CAEPed Crusader Ousted

Without explanation, accreditor of teacher training programs forces out its founding leader amid criticism from colleges and unions.

May 29, 2015
James Cibulka

The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation has weathered more than its fair share of turbulence in its few years in existence, perhaps the inevitable result of its origins (a merger between two unequal and competing accreditors) and its mission (tougher standards in a field long criticized for settling for lesser ones). That the organization has accomplished what it has, let alone survived at all, is arguably a victory.

Its founding leader, James Cibulka, wasn't so fortunate. He was dismissed this month. The accreditor noted Cibulka's departure with one line in a news release about his interim successor, and its board chair repeatedly declined in an interview to say anything of substance about why Cibulka is leaving, except to imply that he may have been the right person to build the organization but not to lead it.

"What's important is the future of CAEP, not the past," said Mary Brabeck, professor and dean emerita of New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, while parrying questions about Cibulka's abrupt departure.

But the past matters if patterns revealed by it may influence the future, and that's what some observers of the situation say is the case here.

In pushing a reform-minded agenda, the accreditor has long stirred criticism from the main organization representing teacher ed programs (the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education) and from unions that represent teachers, even as they have formally endorsed its existence and mission.

In February, the board of AACTE approved a sweeping resolution expressing a "crisis of confidence" in the accreditor and many aspects of its work. The resolution reiterated the professional group's support for the idea of a single national accreditor and for CAEP in particular, but expressed concern about the group's standards, processes and governance structure, among other things.

Cibulka's ouster came about two months later, over the strongly worded objections of most of the accreditor's staff. And while Brabeck says the lobbying group's resolution had "nothing to do" with the CAEP board's decision to change leaders, some familiar with the situation question that assertion.

Jane Leibbrand was a vice president at the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the larger of the accreditors that merged to create CAEP. She attributes the leadership change primarily to CAEP's struggles to merge the two organizations into one and to communicate about, and put into operation, the new, tougher standards to which it will hold teacher education programs.

But she and others say those who have opposed the new accreditor's push for tougher standards -- especially for more stringent academic standards for students admitted to teacher education programs -- almost certainly seized on concerns over operational issues to push out the primary architect of those changes.

"Jim had a vision that involved change," Leibbrand said. "That is difficult, and more difficult for some institutions than others."

Battles in the Background

Cibulka did not respond to several requests to comment for this article. Several other people who might have shed light on the reasons for his ouster -- including other members of CAEP's board and several of its employees -- also declined to talk publicly, referring questions to Brabeck.

But the tension-filled history of CAEP's emergence is well documented. Teachers' colleges have for two decades been a constant (and they would argue unjustified) target of critics of the American K-12 system, who say the schools do not adequately prepare teachers for the classroom. The pages of Inside Higher Ed and, even more, publications like Education Week, are filled with reports and critiques of teacher education program. And more than five years ago, various parties reached agreement on creating a new single national accreditor to try to push, and lift, the programs to strive for more. Under the arrangement, the National Council for Accreditation in Teacher Education, the traditional accreditor, merged with the much smaller Teacher Education Accreditation Council to form CAEP.

Cibulka, who had been NCATE's president and before that dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky, became CAEP's leader, and over the next three years, the field -- amid much debate and often disagreement -- coalesced around a set of standards that required colleges to provide evidence that their own students are academically solid and that they are effective once they become teachers. The evidence-based approach was consistent with what reformers (and many politicians, including several in the Obama administration) have wanted.

Political flare-ups occurred over a perception that Cibulka and, by extension, CAEP had been overly supportive of the Obama administration’s proposals to change how teacher education programs were judged for federal purposes. Many college leaders (and education faculty unions) complained that the tougher admissions standards CAEP sought for education students would keep would-be teachers who are members of minority groups out of the teaching profession. Teachers’ colleges and faculty unions rarely complained openly about the tougher standards; given public sentiment about the quality of the K-12 system, public statements suggesting that they were against more rigor would not have played well.

But complaints were plentiful about whether CAEP was up to the task of implementing the new standards, and that became the focus of the case against Cibulka.

‘More Intense’ Worries

The AACTE board’s resolution included a laundry list of concerns that created what it called a “crisis of confidence” in Cibulka and CAEP. “As CAEP becomes more operational, worries become more intense,” said Sharon Robinson, AACTE’s president and CEO.

“Our board felt most urgently about making sure they were respectful of member concerns,” Robinson said. “That was our motivation to put forward the resolution. It was an effort to really reflect member concerns.”

Leibbrand, the former NCATE official, said that at times CAEP officials seemed overmatched by the demands of implementing the standards and explaining them to administrators and professors at the schools that would be judged by them. She described conference sessions at which CAEP officials were unable to answer questions about the expectations schools would be facing, and a delay in producing the manual designed to guide the accredited through the process.

“When that happened, it starts a dynamic,” she said. “When staff weren’t able to answer questions satisfactorily, it didn’t promote a feeling of confidence.”

But she and others said the “biggest factor” in unhappiness with CAEP and Cibulka was ultimately that “you had a radical change in accreditation standards, and it required new behavior on the part of institutions.”

On April 1, between the time of the AACTE resolution and Cibulka's ouster, about two-thirds of CAEP employees wrote the board what they called "the strongest possible letter of support" for Cibulka. They acknowledged that, as in "all transitions, the road has not always been smooth," marked by "mistakes and missteps." But the letter -- signed by 25 of roughly 35 employees -- was designed to signal the "unwavering support of his staff": "We are all committed to CAEP's mission and wholeheartedly support the leadership of Jim Cibulka."

But in early May, about two months after the AACTE board’s resolution, CAEP’s board announced that Cibulka was out and would be replaced on an interim basis by Christopher Koch, former Illinois state superintendent of education and vice chair of the CAEP board. The only mention of Cibulka was that he would be replaced by Koch -- his five years of work to build the organization received no mention.

Robinson said she and AACTE played no role in encouraging CAEP to get rid of Cibulka. And in an interview, Brabeck, the CAEP board chair, denied any link between the unhappiness reflected by the AACTE resolution and the decision to dump Cibulka.

She credited Cibulka with launching CAEP and bringing the field together around the accreditation standards. “The country owes Jim a lot of credit for getting us to the moment we’re in,” she said.

But “bringing together the two organizations” to “form the best single accreditor is still a work in progress,” she said. “I don’t believe there’s a man for all seasons,” she added.

She dismissed the notion that AACTE’s displeasure with Cibulka and CAEP reflected discomfort with the tougher standards. “I take AACTE at its word when it says they are 100 percent behind the standards,” Brabeck said. She said she took Robinson at her word that they are committed to CAEP, too.

"What's important now is the future of CAEP, that we have a leader in place who’s committed to the standards…. The future is about the kids in our schools. That’s what CAEP is trying to affect.”


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