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Someone Didn't Get the Memo

December 19, 2007

The federal panel that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation began its biannual meeting in Washington Tuesday, fighting perceptions that it has overstepped its bounds and hoping to ward off Congressional legislation that would reshape its membership and limit its authority.

In a day of training on Monday, officials from the Education Department had urged the members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity -- which critics have accused of exceeding its statutory and regulatory authority in recent meetings in prodding accreditors to measure student learning -- to stay clearly within the bounds of federal laws and rules in judging agencies this time around and to apply the guidelines uniformly to all accreditors. The unspoken gist of the training session, as several members of the panel interpreted it: We need to be on our best behavior, because if we’re not, we’ll hand our critics in Congress more ammunition.

It appeared to work, for a little while. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, making an unusual appearance before the federal advisory committee, struck a generally conciliatory tone in her remarks to the panel, praising colleges for embracing her call for providing more information about their performance and quality and reiterating that the department’s push for better measuring student learning “will not, and should not, ever constitute a one-size-fits-all system. Let me repeat: no one-size-fits-all measures. No standardized tests. All I ask is that institutions be more clear about the benefits they offer to students.”

But the education secretary herself couldn’t avoid a little dig at Congress, in answer to a question (from one of her new appointees to the accreditation panel, President H. James Towey of Saint Vincent College) that so suited her interests that it was hard to believe she hadn’t planted it. Given the clear wisdom of the department’s campaign for better consumer information about higher education and to change accreditation to help produce it, Towey said, “how can there be such a disconnect,” such that “Congress is considering a reauthorization [of the Higher Education Act] that would not address this issue?”

“To try to explain the motivations of the Congress would be beyond my area of expertise,” Spellings replied.

For the first part of the day, the committee's staff (in its reports containing findings and recommendations about whether the advisory panel should give its stamp of approval to accreditors) and the committee's members themselves largely avoided the learning outcomes issue that has generated the most agitation among college leaders and, in turn, their supporters in Congress. (It was that issue that largely dominated the negotiated rule making process last spring that ended in deadlock and drew the ire of Congress, some of whose members perceived the Education Department of trying an end run around existing federal law to carry out the recommendations of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education.)

But mid-day, just as it seemed that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges would win the panel's approval with barely a ripple of concern, Anne D. Neal, a vocal accreditation critic who was added to the federal panel last winter, said she had a few questions. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

"The law and regulations say we are responsible for determining ... that [accreditation] agencies are reliable authorities for making determinations of quality" in higher education, she said. Then Neal, reading extensively from the New England accreditor's own manual and other materials submitted as part of its request for renewed recognition, laid out a litany of examples designed to show that the agency was essentially letting its member colleges define for themselves whether they've done a good enough job in educating students. As I look at these standards, I'm trying to understand exactly what the measure of quality is," Neal said. "What," she asked Barbara Brittingham, director of New England's Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, "do you view as acceptable with regard to an institution's success with regard to institutional achievement?"

"Thank you for the close reading of our standards," Brittingham said, with a trace of irony, after Neal's long recitation. She offered the response that accrediting officials often give when asked about whether they should be setting minimum requirements for the colleges they oversee: that colleges have differing missions that make it impossible -- and inappropriate -- to set a common standard for all of them. All of them, however, "aim high," Brittingham said. "None aims to offer an average or merely adequate education."

Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, pressed on. Citing the low scores of American college graduates on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, she said, "Tell me -- how do you know that graduates of the institutions you accredit have achieved the standards of literacy to be informed citizens? Do you have a baseline set of standards you would like them to meet, or do you leave that up to the institutions?"

"There is no accepted minimum standard," Brittingham conceded.

"So basically, if an institution was having a 10 percent rate [of literacy] and thought that was good enough, that would be good enough for you?" Neal continued.

"That would not be good enough," piped up Judith R. Gordon, a professor of management at Boston College who chairs the New England commission. "The [visiting accrediting] teams set very high standards, and colleges bring out their own high level of expectation to that. Ten percent literacy is not something that any of our institutions would find acceptable."

Neal proceeded to grade inflation, math and science aptitude and other matters, making the same general point at each stop. "I'm trying to understand how it is you as accreditors are doing a quality job," she said. "If you have nothing but an institution's own sense of how it is doing, how does that help us?"

It was at this point in the discussion that Neal crossed the line that Education Department officials probably wished she hadn't, essentially questioning whether the process NACIQI uses to decide whether to recognize accrediting agencies is effective and asking the right questions.

"I worry as I look at this application [from the New England association] whether we are putting form over substance," Neal said. "I have some concerns, based on the colloquy we just had, that this application has produced a lot of paper that says we're assessing these [accrediting agencies], but it sounds very much like navel gazing to a lay person. I heard absolutely no standard that they deemed low enough to deny an organization accreditation. It seems to me that if we are responsible for being guarantors of quality, there is a need for these agencies to be able to show to us that they have some sense of what quality is. Other than self-reverential quality as defined by the institutions, I did not hear anything."

That brought a -- for the moment -- gentle rebuttal from members of the panel who have typically advocated a more moderate role for the federal panel and for the government generally. George A. Pruitt, the committee's longest-serving member, reminded Neal that accreditation has historically been a process "based on voluntary self assessment," which "starts with self-assessment of an institution" for which there is "then external validation by people who are deemed to be reliable experts." The process leaves room for "the variation that will take place with institutions of differing mission and purpose" -- variation that is "perfectly consistent with the secretary's comments this morning," Pruitt said.

Neal raised interesting and important issues, he added, "and we could go have a drink and argue about it." But the committee's job, Pruitt said, is to decide whether accrediting agencies are doing their jobs according to the federal laws and rules that govern accreditation, and "a lot of the questions in the debate [Neal was raising] go far beyond the criteria we're supposed to use to evaluate them." (The committee voted to recommend recognition of the New England accreditor, with Neal and Towey dissenting.)

Reliable Guarantors?

In an interview while the panel broke for lunch, Neal challenged the suggestion that her questions had gone beyond the permissible boundaries for the committee. "The statute and regulations make clear that accreditors are supposed to be reliable guarantors of educational quality," she said. Based on their standards, which she said in the case of regional accrediting agencies like New England are often "vague and essentially meaningless" and don't take clear, hard stands, "I don't believe the accreditors can necessarily show that they are [reliable guarantors]."

Asked whether she felt as if the Education Department's training Monday had been designed to discourage NACIQI members like her from asking hard questions, she said that it was "not on its face immediately welcoming to questioning," and that "some questions were raised about what was appropriate and inappropriate." But she vowed to keep prodding as other agencies came before the panel.

When the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools came before NACIQI Tuesday afternoon, though, Neal was left out of the conversation. To her dismay, and under protest, she was among several members who were recused from the discussion because of potential conflicts of interest; the department's general counsel had flagged her involvement as an adviser to a new center on capitalism at the University of Illinois as a potential problem because North Central accredits the university.

The head of the North Central commission, Steven D. Crow, joked during his time before the committee that he "would have had a more comfortable lunch period if I had known that Anne Neal wasn't going to be present" during discussion of his agency. But Towey, the Saint Vincent president, picked up Neal's theme, asking Crow at one point whether he knew whether the institutions he accredits are "just producing diplomas" and saying that "we still seem to be failing at putting the 'q' in quality." Of NACIQI, Towey said: "There still seems to be something flawed in our tools of measurement."

That evoked a sharp response from Lawrence J. DeNardis, president emeritus of the University of New Haven and another longtime panel member. "We are in fact following the secretary's criteria, as cited in authorizing legislation, and as elaborated further in regulations," he said. "And until and unless the Congress changes the authorizing statute, and the department changes the regulations, we are doing our job." North Central earned the committee's recommendation.

The day ended with the committee agreeing to recommend that Spellings extend for a year recognition of the American Academy for Liberal Education and, softening the recommendation of the department's staff, suggesting lifting a restriction that currently bars the accreditor from examining new colleges.

The advisory committee continues its deliberations today.

 

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