Accreditation pervades American education from kindergarten through graduate school. It has become a means through which the government enforces subpar educational outcomes and increases its power.
Of course, it didn’t start out that way.
Primary and secondary accreditation began in the 1880s as a voluntary method to improve quality among schools and establish standards for students preparing for college.
Today, accreditation is a prerequisite for receiving federal funds. It provides minimum input standards — thereby lowering the bar — discourages alternative methods, and lowers quality by discouraging high performers.
As noted by Ann Neal, the former president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “Accreditation has morphed away from its original intent of a voluntary process schools used for self-improvement to a gatekeeper process with billions of dollars of federal financial aid money at stake.”
A casual observer can witness the impact of accreditation’s changed purpose: progressive ideas have replaced American traditions. This in turn has undermined the character formation and discipline of students. It has also resulted in students who are poorly informed of essential American traditions.
The accreditation process has dramatically impacted the kind of teachers who are hired. Private schools can hire retired Ph.D. mathematicians, physicists, and engineers, but accreditation binds public schools to teacher licensing. Why must someone with a Ph.D. in mathematics, who can teach freshmen in college, be precluded from teaching seniors in high school?
Most states do not require private schools to be accredited, yet many parents know that private schools provide superior outcomes. This is because accreditation is focused on inputs, like licensed teachers, not outcomes, like demonstrated teacher success.
One hundred years after the founding of accreditation, a 1983 report by the Department of Education, titled “A Nation at Risk,” concluded: “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”
The report found a lack of rigor, standards, and teacher training. It also recommended higher compensation based on student achievement. Recognition of excellent outcomes is imperative to achieving excellence and to educating students to their highest potential. Teachers unions have always opposed pay for teachers based on performance, which is why teachers are paid more for tenure than for outcomes.
American public education has been plagued not by a process of improvement but rather by a process of standardization of inputs. Teacher certification has become a bureaucratic process, not an evaluation of a teacher’s ability to teach. Once teachers are tenured and licensed, they can coast in the classroom for decades, regardless of their effectiveness. Thales Academy, an affordable K-12 school that I founded in North Carolina, solved this problem by not requiring licensing, seeking highly qualified instructors, issuing strictly one-year contracts subject to annual renewal, and not offering tenure.
Most parents, to their peril, assume that accreditation is a mark of excellence and an absolute requirement. And yet, many accredited inner-city schools graduate students with zero or minimal reading skills. They simply want their graduation rates to be high for accreditation and government funding purposes. In many of these schools, accreditation is influencing, if not driving, graduation rates.
Parents also believe accreditation is required to enter college, but this is not the case. Colleges and universities have developed rigorous standards to understand the quality of students and schools. Colleges know that grade inflation, class rank, and accreditation are not good measures of student abilities.
Thales Academy has never been accredited and all of our students attend various higher educational institutions. Our students enter the best private and public colleges in America and achieve high scores in the SAT and the Classical Learning Test.
In contrast, North Carolina public schools, all of which are accredited, have declined in enrollment by six percent between 2015 and 2020, despite the rapid growth of the state’s population.
During the COVID year of 2020, most public schools were shuttered but provided online instruction. Unfortunately, the quality of this instruction was mostly deficient. For the first time, many parents witnessed the deficiencies of these accredited schools and departed for home and private schools.
Vocational education must also be considered. During the last 30 years, schools have eliminated or deemphasized vocational education under the premise that all students should attend college. And yet, Census Bureau data confirms that only 36 percent of students complete college by age 25. If the focus of accreditation is getting all students ready for college, then it is not serving the remaining 64 percent of students. And in fact, most students would be better served with a combination of academics and vocational skills. Employers have also been hurt by this; the reality is that America has a massive shortage of workers in virtually every trade and technical skill.
Accreditation’s focus on inputs rather than outcomes results in an overemphasis on factors like how many books are in the library rather than demonstrated excellence. This is in contrast to how corporations operate. Virtually all products and services are measured by outcomes, namely, by finished quality rather than the size of the factory or the credentials of producers. Many U.S. companies no longer require college degrees in hiring, as they recognize the value of other forms of education, including self-learning, experience, and apprenticeships.
Unfortunately, accreditation in K-12 schools has become an arduous, bureaucratic, and time-consuming burden for teachers and administrators. Schools are careful to please accreditors more than parents and students. Standardized tests have not proven to be a solution. Some solutions include the Classical Curriculum and International Baccalaureate, which have rigorous standards and are based on quality texts and proven, well-designed curricula.
Finally, values, culture, and discipline are imperative to the learning environment and process, and they must be free of ephemeral popular culture propaganda. Parents must know what type of ideologies their child will be learning and embodying. Schools must produce self-sufficient, contributing, and virtuous adults with thinking skills.
Institutions should be judged by the quality of their graduates, not by the legacy of accreditors. Let the parents be the arbiters, choosing the best schools for their children. The highest quality options will soon be apparent.