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We Need To Talk About Accreditation
by Terry Mulcaire, Regular Faculty Member, English Department
"Achievement comes to denote the sort of thing that a well-planned machine can do better than a human being can, and the main effect of education, the achieving of a life of rich significance, drops by the wayside."
—John Dewey, Democracy and Education
As SRJC enters its regular accreditation cycle, faculty need to be aware of the alarming possibility that the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), the agency that will determine our accreditation, appears to have lost sight of its goal. According to the U.S. Department of Education, "The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality." The strongest indicator that ACCJC has gone astray, under the leadership of its current President Barbara Beno, is the hugely disproportionate number of sanctions it is imposing on California Community Colleges. According to Martin Hittelman, former President of the California Federation of Teachers and Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Los Angeles Valley College, out of 126 sanctions issued across the entire nation between 2003 and 2008 by six regional accrediting agencies, 112 (89%) came from ACCJC. More recently, in 2011-12, ACCJC handed down 48 out of a total of 75 (64%) sanctions issued nationwide. And, in turn, a disproportionate number of ACCJC-issued sanctions are "show cause" judgments, the most extreme sanction, threatening closure of a college unless it acts quickly to meet a list of demands from ACCJC. Faculty members at these colleges have charged that, among other things, ACCJC is issuing "show cause" sanctions for marginal problems with administration or bureaucratic procedure that are unrelated to the quality of education at the college, that ACCJC is failing to follow due process, that it is acting arbitrarily and punitively, and that intimidation rather than collaboration has become its modus operandi.
California Community College Independents (CCCI), the consortium of independent bargaining units to which AFA belongs, has passed a vote of no confidence in ACCJC, charging that its accreditation process "has become an instrument of punishment rather than improvement" with sanctions too often imposed over issues "not directly related to student benefit or improved instruction." The California Federation of Teachers has filed a 300-page third-party complaint with ACCJC over the "show cause" sanction it issued CCSF; CFT charges Beno's agency with, among other things, filing misleading statements, disregarding California Public Policy, violating due process under Federal law, and, last but not least, gratuitously attacking the faculty union. Hittelman concludes that, under Beno, ACCJC has become "a rogue accrediting body."
ACCJC claims that it is merely striving to hold colleges to new, higher standards from the Department of Education, under whose authority it operates, but the grossly disproportionate ratios cited above appear to contradict that claim decisively. If ACCJC's claim were true, its sanction rates would be more consistent with the sanction rates of the nation's other accrediting organizations, of zero to 6%. Still, there is truth to the claim that ACCJC's behavior reflects both statewide and national trends in so-called "educational reform." The signature trend of such "reform" is the move to quantify educational results—the hallmark of the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind and a major feature in Obama's "Race to the Top." In California Community Colleges, quantifying "student success" means SLOs and "scorecards" on course completion and degrees; failure to make what ACCJC deems satisfactory progress in formulating and accumulating data on outcomes is a major factor in the sanctions it has been issuing. Since faculty are natural supporters of student success, we have tended to jump on board with this movement, and put our shoulders to the wheel of "success" as ACCJC has presented it to us.
What we may have been missing in doing so, however—and what the increasingly scandalous behavior of ACCJC may finally be making clear—is that the educational reform movement's celebration of "student success" masks a stealthy redefinition of educational success itself, which no longer designates the quality of the education a college offers, but the quantity of outputs a college produces. Responsibility for defining quality has traditionally been the province of the faculty; redefining success in quantitative terms—standardized tests, SLOs, and the like—strips the faculty of that responsibility, and puts it in the hands of administrators and regulators who demand ever higher outputs, even as budget cuts shrink resources. The conceptual model of the reform movement, clearly, is the factory; a key goal of the movement is to redefine the faculty, who will no longer be independent professionals in charge of maintaining the college's quality, but more in the way of industrial line workers tasked with producing the quantities demanded by their bosses. And so it is no coincidence that advocates of educational "reform" include wealthy investors interested in privatizing public education. It is striking, for example, to find the President of the University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit college in the country, sitting on the board of the Department of Education's National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which has federal responsibility for accrediting regional agencies such as ACCJC, which, in turn, accredit public colleges such as SRJC. Conflict of interest, anyone?
Barbara Beno has been reported as saying that the colleges that do best in the accreditation process, as she runs it, are those whose faculty have the least autonomy. In statements such as this one, and in her conduct as the leader of ACCJC, she comes across as an ideological enthusiast of the "reform" movement, a true believer who is using her agency to push through an agenda because she finds herself with the leverage to do so, while there seems to be no one with the authority, or the collective will, to stop her. It's important for us to recognize that under her leadership, ACCJC may no longer be approaching SRJC as a partner in maintaining shared standards of quality. On the contrary, she and the agency under her direction give every appearance of seeking to impose by force their own new quantitative definitions of educational quality.
No matter what our various ideas about educational quality may be, I hope we can agree that such foundational changes in the community college system—in its very definition of educational quality—should be determined by vigorous public debate, and that faculty should have a leading role in that debate. That an accrediting agency may be endeavoring to ram through such changes by fiat is an alarming prospect. It's time for us to recognize this prospect, to educate ourselves about ACCJC, to speak up, and if need be, to organize ourselves in defense of standards of educational quality that are defined and upheld by faculty.
Below are links to sources on ACCJC and its critics.