Feeling the Winds From Washington

At meeting of a regional accreditor, message of Spellings commission both resonates with and riles the rank and file.
December 11, 2006

The 600 academic administrators and professors who gathered in Philadelphia last week for the annual meeting of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education are on the front lines of accreditation. They're the ones who lead self-studies of their own colleges or participate on visiting teams that review other institutions. They are charged with ensuring that their campuses are fulfilling their missions of educating students, and of enticing or prodding occasionally recalcitrant faculty members to measure their effectiveness and change their ways if they come up short.

And to judge by some of the recent rhetoric coming out of Washington, where the accreditation system has become a central focus of the Education Department's early efforts to carry out the work of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, they and the rest of the accreditation system are falling short.

Although the commission abandoned many of the harshest words and radical ideas that had been bandied about during its deliberations -- including the possibility of replacing the current system with a "national" (read: federal) framework -- its final report still offered a highly critical view of accreditation. Accreditors and higher education officials, the commission concluded, have done far too little to figure out whether college students are coming out of their institutions with the skills they need to be productive workers and citizens.

Accreditors "still focus on process reviews more than bottom-line results for learning or costs," the report said. "The growing public demand for increased accountability, quality and transparency coupled with the changing structure and globalization of higher education requires a transformation of accreditation."

How has the criticism of accreditation played with those in the trenches? If participants in the Middle States meeting are any indication, they tend to think the accreditors – or at least their own accreditor – have gotten a bit of a bum rap. Middle States, they say, has for several years been pressuring the institutions it accredits (colleges in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico) to better define what they want their students to know and be able to do, and to find concrete ways to measure their success.

“This is what the accreditors are trying to achieve already,” said Warren Olip-Ammentorp, a professor of English at Cazenovia College, a small, private college in central New York. “We’ve all been trying to focus on student learning and to use the assessment results to improve that learning, partly because it’s what we’re supposed to do as educators and because we know Middle States is going to hold us accountable on the issue.”

Indeed, virtually every college official interviewed, at private colleges like Cazenovia and at midsize public universities such as Indiana University of Pennsylvania, described efforts – often years in the making – to gauge student outcomes and to use that information to inform curricular and other changes aimed at improving how students fare.

The college officials, almost to a one, also said they worried that the commission’s and the Education Department’s push for colleges to use common indicators that might allow a consumer to more easily compare one against another would, almost inevitably, result in oversimplification. And many of them expressed fears that the department would, as it signaled at meetings of a panel that advises it on accreditation last week, start asking accreditors to set minimum standards for colleges to meet, a role most of them see as inappropriate.
At the same time, they acknowledge flaws in the system. They generally accept the criticism that the accreditation process is too internally focused and that much more disclosure to the public is necessary. And some – particularly at public institutions – believe that colleges with similar missions can work together toward agreement on a menu of common measures that might allow for even more comparisons about their performance.

Perhaps most importantly, despite the lumps, many of them see a bright side to the fact that the feds have taken them to task. “The Spellings commission is having an incredible impact,” said Brent David Ruben, executive director of the Center for Organizational Development and Leadership at Rutgers University. “Sure, some of the criticism has been unfair. But it is prompting review and reflection, which I think is a positive thing.”

Assessment in the Air

It would have been hard for Education Secretary Margaret Spellings or Charles Miller, who headed the Spellings commission, to walk away from last week’s Middle States meeting -- dubbed “Navigating the Winds of Change in Higher Education” -- thinking that higher education isn’t taking accountability seriously. For the first time, the entire first day of the meeting was set aside for a special track on “effective and innovative assessment,” and it sold out at 300 people. In the conference’s subsequent days, many if not most of the sessions revolved around or at least touched on discussion of the sort of “outcomes measures” that the Spellings commission says accreditors and colleges underemphasize.

At one roundtable discussion, for instance, Cheryl T. Samuels, provost of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, described her institution’s efforts – begun three years ago, in the wake of its Middle States self study – to adopt and hold departments accountable for achieving university-wide student learning outcomes for undergraduate education.

“We’re at the point where we’ve made a decision that we need to do this anyway,” said Samuels. “We know that if we do not take this responsibility ourselves, through accreditation and our own institutions’ work, and move in this direction, it could be forced on us. But we’re fairly confident that we can do this ourselves – we’re the experts.”

She and Rick Ruth, interim provost of Shippensburg University, noted that the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, to which both institutions belong, has long collected and published information from its member universities on more than 60 measures of student and other performance. “We’ve been under that accountability lens for a long time, at least from the system perspective,” said Ruth.

If anyone at the Middle States meeting hadn’t been paying attention to the pressure on higher education accountability out of Washington, the group also heard directly from the Spellings commission itself, in the form of Charlene R. Nunley, the president of Montgomery College, who was among the commission members who helped transform its written report from one focused primarily on accountability and transparency to one that equally emphasizes student access and expanding financial aid.

Nunley acknowledged that some members of the Spellings panel, particularly those representing corporations and the public, “don’t really understand where you are and what you’ve done, and that it’s far ahead of where they think you are.” She noted that despite the early saber rattling about moving to a federal system of accreditation, the commission’s final report did not dictate excessively to higher education. “It did not recommend federalization of accreditation of higher education” and “did not recommend a single standardized test or even a set of tests,” she said.

But that does not, she said, suggest that colleges can afford to do nothing to better measure and report their successes and failures in educating students. “How many of you would say your institutions are doing enough in terms of measuring student learning outcomes?” she asked the college presidents, administrators and professors in the audience. A small scattering of hands, perhaps 25 among the 500 people in the room, went up. “I couldn’t raise my hand either – I admire your honesty,” Nunley said. “When we are honest with ourselves as college leaders, there is not nearly enough happening on our campuses.”

The key going forward, she said, is that “if we in higher education take leadership, we have a chance of making sure that these standards recognize the differences in our institutions,” rather than having oversimplified, inappropriate measures “imposed on us.”

The accreditors and college officials in the audience seemed to appreciate that message. But lest they were inclined to get too comfortable, Jean Avnet Morse, the president of Middle States, followed Nunley’s speech by telling the audience about what she had seen in Washington last week at a meeting of an Education Department advisory panel on accreditation. At that meeting, she said, some of the panel’s members signaled that they wanted accrediting groups not just to require the institutions they oversee to set appropriate goals for student learning, but also to ask: “How do we know that the levels being met are acceptable?”

Morse’s implication, though she stopped short of saying it, was that in carrying out the Spellings commission’s report, the Education Department might be looking to push even harder than the report itself suggested. Lots of head shaking ensued.


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