In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section School Accreditation

  • Introduction
  • Accreditation Structures
  • Journals
  • The Practice of Accreditation
  • Accreditation as Educational Evaluation
  • Adult Learning and Philosophy

Education School Accreditation
Charles H. Skipper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0073


School and university accreditation is an evaluative decision made by a recognized accrediting agency/institution that a particular school or university or specialized program complies with the standards of membership of the accrediting body. Accrediting bodies are most commonly independent organizations formed for the purpose of accreditation, though there are also governmental actors that accredit schools and universities. Accreditation is valued by schools and colleges because it serves as quality-control mechanisms for education, signals quality to the public and public authorities, ensures even-handed treatment of transfer students between schools or colleges, and is used as an eligibility criterion by public authorities and others in awarding grants, or other financial support, including student aid/loans. Accreditation performs a gatekeeper function for the US federal government regarding eligibility for federal aid and student loan programs. Accreditation has evolved from an emphasis on quality assurance through standards compliance (an “inputs” approach based on measurable elements, like the number of books, or teacher credentials), to an approach based on continuous improvement models adapted from the business world—to demonstrate quality through accountability and performance-based results (an “outputs” approach). Despite the ubiquity of accreditation as a feature of the educational landscape in the United States, and the world, scholarly interest and research on the subject is modest. Information on accreditation in the form of guidelines and explications of processes produced by accrediting agencies or their apologists are voluminous. However, guidelines on how accreditation is done are not (1) fundamental research on why any particular practice exists (rooted in a research finding or hypothesis and not just tradition or past practice), (2) the nature of the experience of accreditation on any actors (even the most rudimentary, rich ethnographic study of a site-team visit has not been done, to date), (3) or a full research-informed understanding of accreditation as a social activity. Accreditation began as a self-referential process. Knowledge of the nature of educational quality was assumed to exist within the schools and colleges whose leaders created accrediting practice by identifying and codifying valued ideas or practices of the best schools or colleges. Early accrediting efforts began with a focus limited to discernment and description of the elements of the best schools (standards), creating rational systems to evaluate the fitness of schools or colleges that aspire to share the quality of those best schools (accreditation agencies and processes), and marketing the effort to build the brand of accrediting as quality for internal (schools and colleges) and external (public and governmental) audiences. In the United States, state-run accreditation systems have emerged as part of efforts to increase school quality and student performance through test-based accountability measures and in response to federal requirements for funding. Although accreditation was not conceived of as a part of a larger research-based endeavor, scholarship in educational evaluation and adult learning can be fruitfully mined to enlarge our understanding of accreditation theory and practice.

Accreditation Structures

School and postsecondary accreditation is a complex constellation of overlapping and competing public and private enterprises. Accreditation in the United States began in the latter half of the 19th century, and by 2012, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) reported a membership of 7,818 accrediting institutions and 22,654 accredited programs in postsecondary education. The 132,000 public and private schools in the United States are accredited by a range of agencies, including regional accrediting agencies, historically known as the “Big Six”: New England Association of Colleges and Schools (NEACS), Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), Middle Atlantic Association of Colleges and Schools (MAACS), North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), Northwest Accreditation Commission (NWAC), and Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). In 2006, Cognia was formed by the merger of three of the “Big Six,” SACS/AdvancED, NCA, and NWAC, in an institution offering accreditation and institutional performance measurement systems. A variety of private, state, or regional accrediting bodies exist. The National Association of Independent Schools created the International Council Advancing Independent School Accreditation (ICAISA), which recognizes state, regional, and international accrediting agencies for independent education for 3500 schools worldwide. Accrediting agencies have emerged (1) for faith-based schools (Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Baptist accrediting bodies exist for schools professing a particular faith tradition), (2) for specific educational models (for example, Montessori schools have at least three agencies claiming national or international accreditation standing), (3) as part of nation-based quality assurance efforts, and (4) in special-interest groups that have taken on accreditation as a part of quality control for membership. (For example, the National Association for Educating Young Children reports accrediting 6,695 programs that enroll 589,476 children.) Structurally, accrediting agencies are autonomous, independent enterprises created and managed by member schools or universities. Over time, accrediting agencies have collaborated in the creation of commissions to formalize relationships between the agencies and to coordinate their responses to a variety of external forces, particularly governmental and market based. These commissions, including the CHEA, the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE), and the International Council Advancing Independent School Accreditation (ICAISA), operate not as accrediting bodies per se, but as accreditors of accrediting bodies granting its member organizations “recognition” based on compliance with organizational standards and practices (that are patterned after school accreditation models and practices). International agencies including the World Bank; United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO); and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are involved with efforts to improve education and have sponsored a number of national, regional, and international papers on accreditation and quality initiatives. State-based accreditation exists in 42 percent of the United States. The majority of states use regional agencies for accreditation while also requiring extensive performance data reporting to comply with state and federal accountability mandates. National projects/institutions designed to foster educational improvement through accreditation reflect the influence of outcomes-based approaches to validating educational quality and the growth of online educational programs. See World Bank 2009, Ghana Tertiary Education Commission (GTEC), SACS CASI 2012, van den Brule 2008, Virginia Association for Independent Schools 1993; Virginia Department of Education 2019; and Gallagher 2019.

  • Gallagher, Kay, ed. 2019. Education in the United Arab Emirates: Innovation and transformation. Singapore: Springer Singapore.

    This book provides an overview of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) educational system, and its multifaceted approach to educational quality assurance and accreditation. The UAE approach to accreditation features international, national, and local agencies overseeing Emirate primary, secondary, and university programs, both public and private. The distinctive features of preuniversity school international accreditation are the use of specific accrediting agencies based on the type of international schools, for example American-program schools must be accredited by NEACS, and the overlay of the Dubai School Inspection Bureau providing an additional layer of quality assurance assessment and reporting to governmental authorities and the public.

  • Ghana Tertiary Education Commission.

    The National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE) and the National Accreditation Board (NAB) merged in 2020 to form the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission, based in Accra, Ghana. This is an example of a nation-based institutionalization of accreditation practice. This particular organization focuses on postsecondary schooling in Ghana, and is notable for the nature of the relationship between the National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE) and the Ministry of Education. In contrast to the US model where there is an arm-length relationship between the accrediting agencies and the government—in Ghana, the accrediting agency is a government creation and partnering body to the Ministry of Education.

  • Hämäläinen, Kimmo, Jon Haakstad, Jouni Kangasniemi, Tobias Lindeberg, and Maivor Sjölund. 2001. Quality assurance in Nordic higher education—Accreditation-like practices. ENQA Occasional Papers 2. Helsinki: European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education.

    The interplay of national, regional, and international quality assurance and accreditation efforts are examined by Hämäläinen and colleagues. The relationship between accreditation and high quality is considered.National Council for Tertiary Education. Accra, Ghana.

  • SACS CASI. 2012. School accreditation: A handbook of accreditation. Alpharetta, GA: SACS CASI.

    The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools–Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, also referred to as SACS CASI, is one of three regional accrediting agencies that were a part of the AdvancED organization that in 2019 became the Cognia organization providing accreditation services to 36,000 institutions in eighty-five countries. This is one of two manuals that are notable for two elements that grew out of SACS accreditation innovations. This is the school improvement model that emerged from a decade of efforts to meld business-based continuous improvement approaches into education, which is now a standard feature in US-based accrediting practice. The second is AdvancED Accreditation Standards for Quality School Systems: For Districts Seeking NCA CASI or SACS CASI Accreditation, which is the concept of district accreditation rather than the traditional, school-focused accreditation approach. See Cognia’s web page on Accreditation and Certification for the current accreditation protocols for Cognia.

  • van den Brule, Jill. 2008. Good practices and international trends of teacher accreditation and certification with analysis and recommendations for Pakistan under the Strengthening Teacher Education in Pakistan (STEP) programme. Paris: United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization.

    This is a working paper produced with the support of UNESCO and USAID. It is notable for its contextualization of teacher education within accreditation as well as its wide-ranging treatment of the subject, including developing- and industrialized-world models.

  • Virginia Association for Independent Schools. 1993. Manual for the evaluation of member schools. Richmond: Virginia Association for Independent Schools.

    This is an example of a state-level, independent school–accrediting agency and its processes. It is very typical in terms of its approach to accreditation, with a volunteer-led organization administered by a small professional staff. The number of standards, the self-study and site-team processes, and the accreditation decision-making process are all good examples of the standard. See the web page on Accreditation for the current model used by the Virginia Association for Independent Schools (VAIS) that is typical of independent school accrediting agencies.

  • Virginia Department of Education. Guidance Document Governing Certain Provisions of the Regulations Establishing the Standards for Accrediting Public Schools in Virginia (8VAC20-131), Revised May 2019.

    This model of accreditation is emblematic of the interplay of US state and federal systems of government regarding educational policy and accreditation. Passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001 created new federal reporting mandates emphasizing annual testing to demonstrate academic progress, and the public reporting of performance measures. Operationally, the state models marry expectations for learning in Virginia’s Standards of Learning and in the Standards for Accreditation to measure and report on school performance across a range of elements, including learning, attendance, and school cultural dimensions. See the Administrative Code.

  • World Bank. 2009. Accreditation of teacher education institutions and programs. Policy brief 2. Washington, DC: World Bank.

    This is an example of the type of working paper/policy brief produced on behalf of the World Bank to inform policymakers about a topic area and to contribute to improved responses to the identified needs. This paper addresses the rational for accreditation as a mechanism for accountability and its relationship to quality in teacher education programs, with a comparative and international perspective.

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