What does the phrase “waste of time” mean to you? To me, it is when I spend time doing something that seems to serve no majorly useful purpose. The “seems to” is a subjective qualifier here – what one person views as a waste of time may not beseen as such by others. For example, spending time reading for leisure might be viewed by some as a waste of time (or a time killer), but to me, it wouldn’t be a waste of time because it serves the purpose of helping me relax or unwind. However, doing paperwork that never is substantially used for anything would be, in my mind, a waste of time. Why am I thinking about wastes of time and paperwork? Because I am involved in my college’s NCATE re-accreditation process and it often feels like a colossal waste of time to me!
What is NCATE and what’s accreditation (or re-accreditation)? NCATE is the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education– a professional organization which delineates criteria or standards for its members. Membership in such an organization is meant to be seen as a sign of quality to outsiders, a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in a sense, for institutions, in this case, educational institutions. Accreditation is the process whereby an educational unit (e.g. a public or private school, or university’s college or specific department) painstakingly proves that it meets or exceeds the membership standards. To be an NCATE-accredited teacher education program is a “selling” feature to potential students. Or to be a SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools)– accredited middle school is an accountability measure for public schools and also the same sort of “selling” feature to potential students and their parents (e.g. a parent might be unwilling to send her child to a non-accredited private school because there are no formal “markers” of the school’s quality).
Why do I see my college’s re-accreditation effort as a waste of time, though? On the surface, going through such a process makes a lot of sense. Who doesn’t think that quality checks are a good thing? Would you want to eat it a place that has never had a health inspection? Well….. actually, I have and do on a regular basis – my house! My home kitchen has never been officially inspected or accredited, yet I know that it produces quality products because I’m intimately involved with it on a daily basis. I know the inputs and outputs. I understand what causes good things to happen in it and what leads to and how to prevent bad things happening.
So perhaps I see reaccreditation as a waste of time for me because I am intimately involved in the work of my college. I know what’s going on in my classes and how I’m seeking to make them better. I have a good sense of how certain students “turn out” in terms of their teaching skills, and so on. Why do I need to prove my worth to someone like NCATE? (NCATE, by the way, is not made up of some wholly impartial inspectors as would be the case with restaurants health inspectors; rather, the reviewers or visitors are fellow teacher educators at other universities – our peers, in other words. Richard Rothstein, in his book Grading Education has a great chapter on this problematic aspect of the accreditation process in the United States –he advocates instead for unaffiliated/more impartial inspectors a la the British school inspection system. It, too, certainly has potential pitfalls, but Rothstein convincingly argues that it is better than the peer-accreditation system with its inherent incentives for reviewers to “rate lightly” and its lack of significant repercussions for those institutions not meeting standards.)
Clearly, I have beefs with accreditation and re-accreditation. I feel that the process is rooted in a distrust of the personnel implementing a program (“We have to check that you’re doing what we told you to do”), I feel like the reports and “exhibits” I need to create to prove I’m doing my job are just the pointless creation of “dog and pony” shows which take me away from other, more important, work I could be doing a (spending more time working with my students, for example, or refining my course content and pedagogy, etc.), and I feel too keenly the inherent impersonality and dehumanization of the process. To me, the existence of accrediting agencies is proof that people are not intimately involved enough in their communities (communities at whatever level – neighborhood, school, university, etc.), and that our institutions have gotten too big and unwieldy for human-level exchanges.
Yet, at the same time that I say all this, I recognize how curmudgeonly it sounds. 21stcentury life is not close knit and small enough in size to permit truly intimate involvement with the many organizations we encounter. I’m glad that things like restaurant inspections happen and Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval or Consumer Reports exist as they do help me to navigate a complex world in an efficient manner. Acknowledging this, should the accreditation process really bother me as much as it does? Perhaps this is a case where we must make concessions for modern life, yet use our discomfort to spur us to try to make the impersonal more personal. Could the accreditation/inspection process of schools be done in a better way – one that doesn’t make participants feel distrusted or feel as if they’re wasting their time? Maybe such thinking can also be useful at the classroom level as well. Are there things we do as teachers for the sake of efficiency that make our students feel distrusted or isolated or feel that they’re wasting their time? With them too, we need to reframe our thinking and actions to try to build an intimate/known space within a de-personalized institution.