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NAPCIS Newsletter Winter 2004

Accreditation of Private Catholic and Independent Schools -Is It Necessary or Desirable?

“When we were looking at the possibility of using the NAPCIS accreditation or the WASC, we had to go with WASC because we believed it to be of the most benefit for our students when applying to Top Tier Schools…” This response was given recently by the administrator of a NAPCIS Member School to a NAPCIS inquiry spurred by an announcement in the school’s newsletter that the high school was seeking Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation. It was further explained, “(...the school’s) curriculum and training is geared toward preparing students for acceptance at Top Tier schools, including Ivy League Universities… It seems that this WASC accreditation will ensure that our courses will be accepted and understood by the Admission Directors and committees at these kinds of Universities.”

We’ll save the discussion about whether it is the purpose of education, Catholic education in particular, to “train” its students to be accepted into “Top Tier” colleges and universities for another article or forum. The topic is cornerstone to any consideration of Catholic education but I refer you, for the moment, to Dr. Ronald McArthur’s keynote from the 2002 NAPCIS Retreat/Teacher Seminar. You can listen or download his valuable insight on this important issue from the NAPCIS web site here.

Instead, I want to focus this query into the necessity and desirability of accreditation while also dispelling some frequent misconceptions along the way. I relate to readers this particular perspective on accreditation, as quoted above, for its sort is quite commonplace in Catholic education circles. Even a highly recognized and respected Catholic home school program has such mistaken notions expressed on its web site in answer to questions about accreditation. They state, “Accreditation by an unrecognized agency may not have any value. It is vital that a school is accredited by one of the regional accrediting agencies recognized by the U. S. Department of Education.” and “Accreditation is especially important when applying to college. Credits from an accredited school will likely be viewed as much more important than credits from a non-accredited school. The reason is simple: colleges know that accredited schools maintain accepted standards. Colleges know nothing about credits from a non-accredited school.” The prevalence of such notions on the scene of elementary and secondary education can be attributed to a lack of knowledge of accreditation – its history and purpose; a poverty of objective information and facts about accreditation; and, unfortunately, the dissemination of misinformation because of misunderstanding or misperception, or for reasons not so benign.

A brief history of accreditation.
The practice of accreditation in the United States began in the early 1960’s as a means for post-secondary educational institutions (colleges and universities) to demonstrate to the Federal government a basic level of quality in their institution and programs for the purpose of certifying eligibility to receive Federal funds, which include Stafford loans, grants, and research monies.

(Interestingly, this purpose – qualification for Federal funds – has not changed, nor has the development and Federal recognition of accrediting agencies as gatekeepers for these funds, as we shall see.)

A non-governmental peer process of evaluation of post-secondary educational institutions and programs was established, developed and administered by private educational associations and commissions of regional or national scope.

The United States Department of Education recognizes, for the purpose of accrediting institutions of post-secondary education, six regional accrediting agencies, and one national accrediting agency. They are: Regional: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools(MSACS); New England Association of Colleges and Schools(NEACS); North Central Association of Colleges and Schools(NCACS); Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges(NASC); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools(SACS); Western Association of Schools and Colleges(WASC); National: American Academy of Liberal Education (AALE). AALE will be noted later in this article.

The recognition by the United States Department of Education of accrediting agencies applies ONLY to post-secondary education. It is important to note what is NOT included in federal recognition of regional or national accrediting agencies – federal recognition of accrediting agencies does NOT apply to elementary and secondary schools.

Emphasis: There are no federally recognized accrediting agencies for elementary and secondary schools. (I wish I could require that fact to be imprinted on a plaque in every elementary and secondary school across the country and be chanted by every educator. This fact is essential in understanding that accreditation of elementary and secondary schools is not legitimately linked to regional accrediting associations; that there are hundreds of private accrediting associations in existence; and, if left unchallenged, the notion that a regional accrediting association has more legitimacy than a private entity will continue the spiral of mediocrity and cultural assault that defines public and most private education today.)

Accreditation, and the requirement of accreditation, for public elementary and secondary schools is regulated by States with wide variation in its application. For the same reason that accreditation was initiated for post-secondary education, accreditation became the means for States to identify and qualify elementary and secondary public schools looking to receive federal funds allocated to States for federally-mandated programs, as well as State funds distributed to schools through State Departments of Education.

The six regional accrediting associations, aware of the fiscal opportunity available in elementary and secondary school accreditation, expanded their accrediting field to include a commission for elementary and secondary schools. The United States Department of Education did NOT extend its recognition of the six regional accrediting associations and commissions to include elementary and secondary schools.

There is one area of exception to this rule. Federal recognition extends to five of the six regional accrediting associations when they partner with the Commission on International & Trans-Regional Accreditation (CITA) to identify schools qualified to receive foreign students . It is not necessary, however, for a school to seek recognition from CITA. A school may apply directly to INS (Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services) for approval to receive foreign students.

Regional Accreditation Associations and the Educational Revolution
The regional associations have been criticized and avoided as accrediting agencies for private Catholic and independent schools. The broad spectrum of schools in their regional concern allows for no particular model of excellence and no focus on a specific kind of program or school mission. They frequently overstep their bounds and mandates, prompting increased and nagging questions over the legitimacy of their requirements. In the last thirty years regional accrediting agencies have become extremely political demanding schools demonstrate affirmative action in admission policies, and diversity and muticulturalism in their curriculum. Selection of textbooks and books for the school library, for example, may not contain statements of racial bigotry or disapproving of homosexuality.

Even in a regional association’s alliance with another organization, such as the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) in the process of certification/accreditation, the application of religious and educational standards remains too loose. Excellence has become a relative concept reduced to lowest common denominator standards of measurement.

The last thirty years has also witnessed a decline in education standards, especially in elementary and secondary schools.

Goals 2000, the national education strategy to “revolutionize schools,” as President Bush (#1) described, his “war on illiteracy” was the result of a study published in November of 1988 entitled A SCANS Report For America 2000. SCANS is the acronym for Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. One would expect the “Secretary” in this case to be the Secretary of Education, but, in fact, the “Secretary” is the Secretary of Labor! The report was generated and written by the Department of Labor, and subtitled, “Learning a Living: A Blueprint for High Performance”. It is a survey of what American industry expects of the 21st century worker.

The marriage of Goals 2000 and Outcome Based Education (OBE) was destined, but not a match made in heaven. The offspring of this union has contaminated every public school at every level of instruction and program across this country and around the world with relativism, values clarification, and political correctness. Schools now teach attitudes not academics. Attitude adjustment and training has replaced academic excellence as the goal, the “outcome” of public education.

Private schools cannot rest assured that the contamination has not spread to their schools. They have not been spared. Goals 2000 and OBE have entered private education, including Catholic schools, through the doors of state teacher credentialing programs and the intrusive process of accreditation offered through the six regional accrediting associations.

The irony of the opening quote in this article can not be lost here. The accrediting agency chosen to “ensure” the quality of the school’s academic program is one which actually compromises it. It has to by its very nature. The agency cannot have any objective standards of excellence because it must accommodate the widest range of performance in schools, otherwise, only the rare public school would qualify. We all know it’s not about quality; it’s about numbers, and the bottom line ‘$’ number being the uppermost priority.

A key reason for criticism of the six regional accrediting associations by educators is the range of institutions in a geographical area. For example, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSACS) accredits schools in its area the likes of Princeton University and Bronx County Community College. Educators note that the accrediting agency’s “standards” don’t change from institution to institution, nor does the status of accreditation vary from one institution to another. So what, they ask, does it mean to claim accreditation by MSACS or WASC? It most certainly means expensive fees were paid; valuable teacher time was taken from the classroom; mandates of political correctness are in place; and lots of paperwork has been generated and bound in volumes sitting on a shelf in a principal’s office ready to be dusted off before re-accreditation is due (and it’s frightening to consider what will be politically correct six years from now).

Is Accreditation Necessary?
When considering the necessity of accreditation, all facts are overwhelmed by a movement of educational reform that is the fastest growing among Catholic families (50-100% per year), but increasing at tremendous rate among all groups (15-30% per year) – home schooling. What used to be considered the marginal alternative to public and private schools is now mainstream, so much so, it has revolutionized the college admission process. Colleges and universities, including the “Top Tier” and “Ivy League universities” have taken accreditation off the admission’s table. They now focus the process on the applicant’s performance on the SAT or ACT; the Transcript of Record; the completion of the college application, in particular, the personal essay and demonstrated individual achievement and community involvement; and, finally, if required, the personal interview.

After years of undeniable achievement by home schooled students in all areas – academic, the arts (music, dance, theatre); athletics; social and community activity awards – colleges and universities are now actively recruiting home-schooled students. The growing presence at home school conferences has been the college vending tables staffed by admission officers.

An important point to make here is that, while there are currently many excellent home school programs available to parents, especially Catholic home school programs, and many families are enrolled in one of these programs, the majority of home schooling families are educating their children independent of any home school program. They design and implement their own curriculum and program of study. It’s the principle of subsidiarity in its finest application.

While accreditation is not necessary, it is desirable.
Private Catholic and independent schools are also a movement of educational reform that is growing with the opening of new schools every year. Accreditation is off the table for private schools, as well, because of the influence of the home schooling movement and the increasing number of religious private schools that have avoided accreditation for decades.

That said, private Catholic and independent schools have responsibilities and obligations that must be considered. These schools have delegated authority and responsibility to participate with parents in the role of educator. Parents who are looking for an alternative for the formation and education of their children are not abdicating their responsibility as primary educators of their children, they are, rather, delegating this responsibility and must, therefore, be certain that their selection of a school is one which may be entrusted with the education of their children. The obligation is the same for both the parents and the school: salvation of souls.
Parents must be assured that a private Catholic and independent school lives its stated mission, and meets standards of academic excellence. This is where accreditation, or professional certification by an outside entity, can demonstrate that a school meets objective standards of excellence established to protect the vision and mission of the school and to ensure families that there is a plan and process for ongoing study and evaluation of the school’s activity, progress and commitment to its purpose. It is an issue of trust, hence, the use of the term “accreditation” coming from the Latin word credito—meaning “to trust.”

The challenge is to identify an accrediting agency that will not compromise the mission of the school, but rather assist the school in staying focused on its vision and provide it with the professional tools to build on its strengths as it improves and progresses in its mission. NAPCIS is such an accrediting agency for private Catholic and independent schools. Since 1995, NAPCIS has offered its member schools an accreditation process specifically designed to protect the Catholic identity and academic quality of program offered in private Catholic and independent schools. NAPCIS is very grateful for the assistance and model of a unique accreditation agency designed for a specific purpose - AALE; in AALE’s case, to preserve the quality and integrity of classical liberal education, as found in such renowned institutions such as Ave Maria College (MI), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), Christendom College (VA), Magdalen College (NH), University of Dallas (TX) ,Thomas More College (NH) - all accredited by AALE.

NAPCIS service as an accrediting agency is an extension of its mission to provide for the spiritual and academic growth and welfare of our nation’s schoolchildren. Fulfillment of this mission comes with strict obedience to the Magisterium of the Holy Roman Catholic Church and from the implementation of sound and demonstrated practices of education. NAPCIS accreditation unites its member schools in their apostolate of salvation of souls and academic excellence.

NAPCIS accreditation affirms a commitment to salvation of souls and academic excellence and demands that a school apply standards that support and ensure a quality of program that is uncompromising in its Catholic integrity and its performance related to a student’s learning and formation. It recognizes that Catholic education espouses academic excellence in the secular pursuit of excellence for its own sake, and to affect the discernment of vocation. But NAPCIS accreditation also recognizes that Catholic education confirms its identity and fulfills its mission in the supernatural context of its pursuit of excellence, that is, in giving honor and glory to God. It is in living this testimony - Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - that a school is sanctioned and sanctified. It is this activity that accredits the Catholic school; that demonstrates its trustworthiness.

It must also be mentioned that accreditation is often a requirement for the consideration of foundation grants and corporate matching funds. This is no small consideration for private Catholic and independent schools who are entirely dependent on God’s Providence and, in no small part, on the generosity of benefactors.

So, while accreditation is not necessary, it is desirable and is now available at no risk to the identity and mission of a private Catholic and independent school.

To learn more about accreditation, in general, and NAPCIS accreditation, in particular, visit our Accreditation resources online where you will find more information and additional resource links, including a copy of a letter provided to NAPCIS from the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Director of Accreditation and Eligibility Determination Division, which clarifies federal recognition of accrediting agencies and their scope and an HSLDA Issues Analysis article entitled, “Home Schooled Students Excel in College.”

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