Tony Gurr

ACCREDITATION for Dummies…

In Quality & Institutional Effectiveness on 07/06/2011 at 9:55 pm

For many educators the notion of accreditation remains somewhat “alien” to their everyday lives and the way they “do business” with their learners. This is despite the fact that nearly every university, college and school these days is looking to become accredited in one form or another.

This is especially true in Turkey – although accreditation has been around for years, it is only recently that more and more institutions have started to take it more seriously.

Also, accreditation agencies have suddenly started to take a keen interest in Turkey!

One critical problem is that many universities, colleges and schools have jumped on the “accreditation band wagon” without really helping teachers and educators understand what the fuss is all about and why they need to take the “accreditation route” more seriously, too.

Also, when teachers try to find out more about accreditation most of the literature and websites explaining just what the fuss is are put out by accreditation bodies and agencies themselves – and sometimes it just seems “too good to be true”. I have always loved the “healthy scepticism” that most teachers exhibit – doubt is good, questioning is better. 

It was because of this that we decided to run this “Dummies Guide” – at the risk of being sued by the lawyers at Wiley Publishing Inc. Actually, this would probably be a good title for them to think about…I’d buy it!

This one is essentially a more factual “background” post – for starters.

Then, we’ll follow up with more “personal account” of what it’s like to go through an actual accreditation process in Turkey (in our interview series “Çay ve Simit”).

After that, we’ll wrap things up by taking take a more critical look at the broader issues that relate to accreditation and quality in education – and see if we are getting it “right” or not.

Where did the idea of accreditation come from?

Like most things related to “quality” in education – accreditation was “born” in the world of business, manufacturing and engineering – probably one of the reasons why so many educators put on their “doubting Thomas hats” as soon as they hear this.

Accreditation essentially grew out of the concern for “quality control” in factories and manufacturing plants interested in developing processes designed to promote greater standardisation of the products being manufactured. These organisations also wanted to cut costs by reducing the number of defective products through attention to quality assurance mechanisms and also secure wider confidence in their products in newer and overseas markets.

The logic was, and still is, that if you have a “quality product” you can reach more customers and sell more – nothing wrong with that!

It is this “badge of approval” understanding that has led to the word accreditation being seen as synonymous with many other terms – quality, excellence, confidence, standards, effectiveness, certification, recognition, competence, assessment, audit, standardisation, benchmarking, verification, measurement, evidence, and documentation.

 

What exactly does accreditation mean?

As we noted above, in the worlds of manufacturing and engineering accreditation came to mean recognition, acceptance and official approval.

It is this understanding that highlights the fact that accreditation is a “status” (“being recognised”) – but it is also a “process” (how a product, a person or an organisation “becomes recognised”).

In order for the “status” to be conferred to an organisation, there are three core requirements that must be present: 

  • a set of specific criteria, requirements or standards.
  • a “trusted” and “professional” authoritative body or agency able to provide external verification that an organisation meets or exceeds these criteria and standards.
  • a formal system designed to assess or evaluate an organisation according to the accepted criteria and standards.

It is this formal evaluative or assessment system that constitutes the “process” and, upon successful completion of the process, an organisation agrees to uphold the quality standards set by the accreditation body or agency and also submit to any periodic accreditation renewal review.

It is for these reasons that accreditation is most often defined as a form of external quality review” or “external scrutiny of quality assurance”.

However, it is also important to note that accreditation is not only used to confer status or evidence quality or excellence through evaluative processes – it has also been used to improve or enhance levels of quality in many different contexts. Perhaps, the best-known (for educators) of these initiatives involved the creation of the American Medical Association (AMA) in the early 1900s – and its mandate to judge medical schools across the states and ensure that all such institutions operated in line with the Harvard and Hopkins “standards”.

What about education?

Many of the above points remain true of accreditation within schools, colleges and universities.

For example, the US Commission on Secondary Schools (CSS-MSA) notes:

Accreditation is the affirmation that a school provides a quality of education that the community has a right to expect and the education world endorses. Accreditation is a means of showing confidence in a school’s performance.

According to Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA):

Accreditation is a process of external quality review used by higher education to scrutinize colleges, universities and higher education programs for quality assurance and quality improvement.

The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA), a specialized English language programme accrediting agency in the US, defines accreditation as:

…a process by which experts in a particular field determine common standards and choose to regulate themselves according to those standards. In order to become accredited, especially in the field of education, a program or institution participates in a voluntary process of peer review, designed to improve and assure the quality of the program or institution.

All three of these definitions highlight the emphasis on both “status” and “process” involved in an expert, external review. Accreditation bodies that use these approaches frequently list their benefits as the best way “prove” levels of quality, demonstrate public accountability and cultivate a positive image for the organisation – in addition to being an effective means to foster wider stakeholder involvement.

Furthermore, accreditation bodies in education frequently highlight the learning and “quality improvement” dimensions of accreditation:

The advantages of these are self-evident for educational institutions and accreditation bodies note that the very process of accreditation also supports wider strategic or improvement planning and has a positive impact on staff learning and school-wide change initiatives.

 

What sort of standards do accreditation bodies in education use? 

As we noted earlier, no accreditation process can exist without a range of specific criteria, requirements or standards – indeed, the standards used by an accreditation body form the basis of almost all accreditation activity within these bodies or agencies.

Most accreditation bodies stress the fact that their standards reflect current (best) practice in education and findings from cutting-edge educational research. All major accreditation bodies also engage in a continuous cycle of review and improvement of these standards on an on-going basis.

Although no two educational accreditation bodies use exactly the same standards (and this can be a little frustrating for many educators wanting to learn more or compare accreditation bodies) the vast majority focus in on some very similar areas or themes:

  • Philosophy, Mission & Purpose
  • Governance & Leadership
  • Organisational Culture & School Climate
  • Regulatory Compliance & Institutional Integrity
  • Policy Framework & Strategic Planning
  • Systems Development & Management 
  • Curriculum & Assessment
  • Educational Programmes, Offerings & Services
  • Student Engagement, Success and Achievement
  • Student Services, Welfare & Guidance
  • Student Tracking – Recruitment, Promotion & Advancement 
  • Health, Safety & Security
  • Premises, Facilities, Equipment & Supplies
  • Resource Management & Development
  • Information Resources & Technology
  • Finance & Fiscal Capacity 
  • Stakeholder Focus & Engagement
  • Staffing (including Specialist Staff) & HR Management
  • Administration & Management
  • Workforce Development, Capacity & Engagement 
  • Quality Systems & Performance Improvement Planning
  • Institutional Results & Effectiveness
  • Measurement, Analysis & Knowledge Management

When a school, college or university applies for “institutional accreditation” (across the entire organisation) the evaluative process or assessment will cover all of the standards used by the accreditation body. However, an institution may seek to accredit only a programme, a department or school (“specialised accreditation”) and a smaller subset of these standards are used.

Normally an accreditation body will have around 8-10 areas or “themes” for their standards but under each theme there may well be a large number of standards. For example, CEA uses a set of 10 core themes – one of which is “Administrative and Fiscal Capacity”. Under this theme, there are 12 additional standards that are expressed alongside a performance indicator, such as:

Administrative and Fiscal Capacity Standard 9:
Financial, student, personnel, program, governmental, and contractual records are maintained and kept current, accessible, complete, accurate and, when appropriate, secure. Reporting is done ethically and in compliance with the law. 

Administrative and Fiscal Capacity Standard 10:
Contracts are in compliance with the law and in keeping with policies of the larger institution, where applicable. Contracts are drafted with appropriate guidance, undergo appropriate review, and are authorized by the appropriate individual(s). 

 

What are the main stages of an accreditation process?

When an organisation decides to initiate an accreditation process with a given body or agency, they are usually asked to make an “initial application” and meet basic eligibility requirements. This phase of the process is often something of a formality but some accreditation bodies can ask an organisation to host a preliminary visit and/or attend a briefing / training session before the application is accepted.

In essence, however, actual accreditation processes today are made up of three steps:

This summary outline of the “typical process” is a bit deceptive  – the whole process requires considerable preparation and even more blood, sweat and tears than many organisations anticipate.

The first of these steps, the Internal “Review”, is frequently the phase that most organisations regard as the most valuable component of the wider process. This is because it involves really getting to know the standards, identifying people / information / processes that can address the issues behind the standards and analysing both the “strengths” and “soft spots” in the way the organisation “does business”. Indeed, if done properly this phase of institutional reflection and self-evaluation is the one that helps organisations “see” themselves, identify what is it that makes them “excellent” and prepares the groundwork for much of their future improvement planning.

This work is then used to prepare the accreditation submission or Self-Evaluation Report – frequently organised around the standards used by the accreditation body (many bodies provide templates for this exact purpose), and supported with meaningful documentary evidence that shows an organisation is either “walking-its-talk” or “means business” in tackling its “soft spots” and areas of concern. This phase is typically not as much fun but it is critical in preparing for the final phase – the “Site Visit and Audit”.

This final stage typically involves a visit from a team of peers and representatives of the accrediting body (although not always). The purpose of the visit is to verify the contents of the Self-Evaluation Report by reviewing documentation, interviewing staff and getting a hands-on “feel” of the organisation. Audit teams can raise questions that relate to the report and documentation, explore issues at a deeper level and request additional evidence (if required).

The Audit Team that conducts the visit then prepares a formal written report and makes a recommendation to accredit the organisation, give it “probationary status” (if applicable) or reject the application. This recommendation is usually reviewed by a “commission” or high-ranking team within the accreditation body and is either affirmed or rejected.

Hopefully, after all these stages and the work involved the organisation making the application will not get one of these:

But, if they do – most accreditation bodies have an appeal process in place for organisations that fail to get accredited (or are awarded “probationary” status).

The bad news is – these do not always overturn the original decision!

Well folks, in a nutshell – that’s it! It’s that simple – OK, maybe my “dummies guide” is a bit too simple. Time to see how it works in practice…

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