, Salem, MA

January 30, 2014

Our view: Time to question school accreditors

The Salem News

---- — Our local schools are under ever-increasing mandates and scrutiny, imposed upon them by both state and federal governments. In recent years, the day-to-day work of teachers and administrators has become thickly infused with strict guidelines that, in theory anyway, are supposed to bring a uniform quality to public education. Educators spend enormous amounts of time demonstrating that they are meeting these standards.

It’s spurred an interesting phenomenon among a number of New England schools. They are beginning to question the value of “accreditation,” a designation awarded by a nonprofit organization known as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Inc., or NEASC for short.

We think that educators on the front line are wise to criticize the value of being a dues-paying member of NEASC, particularly given the myriad of state standards and mandated costs already imposed on local schools.

Pentucket Regional School District is the latest to join this growing chorus. Pentucket’s accreditation was recently extended by NEASC. However, Superintendent Jeffrey Mulqueen questioned whether Pentucket’s involvement is worth it, given the enormous amount of time and money the school is forced to dedicate to NEASC’s investigators, and the resulting value and relevance of what NEASC delivers.

He’s not alone. Last spring, several superintendents representing Massachusetts public schools sent a highly detailed letter to NEASC, expressing similar concerns. Though couched in thoughtful language, the letter’s critical punch was made clear in the bullet points that the superintendents observed: that NEASC’s standards are inflexible; it imposes a dual standard that allows private schools to exhibit creativity and leeway, while punishing public schools that do the same; it is costly in terms of both staff time and money; it pays “little attention to criticism and input” from its member schools; and its process is no longer relevant to the standards that the state now mandates.

Indeed, NEASC’s drain on local finances has been mentioned more than a few times by local school officials. Local schools can expect to pay annual dues of about $13,500, plus substantial additional fees, as well as lodging, food and travel expenses when NEASC dispatches a team to a school district during its certification process.

NEASC itself is an expensive organization to fund. The nonprofit’s top-nine paid employees received compensation packages ranging from a low of $153,000 to a high of nearly $300,000, according to 2012 filings with the IRS.

The organization is the oldest of its type in the nation, founded in the 1850s in an era when educational standards were broadly inconsistent. It was designed to bring school systems to a uniform level of quality by closely examining its member schools and guiding them toward the best educational practices. It awarded those that “passed the test” with accreditation.

But the need for NEASC standards is largely gone, particularly in Massachusetts, where the state’s department of education holds such heavy sway over the management of schools. Educators are already being held tightly to state standards, and so it should be no surprise that they are beginning to see NEASC as an unnecessary burden.

A few years ago, such a movement would have been impossible to imagine. NEASC’s accreditation standards held enormous sway over educators and the public. The threat of losing accreditation was often used as a blunt cudgel to scare taxpayers into doing whatever it may be that NEASC suggested.

Today, the threat of losing accreditation may still hold some sway, but superintendents have made a strong argument demonstrating NEASC’s weaknesses. We think that as local schools are challenged to meet ever-restrictive standards, one master is enough.