the name of the Latino school principal throughout the entire visit; another did not know that Los Angeles senior high schools are administratively a separate region, although we were visiting a Los Angeles Unified school; another kept school personnel waiting 20 minutes in the cafeteria for the report reading.

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Perhaps most crippling of all is the horse-trading between the school and the visiting committee. Team members are aware that the principal they criticize this week could be visiting their own schools next year--or even next month. It is only human nature not to expose yourself to vengeance, no matter what may be happening to students.

The current accreditation process should be replaced by an objective evaluation using published standards. We now know that there are successful strategies to ensure equal access to knowledge for all our students. These strategies include an integrated English and language arts curriculum, using literature as a base and writing as a tool; heterogeneous classrooms with teachers trained to coach students rather than lecture to them; a common core of knowledge including math and science for all students; sheltered English for students in transition to command of the language; an emphasis on concepts and processes, not facts, and a sense of exploration (more questions than answers) shared by both teachers and students.

The sensible answer is to design a checklist for the quantity and quality of such strategies in a school, in addition to the other information collected by the State Department of Education in its annual performance report. On the basis of this information and with expert guidance, the school could devise an improvement package for itself.

As things now stand, schools have no incentive to improve when they can get an easy “A” from the WASC.


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