Accreditation provides schools with an independent seal of approval that gives credibility to students’ transcripts and diplomas, and assures parents that everything a school does—from how it is led and uses its resources to its quality of instruction, assessment, and programs of study—meets high standards. But accreditation also provides educational and community leaders with a framework to continuously assess the quality of the institution they lead and better meet the needs of every student.

Accreditors dig deep into data on all aspects of performance. We review key documents and plans, and conduct detailed surveys, interviews, and observations of crucial aspects of schooling that affect student learning. We spend multiple days on site and get a glimpse, up close and personal, of what is working and what is lagging, who is on board with the vision of the school and who is not or is being excluded, and how well plans are being executed. Most importantly, we provide expert, independent perspective and help educational leaders understand what is driving the institution’s current performance. At the end of an intensive review process, we might report that a school is effective and performing as well as advertised—its students are just as hard-working, high-achieving, well-taught, and well-served as its teachers and administrators always believed. Most often, though, our reviews reveal blind spots—challenges that local educators didn’t even know they had— and our findings challenge what people believe to be going on in their schools.

Cognia’s role as the world’s largest accrediting body is to make all the realities of schooling visible, and shine a light on both areas for growth and unexpected strengths. Accreditation shows the community where their schools stand and what they can do to move forward.

As the Chief Certification Officer for Cognia, I have a front-row seat to what is working and not working in schools based on engagement reviews conducted in 36,000 schools and districts in 85 countries across the globe. From this vantage point, we ascertain what schools most need to do to improve, and gain deep insight into how various aspects of leadership, resource allocation, and instruction make a difference to student and school success.

Culture Drives Performance

We have learned that the ways schools shape their written (and unwritten) rules influence every aspect of how a school functions. In research based on engagement reviews conducted by Cognia, schools where the entire learning community is actively engaged, empowered, and supports one another score nearly 10 percent higher in overall quality on our measures of instructional quality than those with lower culture ratings.

Cognia schools with high engagement score nearly 10 percent higher on our measures of instructional quality than those with lower culture ratings.

Culture does not apply just to adults. The more opportunities students have to be owners of their learning, collaborate with peers, and engage in activities that require movement, voice, and thinking, the higher the school’s overall engagement tends to be. Additionally, schools where parents are engaged and active also tend to perform more highly overall.

Widespread Perception Gap

Many schools have sought to create new types of learning environments that help students become more engaged and actively involved with learning. But surveys of more than 400,000 students and nearly 100,000 teachers worldwide indicate a particular and profound disconnect between what teachers say students do and what students report they spend most of their time working on in class.

The data from Cognia show that while the majority of teachers believe students are deeply engaged in active learning, the majority of middle and high school students say that they spend a great deal of time listening to teachers and completing worksheets. Students also say that teachers are neither challenging them nor encouraging them to complete long projects or work regularly with their peers.

These insights transcend national boundaries; identifying blind spots can help school leaders improve teaching and learning in a wide range of educational settings.

The Technology Disconnect

Similarly, we have found that educators often lack a clear picture of how technology is being used in learning. While sophisticated technology and digital learning tools are becoming more commonplace in schools, these technologies are not being used to change how students learn on a daily basis. In fact, the data—based on direct classroom observations in more than approximately 250,000 classrooms—indicates that most classes display little evidence of students using technology to gather, evaluate, and/or use information for learning. In an even more significant percentage of classrooms there is little evidence of technology being used to conduct research, solve problems, create original works, or communicate and work collaboratively for learning.

The lack of use appears to be less about school access to broadband or wireless, or student access to digital tools (tablets, laptops, smartphones), and more about a lack of teacher training on how to put these resources to good instructional use. It also appears to stem from educators’ beliefs that technology tools are useful only in certain contexts for certain students, or that they can be inappropriately used and are an off-task distraction to learning. In fact, schools across the globe score only 1.8 on a 4-point scale in how effectively students use technology for actual learning.

The highest-performing schools are committed to a journey of continuous improvement. Changes in technology, staff, curriculum, enrollment, and demands from college and work require that schools adjust and rethink the policies and practices that may have worked well in the past.

Keys to Improvement

We typically find that even the best schools can do more to improve their overall effectiveness. The highest-performing schools are committed to a journey of continuous improvement. Changes in technology, staff,curriculum, and enrollment, and demands from college and work require that schools adjust and rethink the policies and practices that may have worked well in the past.

Moreover, school quality should not be viewed as an all-or-nothing proposition. In past decades, accreditors gave schools and districts a simple thumbs up or down, either recommending or denying accreditation. But in our experience, that approach does not give schools a clear enough sense of where they stand, nor does it create an incentive for schools to go beyond “good enough.” In addition, it does not point a path forward to reaching a higher standard.

The accreditation process can be a major step toward helping schools authentically engage their school community, identify and celebrate success, and focus improvement efforts. The Cognia Accreditation process helps schools develop actionable plans based on clear evidence and data, and prioritize what to do next. And for school leaders and educators, one of the greatest advantages of Cognia Accreditation is the window we provide into other schools. Cognia encourages schools to havestaff members participate in peer review of other schools by serving on accreditation teams. Educators often say this is among the most valuable professional learning they experience to understand what quality looks like in other schools.

Virtually every school is a work in progress. Engaging school leaders and educators in an accreditation process focused on continuous improvement, not compliance, represents one of the best ways to shift a school’s culture to reflect our changing world.

Annette Bohling, J.D.
Dr. Annette Bohling serves as the Chief Accreditation Officer leading Cognia’s Certification Division, which manages and oversees the accreditation and certification functions, policies, and procedures for accredited institutions and school systems in the Cognia network around the world. Bohling’s professional career spans over 37 years, including the fields of education and law. Her professional experience includes teacher, administrator, deputy state superintendent, interpreter/translator, and attorney. She was the chief architect in the design of Wyoming’s assessment and accountability system under No Child Left Behind. Bohling’s degrees are from the University of Tulsa College of Law, University of Wyoming, Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State University.