The Importance of Being Accredited

Questions and Answers with Dr. Boyce C. Williams

This is an extended version of an article which orignally appeared in “Tomorrow’s Teachers 2001”, a publication of the National Education Association for its student members. Reprinted with permission.

The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) is working to improve how America prepares its teachers by accrediting colleges and universities that meet national standards. Nearly 600 education programs — which prepare two-thirds of the nation’s teachers — are accredited, including most state universities. As Vice President for Institutional Relations, Boyce Williams works with universities and colleges pursuing NCATE accreditation.

Why is NCATE now focusing on “performance-based” standards? What are they?

Boyce: Performance-based standards answer the question every parent with a child in a new teacher’s classroom wants to know: How does the new teacher know what she is teaching? And, how will my child learn what she is teaching? It’s not enough these days for new teachers to simply know academic subject material. They have to know how to teach it to children with different learning styles; they have to both know their material and show that they know what to do with it. It’s not just about an education student’s command of an academic subject. We want to know whether they can actually cause children to learn. Multiple assessment measures — like videotaping lessons, evaluating portfolios and journals, and testing student knowledge — all help candidates learn how to teach to a variety of learning styles.

Why is accreditation so important?

Boyce: The answer comes down to one thing: accountability. Accreditation is the ultimate measure of quality in new teachers, like a professional seal of approval, because it assures the public across the board — parents, business leaders, policymakers — that candidates coming out of a particular institution have been prepared to teach using rigorous national standards that have been designed by the profession. There are some programs that aren’t accredited that adequately prepare new teachers, but research has found that accredited programs produce the best teachers. Hospitals don’t hire doctors unless they’ve graduated from accredited schools; someday the same might be said for teachers. By holding teacher preparation programs to high standards, we are assuring the public that they can be confident in new teachers.

How does accreditation help connect tomorrow’s teachers with today’s classrooms?

Boyce: One of the largest components of our standards is the importance of field experience — both for education professors and education students. We now expect faculty to be in local public schools working with teachers, and to be inviting them into their classrooms to help facilitate case studies. We expect education students to have multiple experiences in a variety of local schools. Through accreditation we are slowly changing the view that students learn best while sitting in a classroom. You can’t become a good teacher if this is how you are taught. For so long the culture has valued this type of exchange, but since accreditation places such an emphasis on hands-on work, we’re slowly helping change the culture. Field experiences are becoming rewarded and valued, as they should be.

What is involved in the accreditation process?

Boyce: To gain NCATE accreditation, an institution needs to meet standards that are set by teachers and other educators through a process that involves all education stakeholders. We make sure several things are in place, for example that there is criteria to monitor teacher candidates through evaluation systems, that the institution is state accredited, that the program they are delivering is grounded in research, and that the school has a belief about the kind of teachers they are preparing. Professionally trained volunteers also visit campuses and examine how well standards are being met. It’s usually about a three-year process to become accredited and then in order to maintain accreditation, institutions submit an annual report and go through yearly evaluations.

What can students in non-accredited colleges do to help their schools become accredited?

Boyce: I’ve seen accreditation fueled by a group of students who come together to collectively inquire and question their dean and professors about accreditation. The president of the NEA Student Association sits on the NCATE board, and NEA has many people who are directly involved with our organization. The resources to educate education schools are abundant. It’s just a matter of taking those first steps to make it happen.