Is High School Accreditation Necessary? (Jerry Brodkey)

Jerry Brodkey teaches at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California. He has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. He now teaches remedial algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus.  His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and has graduate degrees from Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987).

 He has written guest posts on “smart” boards,  stress on high school students, and Khan Academy.

Menlo-Atherton High School, in Menlo Park,  California, where I have taught since 1983, just finished its accreditation process.  The general public may not be aware, but schools in California undergo a review process under the auspices of the Western Association of School and Colleges  (known as WASC).  Schools do a self-study, prepare documents, and develop a school plan.  A visiting team then comes for a few days, meets with various school groups, and issues a judgment on whether or not the school will be accredited.  The visiting team has different options.  It can issue a six-year accreditation, a three-year accreditation with a re-visit at that time, or in rare instances can refuse to accredit a school.  In the past, the accreditation process was important as it was deemed that having outsiders judge the worthiness of a school was essential to maintain quality.  Colleges and employers might look to see if a high school graduate came from an accredited secondary school.

When I first started teaching, the WASC process was simple.  About a year before the end of a cycle, the principal would select a faculty member to prepare the WASC report. This person, with the help of a few others, would gather information and produce a big document called the WASC report.  The visiting team would come, ask some questions, do some interviews, issue a few recommendations for change, and make a judgment. That would be that.

The WASC process has grown into an immense endeavor. Now the WASC report involves the entire staff. Collectively we spend thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff time on this project.  Every teacher is required to be in a focus group, prepare individual binders, which to the best of my knowledge, no one ever looks at, and have meeting after meeting.  What, if anything, is achieved by all of this?

As far as I know, the process is a tremendous waste of resources.  Any good school should, of course, be constantly engaged in a process of self-examination, reflection, and change.  If this is not already a part of the school’s culture, will being forced to do so because of WASC really change anything?  I don’t think so.  When we have had strong District and school leadership that focused on change and improvement, we certainly didn’t need WASC to move forward.  When we didn’t have that leadership or the commitment of the faculty, change didn’t occur no matter what we did for WASC.  It has now become a bureaucratic nightmare.

At one time, perhaps it was necessary to have outsiders visit our schools and give them a stamp of approval or disapproval.  Is this still necessary today for public schools?  The world of schools has changed. Annual test scores are published on the front page of the local papers.  Parents can easily access information regarding the scope and quality of the school’s programs.  Parents serve side by side with staff on a variety of important committees and school endeavors.  We openly publish what colleges and programs our students attend after graduation.  The performance of our students on SAT tests, Advanced Placement exams, the California High School Proficiency test, etc. are all made public and widely distributed.  What additional purpose does WASC now serve?

When I graduated with my teaching credential from Stanford in 1976, I was young and idealistic. Now I am older and still idealistic.  I remember at the Stanford graduation, President  Richard Lyman admonished the graduates to “be selective in your cynicisms”.   As I grow older, I become more impatient with jumping  through hoops for no clear purpose.  I resent spending precious time and community resources on a process that seems irrelevant.  I am worried about my students and their futures, not about preparing binders full of materials that no one will ever view.  I am cynical about WASC.

Real change is difficult. The WASC process has not, in my opinion, moved us forward.   It would take courage to take on this educational monopoly. I wish school boards would look at the process and determine if it is worth doing.  I wish WASC would go away.



Filed under Reforming schools

14 responses to “Is High School Accreditation Necessary? (Jerry Brodkey)

  1. Bob Caveney

    Thank you Jerry, for bringing this subject up. Clearly, as you have said, “The WASC process has not […] moved us forward. ”
    It looks like WASC is not mandatory – even according to the WASC website: , but that it is used as a de facto standard. For example, some school districts only count a candidate’s years teaching to be those in WASC-accredited schools.
    It looks like they will accredit virtually any school. I looked up a few on their website.
    Perhaps, it is useful to have some body certify that a school is minimally legitimate, teaches science versus creationism and so on, but on the other hand, the point you make is well taken, that other means for evaluating the school are already available.
    It occurs to me that perhaps accreditation might be better done at the school district level, to limit the amount of resources required to go through a process, which on its face, appears to assure but a pulse.

  2. Hi Jerry.

    Can we get rid of BTSA while we are at it? I completed it recently and found it nearly a complete waste of time, a bureaucratic nightmare, and a loadstone around my neck for the first two years of my teaching career.

    Here’s what I submitted as feedback when I completed my first year of BTSA. For my second year, I simply ran as far and fast as I could from the program…

    “The opportunity to meet regularly with my Support Provider and to discuss challenges and successes was the most valuable aspect of BTSA. Everything else paled in comparison. In many ways, the other BTSA elements interfered with my ability to have meaningful discussions since the contrived nature of the majority of the BTSA program directed conversations away from what was most relevant and pertinent in the moment. Absent the regularly scheduled meetings with my Support Provider, the passion and purpose for my teaching might not have had the chance to be recharged, or the challenges and difficulties of a first year teacher be remedied.

    The compassionate, adult interaction between a Support Provider and a Participating Teacher is critical to keeping teachers committed to the profession. I would go so far to suggest that many of the other elements in BTSA be de-emphasized, as they seem only to serve a check-box process of accountability with minimal true value delivered, especially for first year teachers coming to BTSA from credential programs using the PACT system, which FACT seems to duplicate in not very meaningful ways.”

    STEP 2011

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Dave, for your comments on BTSA and underscoring the crucial importance of meeting regularly with the experienced teacher.

      • Jerry Brodkey

        I do like the idea of having “accreditation” done at the the school district level. Districts should be identifying problems at schools and helping schools construct clear paths to improve. There must be some better way that would save thousands of hours of teacher, administrator, and community time to truly tackle problems instead of jumping through bureaucratic hoops in an exercise that accomplishes little.

    • Jerry Brodkey

      Thanks Dave; Very nicely said. I agree with Larry — the heart of BTSA as I understand it is the collaboration between teachers. The bureaucracy that accompanies it should all be chopped back. I am glad I missed many of these newer programs that are accompanied by complex paperwork and time-consuming meetings. I clearly remember my first years of teaching, and the last thing I needed was meetings and programs that wasted time. -Jerry Brodkey (STEP 1976!)

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  4. Louise Kowitch

    This could not be more timely. The kabuki that my school is doing couldn’t be more artificial and superfluous to the good work my district strains to do already against the other state and federal mandates. THANK YOU!!!!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Louise, for the comment.

    • Jerry Brodkey

      I like the comparison to a “kabuki” theater. I think if the public knew of the wasted hours that could have been spent working with students it would be outraged. We had several minimum days sending students home early so we could work on WASC projects that seemed at best to have minimal value. Thanks for writing — Jerry Brodkey

  5. Ami Orr

    I am not an educator, but I am a parent of two senior high school students, a pediatrician, and the product of public education from kindergarten through medical school. As a physician, we are subject to countless accreditation type activities including taking national recertification exams every seven years, demonstrating 50-100 hours of continuing education annually and practice improvement activities. Our hospitals are visited and examined by the Joint Commission at regular intervals. Patient outcomes for common diagnoses are examined and compared to nationally normed data. The Joint Commission not only looks at written materials, but will pick random patients in the ER and follow their course throughout their interaction with the hospital. They will randomly ask doctors, nurses, and any other staff questions about safety measures, hospital policies, etc. during their visit. So personally, I find all of this hand wringing about teachers/schools being held to precise standards and outcomes measures a bit absurd. All “professions” have standards that must be demonstrated and upheld. Lawyers pass a Bar Exam, physicians pass three sets of national Board Exams, engineers take Professional Engineering exams, CPA’s and other accounting professionals have their licensure exams, as do cosmetologists, dentists, and air traffic controllers.
    As a parent, I have seen the erosion of the quality of the education my kids have received to the point that, if I had the opportunity, I would have never put them into the high school they attend. I have seen many newer high school teachers who have no passion for connecting with kids, lack the basic knowledge to teach their subjects, are too reliant on technology to “teach” and really do not care if the kids learn anything at all.
    I listen to people say that “drill and kill” will snuff out kids’ passion for subjects like math and science. I see that math is being taught more “conceptually” in school, compared to when I was in high school. Personally, I feel we are doing our kids a great disservice with this approach to math, especially in this day of emphasizing STEM in our schools. When kids are taught to read, they are given repetitive exercises to learn their letters, letter sounds, blends, site words, etc. No one would teach the “concept” of the alphabet, and then ask a student to read “War and Peace”. No football coach would tell the kids to understand the concept behind the plays, and then expect them to execute them on game day. Reading, and especially sports, are drilled into the kids until those skills are second nature. Our kids are not being taught math as a language. They do not posses the basic computation skills that allow them to think about math on higher levels. They are being numerically hobbled by the current educational system that is so worried about mathematical burn out, that is has gone to the opposite extreme and not given students a sound foundation.
    If the education community in this country really wants to earn the respect it had a generation (or two) ago, it is time to look inward. Make being a high school teacher really mean something. Look at the quality of the people being accepted into high school education training programs; look at the quality of the people being promoted to school administration.
    From a policy standpoint, teachers need to be significantly better compensated for what they do. However, this is a double edged sword. Until the US starts turning out better teachers, it will be hard to justify better pay. Until teaching pays a living wage, it will be impossible to attract quality people into teaching. In my opinion, the way to do this is NOT to refuse to meet standards, but to be part of the process that creates those standards. Create meaningful standards that address the skills that are critical for 21st century success. If the education community is not going to be part of the solution, it is part of the problem. There are many intangibles that go into a person being a great teacher (or any other professional), so to decry standards and metrics because of that is not valid. Teaching is not unique in that respect. There are basic skills that students need to learn, and that is the responsibility of the educational system in this country. How those skills are imparted is open for debate, trial and error. But, in this physician’s opinion, to refuse to be held accountable is not the first step in the right direction.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Ami, for the comment on Jerry Brodkey’s post about accreditation. Comparing medicine and other professions for their standards and accreditation mechanisms makes sense. You weave in your personal experiences with the high school your kids attend and then go on to point out the chicken-and-egg conundrum facing schools of getting better teachers, higher salaries, and training of teachers and administrators. All of these are entangled, including accreditation, with one another making it hard to disentangle them and decide where to begin. I should point out that there was never a “golden age” a few generations ago when teachers were “respected” and are not now.

      • Jerry & Pat Brodkey \(Miler\)

        Thanks, Larry. I hope you and your family are well and having a good fall. School very busy as always, plus a lot of ddriving kids from place to place. I am teaching David how to drive and once he gets his license maybe I can have time for some more bike rides!  Very best wishes — Jerry

      • larrycuban

        OK, Jerry.

  6. Jerry Brodkey

    Thank you, Ami, for your most thoughtful reply to my post. I agree with much of what you wrote. The problem I have with the current accreditation process is not with the idea of requiring teachers and schools to be held to extremely high standards and meaningful reflection and evaluation. The best teachers I know are always learning, always working with colleagues, always searching for ways to improve what they are doing. In my opinion, the bureaucratic and overbearing accreditation process does not accomplish true improvement. Instead, it fosters more cynicism, more paperwork that is meaningless and distracts those of us in education from truly putting the time and energy into tackling the very serious issues in schools today.

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