Hillsdale Drops Teacher Accreditation

In late 2007, Michigan became one of the many states requiring national accreditation for education schools. Previously, the state government had accredited Michigan teacher preparation programs, so national accreditation wasn’t required.

This change in policy has led one admired education program, Hillsdale College’s, (http://www.hillsdale.edu/academics/majors/edu.asp ) to drop its accreditation, which means that it will no longer be able to recommend students for state certification after 2013. The college—famous for its stance in refusing federal funds—can still prepare students for private and charter schools. However, its students are cut off from becoming teachers in the Michigan public school system unless they receive certification through other avenues.

The two accrediting entities are the National Council of Accreditation for Teacher Education (www.ncate.org)  (NCATE) and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (www.teac.org) (TEAC), which was formed as an alternative to NCATE. A merger is under discussion, and Michigan’s action suggests that greater national dominance by these two organizations is in the offing.

Michigan officials cited the cost to the state government of conducting its own certification program. But there is no evidence that accreditation by those organizations improves teacher training or even ensures that it is adequate. NCATE, for one, has been the subject of withering criticism. For example, Sandra Vergari and Frederick Hess, then professors of education at SUNY-Albany and the University of Virginia, reported in 2002 that there was little if any difference between graduates of NCATE-accredited institutions and others. Citing a study of Massachusetts teacher education programs, they noted that four out of seven NCATE-accredited institutions did worse than average on the state licensing exam.

The reason for Hillsdale’s decision appears to be twofold: the high cost of meeting NCATE or TEAC accreditation requirements and a pervasive doubt that the requirements have anything to do with good teaching.

Daniel Coupland, an assistant professor of education at Hillsdale, wrote about the decision in a recent issue of Academic Questions, a journal of the National Association of Scholars. In an email to the Pope Center he added, “Sure, we could have completed the process and earned accreditation. . . But it would have been at incredible cost in time, money, and effort.”

An even more fundamental reason may have been dislike of the entire accreditation process. “At some point, you want someone to stand up and say that the entire process is a scam,” said Coupland.  “Well, it is a scam and Hillsdale College is better off without it.” Faculty and administrators at the schools have to supply massive amounts of material about their “inputs,” with no need to measure student success. It ends up being merely a pointless exercise in time and money.

Teacher preparation courses have been taught at Hillsdale since 1893, and Hillsdale had previously received the Michigan Department of Education’s highest rating for teacher preparation institutions. The program is small (in the past, about 20 students a year obtained Michigan certification) and it is integrated into the liberal arts curriculum. Students do not major in education. Instead, those who want to prepare for a teaching career can take the education program in addition to their major. Students graduating from the school therefore have a solid grounding in an academic discipline as well as pedagogical theory and classroom experience.

The school’s small size (about 1,300 students) affected the decision to drop accreditation. The amount of paperwork and man-hours required to assemble all the required material is the same at a small school as a large one, but small schools have fewer resources. As Coupland explained, “Reasonable people looking at the mandated accreditation process can see that the state’s policy favors larger institutions.”

In fact, as Vergari and Hess point out, the “expense and bureaucracy” of accreditation have discouraged small institutions from seeking accreditation.  Only 22 percent of small private schools seek NCATE accreditation, compared with 44 percent of large private schools. Public schools are much more likely to seek accreditation, whatever their size.

But there is something even more troubling than the cost. There is a “progressive” tilt to the NCATE standards. In 2006, under pressure from such groups as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), NCATE agreed to drop a controversial statement about “social justice” from its standards.  FIRE said (in a statement) that “vague evaluative criteria” such as the requirement to promote “social justice” as part of its promotion of diversity “too often become vehicles for pressuring teacher candidates to alter or abandon their core political, philosophical, or moral beliefs.”

Even without “social justice,” however, NCATE’s standards remain subject to interpretation, and their relevance to ensuring a successful teacher preparation program is unclear. For example, the standard for diversity includes: “Curriculum, field experiences, and clinical practice promote candidates’ development of knowledge, skills, and professional dispositions related to diversity identified in the unit’s conceptual framework.”

Coupland notes that “vague standards” like that one “allow NCATE to admit that teaching is a ‘very complex endeavor’ and hide from direct attacks. Specificity would quickly show that the emperor has no clothes.” That is, if standards were clearer, they would reveal that the requirements for accreditation have little to do with candidates’ ability to teach.  

In 2010 NCATE raised the hopes of many critics with a report (http://www.edschools.org/pdf/Educating_Teachers_Report.pdf ) stating that “the education of teachers in the United States needs to be turned upside down.” The irony, of course, is that most teacher preparation programs are already accredited by one of these bodies. And, since then, not much seems to have happened. A worrisome possibility is that using NCATE/TEAC accreditation in lieu of state regulation may spread to the rest of the country. As of 2009, 25 states had either adopted or adapted NCATE standards as state standards.

In spite of its loss of accreditation, Hillsdale’s education curriculum survives, and students can—for now—obtain state certification through a cooperative program with Spring Arbor University, a nearby evangelical Christian school that is TEAC-accredited. The nature of Hillsdale’s program will help students succeed even if they do not become public school teachers, but in the end, Michigan may have saved itself money at the expense of losing promising teachers to the private sector or other states.