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: 14 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • 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. Accreditation is valued by schools and colleges because it serves as quality-control mechanisms for education, signals high 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 is in a period of evolution. It is shifting from an emphasis on quality assurance through standards compliance (an “inputs” approach based on measurable elements, such as the number of books, or teacher credentials), to an approach based on continuous-improvement models adapted from the business world—to demonstrate high quality through accountability and performance-based results (an “outputs” approach). Accreditation agencies and processes are also evolving in light of globalization, market-based opportunities, and the growth of online educational programs. 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 are modest. Information on accreditation in the form of guidelines and explications of processes produced by accrediting agencies or their apologists are voluminous. Accreditation began as a self-referential process, and current policies and practices emerged organically. To date, accreditation procedures are not based on fundamental research warranting any particular practice. The field also lacks a research-based understanding of accreditation as a social activity. 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 high quality of those best schools (accreditation agencies and processes), and marketing the effort to build the brand of accrediting as high quality for internal (schools and colleges) and external (public and governmental) audiences. 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.

Accreditation Structures

School and post-secondary 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 post-secondary education. The 132,000 public and private schools in the United States are accredited by a range of agencies including regional accrediting agencies (known as the “Big Six”: New England Association of Colleges and Schools, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Middle Atlantic Association of Colleges and Schools, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, Northwest Association of Colleges and Schools, and Western Association of Colleges and Schools). A variety of private, state, or regional accrediting bodies exist. The National Association of Independent Schools Commission on Accreditation (NAIS CoA) recognizes nineteen state or regional accrediting agencies, including the Europe-based Council for International Schools—accrediting approximately eighteen hundred schools in total). 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), and (3) 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 NAIS CoA, 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; UN Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO); and the US 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. National projects/institutions designed to foster educational improvement through accreditation are emerging as new structures of accreditation, as are processes designed to address accrediting online courses, programs, and degrees. See AdvancED Accreditation Policies and Procedures for AdvancED Accreditation; Chauhan 2014; Hämäläinen, et al. 2001; National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE); Noori and Anderson 2013; Salsberry 2010; Van Damme 2002; Van den Brule 2008; Virginia Independent Schools Association 2016; and World Bank 2009.

  • AdvancED Accreditation Policies and Procedures for AdvancED Accreditation.

    The AdvancED organization was created by the merger of the pre-K–12 divisions of the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA CASI), the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI), and the Northwest Accreditation Commission (NWAC). One of the unique aspects of the AdvancED system is the accreditation of school districts as well as individual schools. AdvancED policies and procedures for accreditation are outlined in the document.

  • Chauhan, Amit. 2014. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS): Emerging trends in assessment and accreditation. Digital Education Review 25 (June): 7–17.

    Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) with their potential scale creates significant challenges for the assessment of student learning. The centrality of assessing student outcomes and learning to accreditation, along with quality assurance demands, are discussed as emerging approaches to assessing student learning in MOOCS. Available online.

  • 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.

    This national council is an example of nation-based institutionalization of accreditation practice. This particular organization focuses on post-secondary schooling in Ghana and is notable for the nature of the relationship between the NCTE and the Ministry of Education. In contrast to the US model, where there is an arm’s-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.

  • Noori, Neema, and Pia-Kristina Anderson. 2013. Globalization, governance, and the diffusion of the American model of education: Accreditation agencies and American-style universities in the Middle East. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 26.2: 159–172.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10767-013-9131-1

    This article explores international accreditation in a dynamic cultural context and through the lens of “New Medievalism,” in which globalization is viewed as heralding a post-nation-state world system built on the rise of global, transnational organizations and efforts.

  • Salsberry, Trudy A. 2010. K–12 virtual schools, accreditation, and leadership: What are the issues? Educational Considerations 37.2: 14–17.

    DOI: 10.4148/0146-9282.1151

    Salsberry uses the AdvancED model to explore the application of AdvancED standards to accrediting online programs. The implications for educational leaders in the process is also considered.

  • Van Damme, Dirk. 2002. Trends and models in international quality assurance and accreditation in higher education in relation to trade in education services. OECD/US Forum on Trade in Educational Services, held 23–24 May 2002 in Washington, DC.

    This OECD/US Forum paper presents a survey of the issues, actors, and directions of international accreditation and quality assurance, using a four-model analytic framework to conceptualize developments in the field. Available online.

  • 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.

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

  • Virginia Independent Schools Association. 2016. Manual for school evaluation: 2016 edition. Richmond: Virginia Independent Schools Association.

    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 all are good examples of the standard in the field.

  • 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 high quality in teacher education programs, with a comparative and international perspective.

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