Making sense of the accreditation process

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by Richard Kassissieh, director of technology and innovative learning

You may have heard: Catlin Gabel will formally seek re-accreditation next fall. What is the school accreditation process, and what does it mean for Catlin Gabel?

Like other PNAIS* schools, Catlin Gabel renews its accreditation status every seven years. This winter, each department, division, and program in the school will contribute to a self-study report, summarizing key program aspects and identifying opportunities for improvement. We will validate the school’s mission and explain how we organize the program to embody the mission every day. We should emerge from this work with a more coherent sense of who we are and specific directions for the future.

Next fall, Catlin Gabel will host a visiting team of a dozen or more education professionals from the Northwest and across the country. They will spend three days on campus, observing classes and speaking with teachers, staff, parents, and students. The visiting team will write a report that responds to each section of the self-study, commends the school for exemplary practices, and recommends further study in specific areas that may need improvement. The visiting team will seek evidence that we are actually doing what we report in the self-study.

The accreditation process serves as valuable professional development for both the members of the visiting team and the faculty and staff of the school itself. I recently returned from a school accreditation visit in Seattle. I read a school’s thoughtful, 200-page self-study, visited classes, interviewed teachers, discussed observations, and co-wrote the visiting team report with 10 colleagues from different schools. Within three days, I had gained a pretty detailed understanding of the internal workings of another school. How else can one do that?

Certain school traits are nearly universal. High schools generally follow a liberal arts curriculum. The teacher-student relationship is highly valued. At the same time, no two schools are identical. Schools differ in the lengths of their terms, administrative positions, block schedules, academic departments, advisory structures, and so on. One school may consider athletics or community service their showcase program, while another emphasizes urban studies, outdoor programs, and global trips. Program execution is more important than structural configuration alone. Understanding many different schools helps one learn that there is no “one best system” (Tyack, http://www.amazon.com/One-Best-System-American-Education/dp/0674637828).

Accreditation also provides one of the few formal accountability measures of an independent school. Of course, independent schools are ultimately accountable to their families, who can express satisfaction or displeasure with their feet. A board of trustees also provides high-level accountability in the form of school governance. Accreditation is more comprehensive and direct in its observations than either of these. While no chance exists that a high-performing school like Catlin Gabel will lose its accreditation, the school welcomes the opportunity to formally present its program to an external body for review and reflect in a manner that will inform future decisions.

* PNAIS is the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools, a regional section of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).