Tag Archive for accreditation

Visiting Teams and Professional Learning

[I am trying a new, compact format for blog posts so that I share here more often. Let me know what you think.]

ClassroomI just finished serving for on a NWAIS Accreditation visiting team for four days. These teams perform a vital function in supporting the long-term viability of independent schools. They provide every school with an outside perspective and targeted feedback to help improve their programs. They also represent powerful professional development for visiting team members. Over three and a half days, one dives deeply into the values and functions of a school, touring the campus, interviewing community members, reading the school’s self-study, and poring over supporting documents. The school is asked to provide full transparency into all of its processes, so conversations go deeply quickly.

A Visiting Team is comprised of professionals from peer schools that cover the diverse functions of an independent school. This team included two heads of schools plus experts in academic program, student life, technology, enrollment management, teaching, and experiential programs. NWAIS designs the teams to cover the breadth of school functions and provide the school with feedback targeted to its particular character. Collaboration is strong, as team members work closely to share observations, discuss findings, and review each others’ writing.

Serving this year was intentional, as I am leading our self-study process starting later this year. The new NWAIS Demonstrations of Success and Generative Questions focus much more on values and practices than the old format. This is much improved over the old format, in which the school documented all aspects of its programs, a time-consuming process of questionable, long-term value. Principles and practices are easier to capture and review and arguably better support the long-term success of a school. Since this is a big change from the old format, it is quite helpful to live the new process on a visiting team before leading it at one’s own school.

If you would like to serve on an accreditation visiting team, tell your head of school, who will recommend you to the NWAIS director of accreditation.

Learning Through Accreditation

The accreditation process serves as valuable professional development for both the members of the visiting team and the faculty and staff of the school itself. I recently returned from a school accreditation visit in Seattle. I read the school’s thoughtful, 200-page self-study, visited classes, interviewed teachers, discussed observations, and co-wrote the visiting team report with 10 colleagues from different schools. Within three days, I had gained a pretty detailed understanding of the internal workings of a school. How else can one do that?

Certain school traits are nearly universal. High schools generally follow a liberal arts curriculum. The teacher-student relationship is highly valued. At the same time, no two schools are identical. Schools have different measures of success, and they use different methods to get there. Understanding many different schools helps one learn that there is no “one best system” (Tyack). Staff who work in a single school for many years run the risk of concluding that their model of a successful school is better than others.

One school may have a laptop program and a Smart Board in every classroom. Others may rely on laptop carts, tablets, or few computers at all. One school may consider athletics a premier program, another school puts it on the same level as community service, outdoor programs, and global trips. Schools differ in the lengths of their terms, administrative positions, block schedules, academic departments, advisory structures, and so on. How the program is executed is more important than the configuration of these structural components alone.

Accreditation also provides one of the few formal accountability measures of an independent school. Of course, independent schools are ultimately accountable to their families, who can express satisfaction or displeasure with their feet. A board of trustees also provides high-level accountability in the form of school governance. Accreditation is more comprehensive and direct in its observations than any other method. While losing one’s accredited status is unlikely, the school formally presents its program to an external body for review and gains an opportunity to reflect in a manner that may inform future decisions.

This year, our school is writing its own self-study, and next fall we will host a visiting team. We have begun our process of validating the mission and explaining how we organize the program to embody the mission every day. This winter, our IT Team and Co-curricular Innovation Council groups will write two sections of the self-study, summarizing key program aspects and identifying opportunities for improvement. We should emerge from this work with a more coherent sense of who we are and specific strategic directions for the future.

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