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Approaches to Accreditation

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Five Standard Approaches
There are five different approaches to the accreditation process:

1. Minimal Model
The Minimal Model ascertains basic characteristics of the school and program. This model is often numeric and regulation-based, focusing on basic questions such as: Does the school satisfy basic legal requirements? Does the school have enough budget, infrastructure and reserves to conduct the program? The Minimal Model ascertains that the fundamentals in a school or a program are in place: an appropriate physical plant and laboratories, the size and skill base of the faculty, and adequate coverage of the basic topics in the curriculum. It provides a prescription for a minimal core and very general parameters for the rest of the curriculum. This model is easy to install and maintain, as long as it adheres to the “minimal” philosophy; therefore, it can be an appropriate way to start an accrediting body. The most common problems of this model are that it does not encourage continuous improvement, and it encounters the danger of “mission creep” -- where constituents tend to generate more and more requirements in time with the result that the model loses its “minimality.”

2. Regulatory Model
The Regulatory Model requires strict adherence to a core curriculum. Examples include defining the minimum requirements (e.g., listing all the necessary courses in a software engineering curriculum), and specifying the parameters for the rest of the curriculum (e.g., at least 6 credit hours of post WWII history, etc.). This model often involves direct prescriptions of curriculum and faculty composition. One such requirement might be that “at least three faculty in manufacturing engineering are required if the student body exceeds 120.” This model makes the accrediting process uniform and potentially fair, criteria are unambiguous and often numeric, it is relatively easy to maintain, and the key to success lies in adherence to clear unambiguous rules.

3. Outcomes-Based Model
The Outcomes-Based Model prescribes a “small” core curriculum and other basic requirements. It defines the basic parameters for the goals of the program but not the specific goals of the program. It does focus on the more specific goals and objectives declared by the program, such as “to maximize the number of graduates who continue on to medical or law school,” or “to maximize the number of graduates who become program managers in the construction industry.” The Outcomes-Based Model requires the measurement of goals, looking for evidence that these measurements have been used to foster a quality improvement process. An advantage of this model over the regulatory model is that the outcome-based model provides for significant diversity in goals and objectives. In theory it allows programs to declare, and be judged by, their own objectives and goals. In reality the added effort to demonstrate measurement-taking and continuous improvement with respect to each criterion has reduced enthusiasm of education program leaders to diversify their stated goals. The model puts significant responsibility in the hands of the program leaders -- and therefore significant risk; some programs may try to achieve goals that are unattainable. Another problem is that disagreements and ambiguity about assessment and assessment tools tend to plague the process. The process of evaluating outcomes requires a high level of sophistication, as these can sometimes be difficult to measure and assess. Complaints on inconsistent evaluations may follow. Strong disagreements may arise about methodology and about the extent to which data need to be collected and analyzed.

4. Peer Review Model
In In the Peer Review Model, a coalition of schools organizes into group of peers. The various schools select their equals, and teams from the peer institutions form an accrediting team for each school. Members from other constituencies are sometimes added (government, industry, professional associations). This model requires an arbitrator and facilitator, who usually come from a professional association. This model represents the way accreditation was done in the U.S. in the early 20th Century. Some risks can emerge, including that the visiting teams can drift in the direction of providing overly-specific mandates. In addition, clashes of philosophies can render the process too difficult, and decisions on peer selection can be hard to make and difficult to change later. While it can be difficult to organize, however, the Peer Review Model is considered less confrontational and more collegial than the Minimal and the Regulatory Models.

5. Program Club Model
In the Program Club Model, a group of peer institutions create an accreditation body for continuous mutual accreditation. Programs report to each other continually on progress and experimentation in their educational programs, and share all pertinent statistics. New ideas are discussed and tried as they are proposed by members. A common website is used for communication between the institutions and for ongoing data sharing. One advantage is that this model is that it requires only a few on-site visits -- most of the needed information is updated continually by the members, and is available at any time. Risks relate to the election or replacement of peers, and a need for continuous maintenance of databases and a live communication process.