The Rigors and Rewards of Accreditation

An update from Headmaster Willy MacMullen '78

There are lots of ways schools improve. Boards plan strategically, heads and administrative teams examine and change practices, and faculty experiment and innovate. But for schools like Taft, there's another critical way: the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) Accreditation Process. It's a really rigorous methodology that ensures accredited schools regularly reflect, plan, and innovate; and it's this process Taft just finished. It's this process that reminds us that Taft has never been a school that believes it is finished getting better: we have always believed that we must strive to improve.

The NEASC is the accrediting body for hundreds of independent schools, and the accreditation process has two primary objectives: quality assurance and school improvement. The process is really a decade-long one, and it works like this. Every 10 years, in order to be reaccredited by the NEASC, a school must undertake a Self-Study. The study has 15 standards: Mission, Governance, Enrollment, Program, Experience of Students, Resources to Support Program, Faculty, Residential Program, Administration, Evaluation and Assessment, Health and Safety, Communication, Infrastructure, and the Accreditation Process. 2016 was our year for this institutional self-reflection. We were guided by the belief that we were a thriving and successful school, but also an imperfect one that could improve if we were honest, rigorous, and thorough in looking into the institutional mirror. Our 15 committees met for hundreds of hours; we conducted surveys of faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni; and we did interviews of scores of stakeholders. By late fall, the committees were drafting reports on their findings, and during the winter, writing and editing continued. By early spring, the 108-page report was complete. It was the end product of an inclusive, accurate, and robust Self-Study.

I am tremendously proud of the Taft community. You saw hard work, insight, intelligence, honesty, and courage. We saw much that we did well: adhere to our historic mission; enroll nice, smart, and talented students; create a diverse, caring, and warm community; offer a deep and broad program of academics and extracurricular opportunities; hire and support committed and compassionate faculty; steward and improve a beautiful campus; use prudence and discipline in budget and operations; and so on. But we also identified ways we wanted to improve: communication around priority setting and decision making; a deeper focus on diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism; a review of our academic program; continued evaluation and support of experienced faculty and staff; improvements in arts and athletic facilities; the need for an information and technology plan; and an examination of student health and wellness. I like to think that we did what any good organization does: affirm its strengths, acknowledge our weaknesses, and strive to get better.

As important as it is, the Self-Study is just the first of two steps toward accreditation. The next step is a three-day visit from a Visiting Committee comprised of leading educators from peer schools. The committee's job is first to read the Self-Study and, during their visit, hold the study up to essentially ask, Is the school doing what it says it is doing? At the end of their visit, the committee makes a recommendation on accreditation in a lengthy, detailed report that speaks to all 15 standards.

The Committee was on campus in early October, and they did great work. That they recommended Taft be reaccredited is not surprising, anymore than it was in 2007, 1997, 1987, and so on. But the report Taft received is a really telling one. First, it's important to recognize that the committee is entirely objective: it's made of all outsiders. Second, it was comprised of educators and leaders from New England's top schools. Third, they spent three days on campus, immersing themselves in school life—visiting classes, sitting in on meetings, reading documents, interviewing faculty and staff, meeting trustees, watching practices, rehearsals, and study hall. To a person, they were dedicated, curious, rigorous, and tough.

A week after the committee left, they submitted their report. Here's what the report basically said: that Taft is a really thriving, healthy, and successful school, with a global reputation for excellence and community, and one with areas it was committed to improving. Perhaps the best place to start is the Committee's introduction:

Taft is clearly a high-functioning school with a dedicated teaching faculty, a loyal and hardworking professional administration and staff, and outstanding students from around the world. The Visiting Team members saw many compelling classes and meetings where the interplay among the students and the faculty as well as among administrators and faculty was inspirational. Faculty, staff, and students, almost to a person, spoke highly of the school. They were proud of their school and the values for which it stands. The faculty in particular lauded the commitment to students and students could find little to criticize. Taft is clearly a school where students come first. There was much to admire in our visit; Taft has well earned its prestigious reputation.

For anyone who knows Taft, there's a lot to be proud of when you read those lines. It's probably the school you know. Certainly I speak of these things, as Lance Odden did before me, and you no doubt hear similar things from the website and our publications. But what makes these observations so powerful is that they come not from Taft but from tough, smart, experienced educators. They don't do grade inflation.

Of course, the committee had recommendations on areas where we could get better. For each of the 15 standards, there were several minor recommendations—over 60 in total. And at the end of the report, the committee made five Major Recommendations, as they are tasked to. There was nothing surprising; essentially they affirmed the very things we had identified in our Self-Study which we were committed to addressing. In other words, there was perfect alignment between what we said we wanted to improve and what they felt we could improve.

  1. The need for a more comprehensive planning and decision-making process;
  2. The desire for continued work on diversity and inclusion;
  3. The need for a more longitudinal and sustainable assessment process for faculty, administrators, and staff;
  4. A concern about student and faculty stress; and
  5. The need for an overarching information technology plan.

There's work ahead of us, as there always is when you are a school that never is complacent and is filled with educators who are always trying to get better. We want to seize the moment and momentum. We are required to file progress reports to the NEASC at two and five years—this is how the NEASC keeps "your feet to the fire"—and I'm confident we will have accomplished a lot by then, just as we did in the last cycle. We will carefully prioritize the recommendations, some of which we have already addressed and others which are longer-term challenges. But we are excited, motivated, and confident. How can you not be, with the kind of students on this campus, with the inspiring dedication of faculty and staff, with the wisdom of the board of trustees, and with the support of alumni and parents? We have hard work to do, but it's the glorious work on challenges that mark all great schools. And we are honest in facing our weaknesses. We like the opportunity to get better. It's something that marked the founding of this place, when Horace Taft sat at that table in September of 1890 and looked at his school.

The NEASC process? Horace Taft would no doubt approve of it, and I think he would recognize that staying true to our mission of the education of the whole student, reflecting continually on what we do well, and committing to getting even better has always been our work.