School building
Susan Pendergrass

Have you ever seen a word that you use all the time without thinking about it and paused to consider what it actually means? That happened to me recently with the word “accredited.” I think it was because I saw a sign saying that the Metropolitan Police Department of the City of St. Louis is “internationally accredited.” I live in the City of St. Louis and, quite honestly, I was a bit stumped by that sign and what it could possibly signify.

I remember having a similar feeling the first time I saw a “fully accredited” banner hanging on a school. It was in 1998 and my 3rd grader’s school had just completed its very first year of standardized testing in Virginia. I was glad to see that her school was fully accredited, but I really had no context for what that meant. Of course the word is now fully embedded in the public education lexicon and parents are used to seeing it. Yet I’m not sure that it conveys any more real meaning to parents today than it did to me twenty years ago.

That is especially true in Missouri.  The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has made a decision—or set of decisions—that has resulted in 99 percent of Missouri school districts being fully accredited. If a word applies to everyone in a group, then it loses all meaning in distinguishing between the members of that group.

DESE plans to replace the current system of standards and accountability, MSIP 5, with a new one, MSIP 6. There’s an opportunity for the new system to have words that actually mean something—maybe “not meeting expectations,” or “exceeding expectations.” Better yet, the new system could assign letter grades to schools. Most parents understand what an “A” or a “D” means.

Recently, DESE released a 21-page document describing the planned MSIP 6. Unfortunately, clarity and meaningful words do not seem to be a priority in the new system’s design. It contains statements like (italics mine), “Instructional staff [will] design and use appropriate, meaningful, and rigorous learning tasks for each student,” and “School system and building leaders use an intentional feedback system to improve and refine performance,” and perhaps the most perplexing “Educator teams [will] act reflectively.” This is the system that will be used to determine school quality. There’s nothing wrong with any of these tasks, but how is this going to help a parent (or any other stakeholder) learn anything about the quality of their child’s school?

Thinking about the word “accredited” and how confusing it was to me reminded me of this. The more we use words that obfuscate, the more likely that parents will only be able to rely on their gut or the grapevine to gauge their child’s school. DESE has a responsibility to fix that.


About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.