December 1997

Accounting For Yourself

Accounting For Yourself

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The Challenge of Voluntary Accreditation

We accredit hospitals and children’s mental health centres. What about schools?

By Rosemarie Bahr

Eight people have gathered in a meeting room at Rosseau Lake College on a sunny October Sunday. Outside, everyone else is admiring the fall colours. But these eight educators – an accreditation team from the Canadian Educational Standards Institute (CESI) – barely have time to think about the scenery.

They will spend the next three days looking at every aspect of this 100-student secondary school. "It’s like a pregnancy. At first you’re excited. Then in the last month anxiety starts to build and you want it to come now rather than later," says headmaster Greg Devenish.

The CESI accreditation team assembles outside Rosseau Lake College at the start of their visit. From the left in front are student Yearmine Castel (back to camera), Elinor Cole, George Rutherford, Solette Gelberg, Susan Collacott and Padmini Kalyanam. In the back row are Brian Hedney, Peter Hill, Carolyn Aylward-Viveros, Linda Leckie and students Joshua Pearl and Todd Fraser.

Devenish thinks the visit is only third in importance in the accreditation process. For him, the first is the self-evaluation the school does prior to the visit. Second is the follow-up when the school acts on the report’s recommendations and suggestions.

Rosseau Lake College has already made changes, based on what it found out during its year-long self-evaluation. "We’ve already improved our communications and done some work on safety issues, like having more medical kits and training all the staff in CPR," says Devenish.

Usually, when we think of accreditation, we think of hospitals, not schools. Hospitals, nursing homes and similar care providers can belong to the Canadian Council on Health Services Accreditation, which sets standards and grants accreditation. More recently, children’s mental health centres and children’s aid societies in Ontario have started to participate in an accreditation process. Like other institutions that care for children and vulnerable adults, they see accreditation as a way of being accountable and ensuring the delivery of good services.

Schools No Different

"Schools are no different than any other entity where you have a group of human beings trained to do something special and they’re delivering a service. If you stop and think about it, it doesn’t matter where it is, we evaluate and accredit other organizations, but we don’t evaluate anything other than individual teachers in public schools. We evaluate and accredit hospitals. We don’t just look at nurses and doctors and therapists, we look at the whole institution to see if it’s providing good service," says Solette Gelberg. Gelberg is executive director of CESI and a member of the Council of the Ontario College of Teachers.

The private schools belonging to CESI – 29 in Ontario – go through a rigorous accreditation process. CESI was founded in 1986 to "develop and promote high educational standards for schools in Canada and to foster compliance thereto, while recognizing the independence, integrity, and uniqueness of its individual member schools." Member schools range in size from 60 to 1,100 students.

The CESI process starts with an extensive self-evaluation, which can take three to four months. Using a set of guidelines, the school community divides itself into teams to look over its own operations. In this process, the teams look into parts of the school in which they don’t work, so they are not evaluating their own department.

Thorough Review

With this report in hand, a visiting team of seven to 12 people arrives at the school on a Sunday afternoon. Until Wednesday, they go to class, visit with students in the halls and dormitories, talk with teachers, parents, students and alumni, and meet with the school’s board.

This visiting team will include teachers, staff and heads of similar schools and members of a faculty of education. There may also be board members of other schools or someone from a ministry of education in another province.

The team has 50 to 60 areas to check out, and they tackle them in small groups. The groups will look at the school from top to bottom, including the school’s objectives, values, discipline, extra-curricular activities, academic program, evaluation procedures, finances, management, staffing policies, community relations, admission procedures, governance, and physical facilities.

Their report will contain both recommendations, which the school must fulfill, and suggestions. It will also mention areas where the school is doing well. A recommendation might be that the teachers get more professional development. A suggestion could be that the school consider setting up a professional development committee to get input from their teachers.

The visiting team sends the report to the CESI board along with its recommendation on whether the school should get full accreditation. The school then has 18 months to fulfill any recommendations. The report helps a school improve, plan, and generate new ideas.

Takes Courage

Natalie Little, a 26-year veteran of the public school system who now is head of Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, has been on both the giving and receiving end of a CESI accreditation. She is impressed with the process: "Any institution that wants to keep the best of its traditions and move to being more innovative and creative, and even be around in 20 years, should do some serious soul searching. And one way to do that is to bring in a group of outsiders. It takes an incredible courage to do it, but it works."

While the CESI accreditation is the most rigorous, some other private schools go through a similar process. The 73 schools that belong to the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools call it an evaluation. Communications director John Vanasselt says their process evaluates the school’s financial administration, recruitment, and involvement with the community as well as instruction and written curriculum. Visiting teams average three people, including someone who has supervisory officer qualifications, someone from a faculty of education and an experienced principal.

Students canoe on Lake Rosseau. The
accreditation team looks at all aspects of
the school.

Other private schools are also moving to accreditation. Waldorf schools, which have used a mentoring system to help new schools prepare for membership in the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America, recently began work on establishing an accreditation process.

Montessori schools that belong to the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators must now go through their new accreditation process to become full members of the council. Expanding their previous evaluation into a full accreditation, according to CCMA secretary Terry Gorrie, is "recognition that we as educators must be more accountable, regardless of whether we’re public or private."

Little Regulation

Private schools, or independent schools as many prefer to be called, are not paid for by government, nor are they accountable to it. Ministry of Education and Training involvement is minimal. It publishes a list of private schools (650), keeps basic statistics, such as how many children attend private schools (75,000) and how many people teach in them (9,000, of whom an estimated 80 per cent are College members).

This published list includes a disclaimer: "... inclusion of a private school in this directory does not imply that the instruction it offers has been approved by the ministry." The Ministry of Education and Training may inspect a private secondary school that has requested inspection in order to authorize the principal to grant credits in subjects leading to the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. The inspection relates to the standard of instruction. The ministry does not inspect health equipment nor practices related to safety and staffing issues.

In other words, the ministry inspects only schools that offer secondary courses for credit.

In fact, the Ontario Council of Independent Schools, an umbrella organization representing private school associations, last year suggested to the ministry that an evaluation or accreditation process be used to replace even these ministry inspections.

Accreditation Spreading

Public schools, however, are held accountable to the taxpayers and parents through a variety of standards and undergo regular inspections. But, even though public schools in Ontario are more regulated than schools in the United States, some public schools have already decided to set their own standards and go through a process similar to accreditation.

Paul Wightman, chair of the school’s board, and headmaster Greg Devenish talk with College Council member Solette Gelberg, who is CESI’s executive director.

The North York Board of Education started its quality assurance program in the mid-80s. In the first year of a three-year cycle, 15 elementary schools participated, 15 secondary schools in the next year, and 15 middle schools in the third.

This program combines quantitative data, in the form of a 40-question survey to teachers, parents and students, and qualitative data in the form of a school visit by a review team.

The visiting team consists of a trustee, a parent from that or another school, a supervisory officer and outsiders – perhaps someone who’s involved in quality assurance at a large company. They will stay in the school for three or four days, interviewing individuals and groups and observing class and extra-curricular activities.

Staff from the board compile the report, using the information from the questionnaire, the visiting team’s report, and feedback from the school. Each school receives its own report, also available to the public, complete with commendations and recommendations.

The board uses the information from all the schools evaluated and the results of the board’s student testing programs in math and literacy to give a full picture of the quality of education across the system and progress since the previous evaluation. Every year, each school submits a report to the board, outlining what it has done to follow up on the recommendations.

This year, the North York Board is moving to self-evaluation. Schools will evaluate themselves using a set of criteria developed by the board and smaller review teams. These teams will be made up mostly of people from within the school. In addition, a small number of schools will get an audit by an outside team.

Supporters of the process say that accreditation – whether it’s in public or private schools – is about accountability and good education. Natalie Little says, "All institutions should welcome it because, as educators, we spend all our time evaluating. We should then also welcome evaluation."

Ruth Baumann, who does government relations for the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, has a personal interest in accreditation, sparked by her knowledge of the American system. "In the U.S., where governments have never occupied the policy and regulatory role in the delivery of programs to the extent that provincial ministries of education have, these accreditation systems have provided a set of external benchmarks. As governments here seem to be vacating that role, having external benchmarks could become very important."