by Henry G. Cram, Ed.D., President MSA-CESS
At the recent Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) meeting held in Boston, Peter Mott from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges offered a challenge in his presentation on the future of accreditation that will likely generate further discussion about the relevance and value of accreditation in the rapidly changing landscape of teaching, learning and learning environments. It inspired a conversation among several of the accrediting agencies during a meeting among the members of the Alliance (CIS,NAIS,NCPSA, NEASC,MSA and WASC) and I suspect it may have influenced Graham Ranger’s recent article in the Council for International Schools newsletter addressing a similar topic.
It also caused me and the associate staff at MSA to take stock of the innovations we have been implementing during the past decade and to measure those changes against both Mott’s and Ranger’s call to promote accreditation as a catalyst for change.
Since the elimination of the NSSE Sixth Edition, MSA has introduced and revised a number of protocols that have diminished accreditation’s focus on inspection and compliance and have instead embraced the idea that accreditation should encourage continuous school improvement. Beginning with the introduction of Accreditation for Growth in 1997 MSA has pursued a strategic planning accreditation model that has been revised on our almost 17 years of experience with basing accreditations more on the results schools are achieving in terms of student learning and performance, than an inspection of its inputs and organization. Today all three of MSA’s accreditation protocols for schools while differentiated to address the variance in preparedness among schools for innovation and transformation provide the framework for systemic change. As to the mechanics of the process MSA has for several years awarded accreditation terms of seven not 10 years having also experimented with five. Annual reviews maintained by the schools, mid-term reports submitted to MSA and a period of reflection combine to increase the probability that each successive accreditation cycle will end with the school having benefited from the accreditation process and better prepared to build on what the school has achieved and learned from the experience.
MSA teams consist typically of only five members. This has dramatically reduced the cost of the accreditation visit without sacrificing the quality of those visits or the integrity of the process. Team members come to a visit having thoroughly read the self-study so that during the visit a minimum amount of time is spent in reviewing documentation and the majority of the time is spent in observations, interviews and collaborating on producing the accreditation recommendation. Those team recommendations are vetted thoroughly by a staff review, a volunteer advisory committee and a subcommittee of the Commission to ensure the validity, reliability and consistency of those recommendations.
Our protocols are designed to acknowledge equivalencies as schools are encouraged to incorporate into the self-study and accreditation process systems of improvement and accountability that may already have in place. This eliminates redundancies for those schools awarded or in the process of obtaining certifications from other agencies or obligated to accountability systems imposed by outside agencies. Our mantra is that accreditation should not mean more work unless the school has not been doing what it should have been doing.
MSA accreditations focus on three simple questions; • What is the preferred future? • What is the current reality? • What will need to be changed to attain that preferred future?
The accreditation protocols available from MSA are designed to enable schools to engage in this type of discovery. What change does the school need to make in order to abandon the factory model imposed on educational institutions in the early 20th century? It asks for a profile of a graduate in terms of the things it believes its students will need to succeed in the 21st century and questions the singular purpose that many schools adopt as a “farm system” for colleges. As Peter Mott and Graham Ranger both recognize our current system of education is not so much failing as it is failing to meet the needs of a changing world and an unpredictable future. Accreditation can be a catalyst for the need to redesign how we view teaching, learning and the nature of the learning environment.
One of the nuances between long range planning represented by many accreditation protocols and strategic planning that has been placed at the heart of MSA’s protocols is that the former prepares for an inevitable future and the latter focuses on shaping the future by altering existing conditions and trends.
Any paradigmatic shift in how schools operate that encourages them to innovate versus simply improve will require differentiated processes best matched to each school’s readiness to accept that challenge. For this reason, MSA has three protocols, each designed to develop, nurture and eventually sustain a culture for change, provide the requisite skill sets necessary to plan for change and develop the capacity to implement systemic change. Our capstone protocol, currently being piloted and scheduled to be launched in the fall of 2014, called Sustaining Excellence, is an accreditation protocol based on action research which culminates in the sharing of the school’s research findings.
MSA has also been addressing the changing educational landscape and emerging learning environments. Our membership categories have been expanded beyond traditional schools. We currently have customized protocols for educational service providers (organizations that provide educational services and programs to schools but not directly to students), supplementary educational organizations (organizations that provide supplementary services directly to students), systems accreditation (for systems of schools) and expanded specific indicators of quality for on-line learning environments and early childhood providers.
MSA’s standards (revised for 2014) are still the most important part of the accreditation process in each of the protocols. Based on best practices and effective schools research, they serve as an assessment of a school’s readiness to embark on a course of improvement and innovation. The 12 Standards encompass the essentials in areas from governance and finance to educational program and student services and have been revised to include expanded indicators to reflect best practices in distance learning, technology resources, child protection, early childhood and faith-based education.
In adapting to the future MSA has introduced a series of credentials for schools with distinguished programs in the areas including 21st Century Skills, Visual Arts, Early Childhood Education, International Education, Music, Service Learning, School Counseling, World Languages and, being introduced this fall a credential for STEM Education. Recipients of the distinguished program credentials will be networked and serve as resources for schools seeking to improve or implement similar programs at their schools. Several of the credentials which are only three to five years old are being revised to maintain their currency and to reflect member interest.
MSA partners with more than 23 accrediting agencies to increase the availability of our protocols, credentials and services beyond our 2,700 members in more than 90 countries. Our collaboration with these agencies is designed to share best practices, to gain broader experience to inform our own ongoing improvement efforts and to fulfill our mission of promoting educational excellence and recognizing it where we find it. Our application for recognition of an existing accreditation is designed to facilitate co-accreditation for schools seeking MSA recognition during an existing term of accreditation granted by another recognized agency.
We applaud the interest of our fellow accrediting agencies in determining the future of accreditation and their abandonment of accreditation processes that simply prepare for it. We hope that in some small way MSA has successfully blazed a possible path for all of us to follow.
To learn more about MSA’s accreditation services visit www.msa-cess.org