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).
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.