If I had a choice of vanity license plates, I might consider one that marked my recent experience as a volunteer on an educational accreditation team.
Educational accreditation is the “quality assurance process during which services and operations of schools are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met.”
I served as a volunteer on a panel for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), an agency that provides accreditation services – Pre-K through university for more than 2000 public and private institutions in the six state region. NEASC Panels are composed of experienced chairpersons and volunteer teachers, administrators, and support staff who visit schools according to a set schedule. According to its website:
In preparation for a NEASC evaluation, all member schools must undertake an exhaustive self-study involving the participation of faculty, administrators, staff, students, community members, and board members.
The key word here? Exhaustive.
Exhaustive in preparation for a NEASC visit. Exhaustive in being hosting a NEASC visit. Exhaustive in being a member of the NEASC team that visits.
But first, a little background. In order to serve as a volunteer, I had to leave several lessons on Hamlet, my favorite unit, with my substitute. So, when I understood the level of professional discretion required for a NEASC visit, I felt a curious connection to the Ghost, Hamlet’s father, who likewise abides by an oath. On the ramparts of Elsinore, he tells Hamlet:
But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,(1.5.749-752)
I may not say what school I visited nor may I discuss any part of the actual accreditation discussion by members of my team. So this post will speak only as a self reflection of the process and a few moments of recognition on how accreditation works.
List, list, O, list! (1.5.758)
Sunday morning at 9:30 AM, the team members were already hard at work organizing piles of documents prepared for our visit. We were organized into pairs, two members to work on each of the seven standards, 14 members of the team and two chairpeople.
There was a working lunch before the entire team went to the school for a prepared presentation. This presentation was the high school’s opportunity to quickly familiarize us with their school’s culture and present their strengths and needs that they had determined in the (exhaustive) self study.
Madam, how like you this play?(3.2.222)
Returning to our hotel, the lodgings provided by our hosting school, the work began in earnest. We looked through bins of student work to see if they met the standards set by NEASC. We looked at all forms of assessments, lesson plans, and student responses. We recorded our findings well into the night, and finally left the work room at 10 PM.
…to sleep;/To sleep: perchance to dream (3.1.65-66)
On both Monday and Tuesday, the team was up early to return to the school (7:00 AM), and the team split up individually or in groups to spend a school day conducting interviews with faculty, staff, and students. Facility tours, lunches shared with students in the cafeteria, and opportunities to “pop-into” classes were available. There simply was no “unobligated time” as we worked steadily in the work room at the school. Here we would record our findings before returning to the school hallways.
Were you not sent for? Is it
your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come,
deal justly (2.2.275-276)
Both Monday and Tuesday evening sessions were long as team members furiously documented their findings into a report that will still need editing and revision. We had worked from 6AM-10:30PM with time allotted for meals and one hour respite in order to call home or check on my own school’s e-mail. Closing my eyes, I thought how much,
My spirits grow dull, and fain I would beguile
The tedious day with sleep. (3.2.226-227)
An early Wednesday morning work session let us polish the report and present our final conclusions to other members of the team. Finally, the votes as to whether the team would recommend accreditation or not to the school were tallied, and we marched into the school library to meet the faculty and staff a final time. We were leaving a report for them to:
suit the action to the word, the word
to the action; (3.2.17-18)
The chair gave a short speech indicating the tone but not the contents of our report, and then, according to protocol, we left as team, not speaking to anyone from the school, nor to each other. Staying silent, I thought
Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty. (1.2.39)
The experience provided me with insights into the strengths and weaknesses in the educational program of my own school, and I am eager to share ways that can improve instruction with my fellow faculty members. Our school is scheduled for a visit in the spring of 2014 by a NEASC accreditation team.
As professional development, the experience was positive but physically demanding and intellectually challenging. The chairs’ use of technology (Google docs, Livebinders, Linot) allowed for efficient sharing of information on seven standards: Core Values and Beliefs, Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment, School Culture and Leadership, School Resources, and Community Resources. Awash in papers and digital materials for 16 hours a day, I wondered how any previous teams using only hard copies had collaborated successfully.
Additionally, as I looked at the various standards of instruction, I also found myself wondering about the consequences of implementing Common Core Standards (CCSS) and the growing reliance on standardized testing in evaluating teachers and assessing student understanding. Will the current form of regional accreditation adjust to measurements that will be implemented nationally? The United States is broken into five regional accreditation districts, however, if students meet the national standards, how will these regional accreditation panels be used?
Finally, our four day “snap shot” coupled with a the school’s own exhaustive self-study could not address all of the arbitrary elements out of a school’s control, but the process is far more informative and meaningful than any standardized test results that could be offered by the CCSS. Consider also that the financing of a school seriously impacts, for good or for ill, all standards of measuring a school’s success. The intangible “culture” surrounding a school and the fluid landscape of 21st Century’s technology are other arbitrary factors that impact all standards. We even encountered a “snow-delayed” opening as if to remind us that a capricious Mother Nature refuses to allow for standardized measurement!
I only hope that my experience in informing another school in order to improve their educational program will prove beneficial. I know that when the team comes in the spring of 2014, that that they will do as I have tried to do:
report me and my cause aright…(5.2.339)
The rest I now need requires silence.