Re-Imagining Accreditation: The Private PreK-12 School Accreditation Cycle as a Vehicle for Organizational Learning
Nelson, Kristy Pargmann
This capstone project looked at the positive and negative aspects of PreK-12 school accreditation with an eye towards re-imagining the 10-year accreditation cycle currently used by the Southwest Association of Episcopal Schools (SAES). The goal was to identify areas of accreditation that allow for organizational learning and improvement as well as those areas that are constraining for schools. This mixed methods project was designed using organizational learning theory as the core framework with a nod to neo-institutionalism. Prior organizational survey data were reviewed and pertinent documents were analyzed. Twenty-two semi-structured interviews were conducted with SAES staff and with school leaders to evaluate both the enabling and constraining effects of accreditation on schools and to identify patterns of continuous improvement or dynamic learning shifts created during the accreditation process. Respondents were encouraged to re-imagine the 10-year accreditation cycle using the critical appreciative process (CAP) method. The study found that accreditation does promote organizational learning primarily through continuous improvement but also can facilitate dynamic shifts in organizational (double loop) learning. Accreditation provided valuable opportunities for meaningful professional development and peer review, professionalized the processes and procedures of the school, and offered legitimacy to the work of the school through the granting of accreditation. The huge outlay of time and effort to prepare the self-study and documentation was a constraining factor of accreditation and leaders felt that the focus of accreditation was on compliance and not teaching and learning. Contributing factors to these findings were the size of the school, age and grade range of student population served, and the involvement of effective governance at the school. The general response of those interviewed was that the accreditation process was more focused on accountability than innovation.