It seems like one of those things you’d almost take for granted — that the state’s flagship public university wouldn’t have any problems maintaining its accreditation.
But the University of Arkansas’s teacher education program is in just such straits, and stands to lose its ability to graduate licensable teachers if it doesn’t shape up over the next two years.
The National Council for Accrediting Teacher Education is the country’s leading accreditor of teacher education programs. They send trained peer-review teams to colleges and universities every seven years to conduct detailed studies of how they prepare new teachers, and how good a job those new teachers do once they’re out in the field. The team that visited the University of Arkansas last fall found some serious weaknesses in the categories of assessment and diversity — two of six areas NCATE evaluates — and as a result NCATE this spring decided to re-accredit the university’s teacher-ed program “with conditions.”
That means another review team will come back in two years to see whether the program’s leaders have made enough progress. If they have, the “with conditions” will be removed from the program’s accreditation status. If they haven’t, the program will lose its accreditation altogether. If that happens, the U of A’s graduates wouldn’t be eligible to become licensed teachers in Arkansas.
Reed Greenwood, dean of the U of A’s College of Education and Health Professions, won’t admit to being embarrassed by the conditional accreditation, but said he is concerned.
“We’ve got things we can work on,” he said. “It’s a matter of emphasis more than resources.”
Of all the teacher-education programs NCATE visited last fall, 33 percent were accredited either “with conditions” (28 percent) or, worse, “on probation” (5 percent). That’s up some from previous years because the agency recently finished a 5-year phase-in of new standards, said Jane Leibbrand, vice president of communications for the agency. Historically, NCATE has judged a teacher-ed program based on what it calls “inputs” — things like course content and qualifications of the faculty. Now it’s shifted to a more “outcomes-based” focus, where programs are judged more on what their graduates know and can do.
The U of A was the first Arkansas school NCATE evaluated under the new standards, but three other schools will get their chance in the next year: Arkansas Tech had an accreditation visit scheduled for this spring, and three schools — the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Philander Smith College and Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge — will have theirs this fall.
They might be able to learn from where NCATE found weak spots in Fayetteville’s program. Specifically, the NCATE team reported:
•The U of A’s teacher-education college doesn’t systematically use follow-up data on graduates to make improvements in the program.
•The college doesn’t have a way to make sure the assessments it developed itself are consistent, fair and accurate.
•The college didn’t provide evidence that candidates in advanced programs can show they’ve learned the material and prove they’ve had a positive impact on student learning.
•The college doesn’t ensure that prospective teachers and candidates in the educational administration program do their field training in schools that expose them to students from a variety of racial/ethnic, socio-economic and ability groups.
• The teacher-education faculty, and the student body in some of its programs, aren’t diverse enough. (Diversity has been a lingering sore point for the Fayetteville campus as a whole.)
To have those faults officially cited means they’re fairly serious, Leibbrand said.
“They can have weaknesses but still meet all the standards,” she said. “For them to have conditions, there’s a pattern of weaknesses that needed to be remedied.”
NCATE teams typically spend about five days at the institution they’re evaluating. They look over reams of papers, such as samples of work from children taught by prospective teachers and graduates from the institution, end-of-course exams, standardized test scores, even minutes of faculty meetings. The team members also interview faculty and students, and may also sit in on classes.
Before the team leaves, they give the school’s officials a preliminary report. The school then gets a chance to submit a written defense, called a “rejoinder.” A separate committee of NCATE-trained education professionals then makes the final decision.
If the committee members don’t conclude a school is meeting all the standards, they have several options. In the U of A’s case, it’s conditional accreditation with a re-visit in two years. The teacher-education program won’t get a third chance, either. If it doesn’t meet the standards in 2007, it loses its accreditation altogether.
Greenwood insisted that isn’t going to happen. The weaknesses NCATE found weren’t with the quality of the college’s programs, he said, but with how they measured and documented that quality.
“I think we are already in the process of moving forward,” he said of the assessment-related issues. “I don’t think these things are particularly difficult to do.”
Diversity, on the other hand, is a dicier matter. Northwest Arkansas’s demographics should make it easy enough to give student-teachers exposure to Hispanic students, but NCATE’s definition of diversity also includes low-income and special-needs students. Greenwood said he’s sure the U of A’s prospective teachers mostly are already interacting with a variety of students, but the college will be developing a specific policy to make sure it happens in the future.
Diversifying the teacher-ed program’s faculty and student body, however, isn’t so easily accomplished. But Leibbrand said no teacher-ed program would ever lose its accreditation if those were the only two conditions it hadn’t fixed.
Losing the U of A as a source of new teachers would be a major blow. Its teacher-ed program isn’t the largest in the state, but Greenwood said it typically graduates about 125 students per year from its Master of Arts in Teaching program, the university’s primary entry-level degree for new teachers.
And even though the college has to wait two long years to get the chance to clear its name, Greenwood said he doesn’t think enrollment will suffer in the meantime.
“We’ll be able to get the clear message out that we’re addressing these issues,” he said.