Dr. Mark Elgart is the founding president and CEO of AdvancED, the parent organization for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement as well as the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement and the Northwest Accreditation Commission, headquartered in Alpharetta.
By Mark Elgart
School accreditation is an honor, a mark of distinction as well as an acknowledgement that the education offerings of a school, school system, college or university meet standards, benchmarks and performance criteria in the advancement of student achievement. In the United States, for K-12 schools, accreditation is also completely voluntary, and all accrediting agencies are selected and invited to review and accredit by the school or school system seeking or maintaining that accreditation.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) was founded in 1895 at the Georgia Institute of Technology. SACS is one of six regional accrediting agencies recognized by the federal government. Following a merger in 2006, the K-12 division of SACS (SACS CASI) is now part of AdvancED, which accredits more than 32,000 institutions in 71 countries, serving in excess of 20 million students worldwide, including 30 of the 50 largest school systems in the United States.
The accreditation process was designed as a collegial, peer review and continuous improvement process, intended to maintain as well as to enhance student outcomes. Our organization has 41 field offices across the United States and internationally, and in a typical year, our professional staff work with nearly 18,000 trained professional volunteers to conduct accreditation reviews and field visits.
Accreditation reviews examine the institution’s teaching and assessing practices, the purpose and direction of an institution, whether its governance and leadership are functioning effectively in accordance with established policies, whether data is used to support improvement, and resources and support systems for students.
During the fall semester of 2012, AdvancED performed 1200 of these reviews, with many of these schools or schools systems experiencing challenges, being placed under review or on accredited probation. Only one of these systems was placed on accredited probation primarily over governance concerns, and that was the DeKalb County School System.
Our review structure allows for a period of appeal when a school system differs with our findings of fact or our recommendations for improvement. In the case of our December 2012 review of the DeKalb County School District, the system had the opportunity to appeal our findings, but chose not to do so. As a result, the system accepted our findings and committed to making the necessary improvements. The most significant areas in need of improvement are student achievement, fiscal responsibility and governance.
AdvancED/SACS CASI works closely with the leadership and stakeholders of any educational institution towards improving student performance. We believe that it remains possible for the DeKalb County School District to effectively address its current challenges and achieve success in meeting the needs of its urban population of growing diversity.
AdvancED/SACS CASI accreditation is accepted globally, though we are not the only accrediting agency in Georgia, nor do we accredit every school or school system. In the Atlanta Public Schools, we accredit the high schools but do not accredit the elementary and middle schools. Therefore, during the CRCT cheating scandal in 2009-2010, we had no jurisdiction.
Much like the college diploma or possibly higher degree that may adorn your den or office wall, that diploma is only valued as highly as the curriculum, criteria for graduation and accreditation of the awarding institution. Without accreditation, students may have difficulty transferring state to state and may not meet admission, financial aid or scholarship requirements.
The needs of students are changing as they prepare to be successful in our diverse world. In Georgia and across our nation, we are on the edge of a major shift in the current education system, which is largely institutionally focused, to a system focused on the learner. This will require significant changes in the utilization of resources and perhaps a reconfiguration of thousands of schools and school systems.
When accreditation began, ours was largely an agrarian economy. In the south, most children were never even expected to reach high school graduation. Today there is an almost universal expectation of post-secondary education, and yet, we are still using a system designed for those earlier outcomes. This must change.
As a former teacher and school principal, I also realize that real and lasting change in large organizations or a bureaucracy is typically incremental and can take considerable time. As we watch the children of Asia and parts of Europe pull away from our children in terms of performance, aptitude and ability, do we really want to wait that long?
As a parent with two children in public schools, I don’t.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog