Harry Potter and the Accreditor’s Nightmare

Summer 2011

By Peter Gow

Somewhere in your school there is a child who will be half-waiting this summer, and perhaps every summer for as long as magic holds sway, for the Hogwarts admission letter he or she has dreamt of since first opening Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. One such child happens to be my son, now off at a college with a satisfyingly faux-medieval Hogwarts vibe; this probably wasn’t more than half of its appeal.

As a parent, however, I’m relieved that the letter hasn’t come. I love the Harry Potter books, the stories, the characters, and even the films. Hogwarts is a great setting, be-towered and be-tunneled as a crucible for J. K. Rowlings’ studies in good and evil. But as a school? Can’t buy it — and sure don’t want my kid there. The educator in me can’t quite get past the simple fact that Hogwarts is an appalling place. It just about kills me to say it — since I found the fifth book in the series almost unreadable because of her — but Dolores Umbridge may have been right: there is a strong case for closing Hogwarts down.

Some of you may be shrieking in Hogwarts’ defense, but if you’ve ever been part of an independent school accreditation team, or if you have ever beavered for months over your section of an accreditation self-study, the very idea of a Hogwarts peopled with actual children should send shivers down your spine. That parents, magical or otherwise, might willingly send students to such a place (even with free tuition) should strain your ability to suspend disbelief. It is hard to imagine that any appointed body, short of the demonstrably incompetent Ministry of Magic, could ever unquestioningly accredit Hogwarts. Furthermore, since the Ministry seems to be almost entirely staffed by Hogwarts graduates, the very notion of impartial approval is compromised by a mare’s nest of conflicts of interest. 

What, for example, is the Hogwarts mission? What manner of hiring program, background checks, or professional development program could give a school the likes of Gilderoy Lockhart, Sybill Trelawney, and Severus Snape? What kind of strategic planning has Hogwarts done? I love Albus Dumbledore, but is it healthy for a school head to attend more to his own purposes and schemes, no matter how worthy, than to those of the school? Is the house system at Hogwarts conducive to safe, healthy living and growth for all students? While the Hogwarts curriculum may be laudably experiential, authentic, and certainly problem- and project-based (all par for the course in a pre-vocational program), is it coherent and developmentally appropriate? What about diversity and social justice work to break down the barriers of class and birth (Muggle vs. Magical) that oppress so many students? And where to begin in considering health and safety practices, although Madame Pomfrey clearly rates a Major Commendation for tending to injuries that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. 

This is obviously a facetious exercise, but it is worth taking a few moments to consider the significance of accreditation. Independent and other accredited schools and colleges are mandated every 10 years to devote considerable time, thought, and treasure to this process. Formerly often regarded as hollow drudgery and something of a pro forma exercise, the accreditation process — the preparation of an exhaustive self-study, the sometimes welcome and sometimes disruptive descent of a visiting committee months afterward, completed by the often anti-climactic vote of the accrediting body — is increasingly viewed by schools as a golden opportunity. Along with fulfilling its primary role of demonstrating the credibility of programs, decennial evaluation in more and more schools is becoming an occasion for critical institutional reflection and deep strategic thinking. 

One longs, for example, to read the major recommendations in a Hogwarts visiting committee report:
  • Develop and implement recruiting and hiring protocols to ensure the highest level of faculty pedagogical capacity and professionalism.
  • Undertake a comprehensive review of the school’s curriculum and assessment practices to bring programs into alignment with best practices and the developmental needs of students.
  • Begin a comprehensive review of all programs to provide for the safety and adequate supervision of all students. 
  • Train all faculty and staff in the principles of equity pedagogy and undertake a thoroughgoing effort to make Hogwarts an authentically inclusive environment in which differences in heritage and ability among students are respected and supported.
Accreditation as we know it grew out of the same impulse that gave us medieval guilds of expert craftspersons and artisans such as goldsmiths and weavers. Centuries ago, the guild seal over a shop door was a statement of quality, while the strict system of guild entry through a lengthy and exclusive training system provided members with the added benefit of keeping craft knowledge safely and profitably in their own hands. Guilds served the dual purpose of offering security to the consuming public while protecting the highly skilled, elite practitioners. 

In the United States, accrediting organizations like the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) grew out of legitimate concerns of colleges — presidents Charles W. Eliot of Harvard and Alice Freeman of Wellesley were prominent among NEASC’s founders in 1885 — and high-profile secondary educators about maintaining academic standards in the high-school-to-college transition. (The founding NEASC gathering is cited as the venue when President Eliot first gave voice to the concept of a testing body, which would one day come into being as the College Entrance Examination Board.) It took until the early 1950s for the notion of accreditation to take hold, both in New England and nationally, but in time associations such as NEASC became the recognized accreditors of schools and colleges across the United States and beyond. The era of educational self-regulation by accreditation standards had begun. 

While accreditation may seem like a drab and technical topic, it should be noted that the current national debate over for-profit colleges is in large measure a reprise of a thousand years, and probably more, of conversations about quality assurance and regulation. With millions of federal dollars flowing to proliferating for-profit institutions in the form of student loans (which press reports suggest comprise up to 90 percent of the revenue of some for-profit colleges), supporting an accreditation system that protects students and taxpayers from poor-quality programs and outright fraud is seen by many educators, if not by lawmakers, as a critical need. For some years now, the federal role in this process has been to accredit, in its turn, a group of essentially self-regulating accrediting bodies for colleges and graduate and professional programs, thus making institutions accredited by these bodies (the American Bar Association for law schools, for example) eligible for certain federal benefits — including the right to administer student loan programs. As politicians and the media devote more and more attention to the educational quality and value not just of for-profits but of all college and universities, the role of accrediting organizations is increasingly becoming part of the debate.

More to the point, however, is the evolving role of accreditation in independent secondary schools. 

“Change” is the narrative of our era, with “innovation” the mantra and “creativity” the watchword. This upheaval grows out of decades of new research and new practices based on the groundbreaking thinking of people like Howard Gardner, Grant Wiggins, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Peggy McIntosh, and Beverly Daniel Tatum. In recent years, the application of their now established ideas — and those of a host of others — has been urged upon us by the likes of Daniel Pink and the ubiquitous Sir Ken Robinson. Schools have work to do and, increasingly the direction that work must take is being made clear.

It is no surprise, then, that clever souls in the world of accreditation have noted the substantive connection between the changes that schools must make and the once-humdrum-but-annoying process of accreditation. Since standards cover every aspect of a school’s operations from the academic program to finances to health and safety, accreditation provides an extraordinary opportunity for schools to engage in the fundamental re-examination of practices in an era that practically screams out for change and innovation. While such opportunities have long been implicit in the idea behind accreditation, seldom have they been seen so clearly.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), which does not accredit schools but which requires member schools to be accredited by an approved accrediting body, has also come to play an important role in accreditation today. The NAIS Commission on Accreditation — comprising 17 U.S. and two international independent school accrediting associations — has, as part of its mission, “[a]ssuring the highest standards for independent school accreditation by articulating principles of good practice for independent school accreditation programs [and] developing models of successful accreditation policies and procedures.” 

The Commission on Accreditation is perhaps the most powerful tool in NAIS’s efforts to put authentic self-reflection and the mantra of innovation at the center of school thinking. The commission generated the new NAIS resource, A 21st Century Imperative: A Guide for Becoming a School of the Future, and coming accreditation cycles will include several new requirements for school accreditation. The first relates to 21st century skills and capacities, the second concerns the assessment of individual student progress, and the third underscores “the collection and use in school decision-making of data (both internal and external) about student learning.” In a sense, the emphasis on specific learning and data in the new accreditation criteria is like the marks used by guild smiths to certify precious metal content — another standard of quality assurance.

Although the standards used by different accrediting bodies vary, there are common threads, and it is safe to say that this list from the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools more or less covers the industry standards: mission, leadership, student experience, finance, academic program, residential program, administrative practice and personnel, school plant, and health and safety. Other regions’ standards also cover early childhood programs, evaluation and assessment, and communication and advancement. Embedded within each standard — again varying by region — are additional references to everything from hiring practices to regulatory compliance (another area in which Hogwarts, by the way, would have problems, in regard to the house-elf system).

Self-studies are no longer the unreadable tomes that they once were. Instead, required content has largely been reformatted to focus on assembling information on important aspects of the school’s operation and goals rather than on endless enumerations of courses, texts, library holdings, and the like. In most cases, the school itself is asked for commentary on strengths, weaknesses, and areas for future work. More transparent now, for example, is the process by which the school can essentially request specific recommendations from the visiting committee by noting needs and concerns rather than by, say, dropping subtle hints or having the head of school whisper a request for the inclusion of a particular recommendation to the committee chair. The committee, and hence the accrediting body, may then give the stamp of approval to such recommendations.

Visiting committee reports, once as dry and often as formulaic as the self-studies of yore, can be real drivers of school change, with commendations and recommendations listed by specific standards as well as overall. Smart schools use committee recommendations to put teeth into their own ongoing work as well as to focus new improvement efforts, harnessing the accreditation process not simply to secure the “guild seal” but also to push forward important work. 

Even commendations can be used to further innovation, by calling attention to hard work and success in the context of continuing efforts toward strategic or operational change. 

Schools that will thrive through the coming decades are those that respond to the calls for change that ring through the independent school world and that invite candor in internal and external evaluation. If it takes the research and reflecting required to produce a self-study to bring into focus the need for a curriculum update, for a new system for evaluating teaching and program effectiveness, or for a particular facility upgrade, the process will have served its purpose. If it takes the unbiased perspective of a visiting committee to note a serious program gap or a mission-contradicting anomaly in a major policy, the system benefits the school in ways that the old guilds, limited in their aims and devoted more to maintaining a status quo than to fostering innovation, could never have done.

While the approach of another accreditation cycle may not exactly bring smiles to the faces of administrators and faculty, more and more school people understand and appreciate the great and growing value of the process. Not only does accreditation give schools the opportunity to examine, correct, and improve the small, quotidian aspects of their work, but it also opens the door to considering and undertaking essential change. As schools become communities of practice, rather than mere aggregations of faculty and functions, accreditation invites educators to develop the habits of reflecting and making use of focused feedback that we so energetically urge upon our students. And, just as student performance improves from such exercises, so does school effectiveness. 

Wizards and muggles deserve no less.
Peter Gow

Peter Gow is director of special programs at Beaver Country Day School (Massachusetts) and an author, blogger, and consultant on independent school professional, strategic, and cultural issues. His mother is a graduate of the late lamented Brownmoor School for Girls.