Once Status Symbol For Schools, Accreditation Becomes Rote Drill

Principals liken accreditation visits to a doctor’s appointment – a regular check-up that causes immense anxiety. The six regional associations that have been granting approval to public schools since the late 19th century hold significant sway over local educators, but their assessments often amount to little more than a basic inventory. Originally established by scholars to ensure schools employed competent teachers and maintained hygienic facilities, accreditation was once a coveted status symbol. However, now it has become an inclusive club that almost any school can join. It is estimated that approximately 19,000 public high schools (95% of the nation’s total) and one-sixth of elementary and middle schools are accredited by these associations. Despite this local influence, policymakers and reformers advocating for enhanced academic standards, new testing policies, and visible school improvement tend to overlook these accrediting agencies. Furthermore, the agencies themselves are ultimately governed and monitored by the very school officials they evaluate. Schools pay fees that contribute to staff salaries, educators serve on the boards of directors, and local administrators act as accreditors for neighboring schools. Susan Fuhrman, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania, expressed a desire to have a greater impact on teaching and learning, criticizing the superficial nature of the assessments conducted by accrediting agencies. She questions the importance of being able to claim that a school has undergone the accreditation process.

The associations originally started out as discerning critics. In the 1890s, college professors convened in New England to conceptualize the fundamental aspects of public education. Meanwhile, the burgeoning railroad industry was standardizing rail bolts, and inventors were patenting revolutionary medical equipment. Founders of these associations, including Woodrow Wilson, a professor at Princeton University, were simultaneously shaping the framework of public schools by establishing grade levels, curriculum guidelines, credit systems, and minimum hours for core subjects. However, after laying this groundwork, the associations transformed into custodians of the education system. They monitored the little red schoolhouses spread out across the United States and also provided certification for colleges and private schools. More recently, they were enlisted by federal officials to accredit schools on military bases around the world. As their influence expanded, their leaders started prioritizing a minimal checklist of equipment and policies over the quality of education. Additionally, state officials began encroaching on the associations’ responsibilities after the publication of "A Nation at Risk" in 1983. This influential report, which painted a bleak picture of underperforming schools, prompted many states to establish higher standards and send their own evaluators to assess schools’ progress. Consequently, the associations’ clout diminished as states assumed more control over setting standards. Moreover, private groups in certain states, such as New Jersey and California, launched their own monitoring programs in the past decade. Progressive school leaders argue that there needs to be an alternative method of evaluating performance and providing an analysis of school success.

The review process conducted by accrediting agencies is comprehensive and thorough.

Being closely examined can be intimidating, according to Mr. Leatham from Ogden High. However, periodic scrutiny, which typically occurs every five to 10 years during on-site reviews, is essential for instilling confidence in parents and ensuring that colleges value a school’s work. Mr. Leatham stated that without the approval of accrediting bodies, school enrollment would decline because there would be no incentive for students to attend an unaccredited school if they plan on attending college.

Tight-Knit Communities

For the most part, school administrators do not have to worry about maintaining accreditation, apart from organizing their files and equipment. Over the past few decades, almost every high school in the country has been a part of one of the six associations. Once schools pass the initial accreditation test, membership is almost permanent. According to John A. Stoops, the former president of the International Council of School Accrediting Commissions, which oversees the regional groups, less than 3 percent of schools under review lose their certification each year. The association’s executive board must first place a school on probation. Schools are typically given several years to address and resolve their problems unless the situation is severe, such as hazardous facilities, uncertified teachers, or lack of library books. Only a majority vote from a committee of their peers from the region can expel a school. Agency officials are mindful of the severe consequences that revoking accreditation would have. David Steadman, the executive director of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, stated that jeopardizing the college plans of 1,500 students by revoking a school’s accreditation is not an option.

Moreover, these accrediting groups are closely connected organizations. Member schools contribute annual fees ranging from $300 to $1,000 to their respective associations, which, along with fees from colleges, comprise the majority of the associations’ budgets. Accreditation board members often consist of local school officials. Observers suggest that many association leaders are hesitant to revoke accreditation because they see their role as providing a service to their clients. Consequently, school evaluation visits often feel like professional conferences. Schools typically cover the expenses of visiting accreditors, including hotels, meals, and travel. In many cases, school administrators claim that accreditors arrive with a willingness to support them in advocating for new equipment or other resources they need from their central administration, rather than strictly acting as impartial auditors. Not surprisingly, most principals believe that their membership fees are worthwhile. Mr. Steadman, a former principal, emphasized that his association’s $325 annual dues are reasonable, costing less than a football uniform.

Mr. Lammel from the NASSP, however, doubts the collegial relationship between schools and accrediting bodies. He questions whether the visits are truly based on the school’s mission and improving learning or if they are driven by the desires of a few school administrators.

Raising Standards

However, some education experts argue that the associations’ cautious approach to revoking a school’s license to operate is appropriate. "Accrediting bodies ensure that schools have the necessary foundations to function effectively, and that’s important," stated Susan Rohan, an education specialist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency based in Gaithersburg, Md. Many individuals, both within and outside the accrediting groups, believe that they have the potential to complement national, state, and local efforts to enhance academic achievement. "The public is interested in documenting the effectiveness of schools rather than simply giving them a rubber stamp of approval," said Pamela Gray-Bennett, one of the directors of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. In New England, schools seeking accreditation are evaluated not only on what they possess but also on how they are striving to improve the quality of their students’ performance.

Bruce Anderson, a member of the executive board of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, expressed his concern about not wanting accreditation to become exclusive. He emphasized that the intention is not to create a sense of elitism. Nonetheless, if certain schools are unable to meet the required standards, then that should be accepted.


  • reubenyoung

    Reuben Young is a 39-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. He has been teaching in the United States for over 10 years, and has written extensively on educational topics. He is also a member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and has been honored with several awards.



Reuben Young is a 39-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. He has been teaching in the United States for over 10 years, and has written extensively on educational topics. He is also a member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and has been honored with several awards.

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