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Accreditation as Elegant Fulcrum


The Financial Times published an FT Special Report in March 2023 entitled World of Work: A Guide for Schools. Full of insightful articles such as “My first job: what I wish I had known” or “How to use your experience for a standout application,” what captured my interest was “Welcome to the world of work,” which explored skills for a changing workplace. The focus on skills is not new, to be sure; that conversation has been happening for close to ten years, at this point, and we have no desire to join the seemingly endless argument about skills vs. knowledge. What struck a chord, though, was accreditation…or rather, its absence from the discussion.

“Accreditation,” as clarified by ICAISA (International Council Advancing Independent School Accreditation),” is both a process and a status. It is the process of reviewing schools and their programs to assess their educational quality – how well they serve students and society. This review is repeated every five to ten years if the institution or program is to sustain its accreditation. The result of the successfully completed process is the designation of “accredited” status.”

In our support of schools, we usually require a copy of a school’s most recent accreditation report as a means of helping us to understand its recent trajectory, and where it is headed. Such a report also identifies areas for growth and development, typically identified by the school itself and affirmed by a visiting quality assurance team of peers; sometimes the team of peers identifies additional areas of import, some immediate (e.g., health and safety), and some longer-term (e.g., teacher retention).

Accreditation is a helpful tool for schools in myriad ways, and, at the same time, we often wonder whether accreditation could identify new ways by which it might help schools even more. For purposes of this post, we’ll be thinking mostly of independent schools and international schools, yet similar things could be proffered about higher education. First, though, let’s frame the FT’s focus on skills and ‘the world of work’ to ensure a common understanding, and then we’ll consider what role accreditation might play.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) engages in interesting research on a number of levels. It is important to recognise that not all countries in the world are OECD members; therefore it is difficult to extend the OECD’s findings to all countries. That said, its work on skills development (and education, in general) is insightful, and we particularly like that they prepare their data to be analysed and explored, such as their OECD Skills for Jobs database from which the items below are taken.

For purposes of this post, and its focus on independent and international school accreditation, we decided to map skills demands from all participating OECD countries (around 40) against those in demand in the United States, as but one comparison. The visualisation is below.

The darker shade (to the left) represents skill areas that are ‘in excess’ within a given block (of countries) or country, while the lighter shade (to the right) represents those skill areas that are ‘hard to find’ in a given block (of countries) or country.

As we think about primary and secondary education (K-12 schools) in particular, within the framework of the larger conversation on skills and their importance, we note several skills that are considered ‘hard to find’ in the United States:

(1) Cognitive skills (includes originality, quantitative abilities, reasoning, problem-solving, learning)

(2) Arts and humanities knowledge (includes fine arts, history, archaeology, philosophy, theology)

(3) Communication skills (includes active listening, reading comprehension, speaking, writing, communications, and media)

(4) Attitudes (includes adaptability/resilience, motivation/commitment, self-management/rigour, and values)

(5) Resource management (time management, management of material resources, management of financial resources, management of personnel resources, administration, and management)

(6) Business processes (clerical, sales, marketing, customer service, personal service)

For us, without entering into debate on the individual items above, the question arises as to what role, if any, accreditation ought to play within the spectrum of formal education, which continues to occur within an arc of relevance that is constantly unfolding. This ‘unfolding’ includes the notion of skills. Let us consider, then, the guiding principles that inform school accreditation, as divided into three categories (ICAISA):

Within the first category, a set of criteria for effective accreditation practices, we encounter criterion 13, which reads as follows:

Data about student learning includes skills development, which ties into the ‘hard to find’ skills noted earlier. With a few exceptions, we find that schools are struggling with how to do this work. Criterion 13 affords accredited schools the autonomy to select and utilise measures that inform their decision-making, yet many schools are looking for (or need) partners to help them frame and implement this kind of work.

We believe that there exists tremendous opportunity within accreditation’s essential capacities (sub-set of the Guiding Principles, above), what ICAISA terms the “Association Capacity to Evaluate and Adapt the Accreditation Process,” to propel the sector forward in engaging with skills development. What if…accrediting associations helped member schools to develop measurements of these skill areas? If fee-paying schools (e.g., independent schools) are facing strong headwinds vis-à-vis value proposition, surely there exists opportunity to help schools demonstrate–in a data-informed way–how they are developing the skills that students (and society) will need to thrive. Yet too many schools, in our experience, continue to measure the same thing that all other school types measure–namely exam scores. Accreditation could serve as a fulcrum which is appropriately placed by the association, so that the association’s application of force at one end serves to raise the heavy weight on the other (heavy weight = “schools’ ability to demonstrate how they prepare students in these skill areas). Place the fulcrum (accreditation) closer to the heavy weight, then perform the task, following the design of a simple machine that makes the work easier.

In this way, the accrediting associations play an even more impactful role with their member schools–not just holding them accountable to a professional standards, but helping them to advance their missions and their impact in ways that will be beneficial to society as a whole: the public purpose argument for independent schools. Much as NWEA has grown its powerful MAP solution (to the point where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a for-profit company, recently purchased non-profit NWEA, citing the ability to ‘transform the K-12 education experience for teachers and students’), associations would be acting to strengthen their communities and their own value propositions, as well as the value propositions of their member schools. That is where transformation would truly happen.

So we return to the comment made at the outset of this post: what struck a chord (in reading the FT report) was accreditation…or rather, its absence from the discussion around skills. How might we design and place accreditation as a fulcrum within the construction of a simple machine, in order to help schools lean more fully into the work on skills?

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