Accreditation of Community College Early Childhood Associate Degree Programs
November 2011, Volume 24, Number 11
by Martha Muñoz
Community college leaders are extremely knowledgeable about their own regional accrediting bodies as well as long-established accreditation for specialized programs. For example, the National League for Nursing Accreditation and the Commission on Dental Accreditation are among the accrediting bodies that provide specialty program accreditation. Recently, following years of study devoted to feasibility and development, a new program-accreditation process was launched. In 2006, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Commission unveiled a new accreditation system for early childhood associate degree programs. The NAEYC Early Childhood Associate Degree Accreditation (ECADA) awards accreditation to associate degree programs that demonstrate evidence of meeting established Professional Preparation Standards. Presently, there are 139 accredited degree programs at 105 institutions in 26 states. Other degree programs are currently engaged in self-study or awaiting an accreditation decision from the NAEYC Commission.
The Need for Early Childhood Education Accreditation
Many community colleges provide some type of academic preparation in early childhood education or child development that support the professional development requirements of those who work with young children. In addition to individual courses and certificates in early childhood, numerous community colleges offer associate degree programs; many of these associate degrees include transfer options. Students pursuing these degrees may specialize in infant/toddler, preschool, family child care, or program management. Workforce needs among early childhood education providers include training and preparation for programs such as infant/toddler, preschool and after-school care; Head Start; family child care; and center-based programs. Work settings include campus child-care, military, and employer-sponsored facilities; private homes; government agencies; franchises; public schools; and others. Early childhood education services may be offered by for-profit or not-for-profit providers.
Early childhood, birth through age eight, is an area of growing focus as states implement and refine comprehensive systems for coordinating child-care and quality rating systems, PreK-20 articulation, teacher-preparation programs, career-development systems, and federal funding opportunities. The focus on early childhood is evidenced by the May 2011 announcement made by President Obama regarding the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, a $500 million competitive grant program. The grant is designed to support states that commit to improving the quality of their early learning and development programs through five key levers of change: Successful State Systems; High-quality, Accountable Programs; Promoting Early Learning and Development Outcomes for Children; Great Early Childhood Education Workforce; and Measuring Outcomes and Progress. Notification of awards to states will be made in December 2011.
With the variety and scope of options and opportunities, providing a standard language and framework for addressing the quality of early childhood education is increasingly important. Therefore, accreditation of early childhood education associate degree programs becomes more and more critical as community colleges continue to take the lead in the academic preparation of this growing workforce.
Benefits of Accreditation
Program accreditation can result in several possible benefits. For example, given that early childhood associate degree accreditation is voluntary, the efforts send a strong message to the community that the college values external review and provides quality assurance in its programs. Since the Core Standards for two-year and four-year programs are the same, accredited associate degree programs may articulate more easily to universities, providing further options for students. In addition, the self-study may support existing models or serve to inform new models of quality practice in program review.
Colleges considering whether to pursue ECADA should ask a series of questions:
- How does the institution’s own assessment model support data collection?
- How are assessment results disseminated and how is the information used?
- Beyond the initial application fee and expense of the site visit, does the institution value accreditation enough to sustain it as a permanent line item?
- How does program accreditation fit within the overall mission and context of the institution?
- Is receiving and maintaining program accreditation perceived as adding value to the college?
Ultimately, the decision to seek accreditation should be a collaborative one that includes faculty, administration, and stakeholder groups such as advisory committees.
The Accreditation Process
Colleges that decide to pursue accreditation should familiarize themselves thoroughly with the scope of the process. The ECADA system provides a framework for self-study, external evaluation, and improvement in the quality of teacher preparation programs. In order for academic programs to be eligible, the home institution must possess regional accreditation recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.
Application. The college submits an application for accreditation, which is available on the NAEYC website. The signature of the president or chief executive officer demonstrates institutional commitment to the accreditation process. While the initial application fee is standard, the review and annual fees vary according to the number of degree programs submitted for accreditation. Accreditation staff determine whether the program meets eligibility criteria and will be allowed to participate in the self-study.
Self-Study. Upon approval of its application, the college begins its self-study, a process that takes at least one year. Colleges are encouraged to develop their own timelines, taking into consideration such factors as stakeholder involvement, data collection, writing the report, and allocation of resources including faculty assignments and time.
The self-study report is composed of two major sections: Program Context and Program Content and Outcomes. The Program Context contains twelve criterion: Mission and Role in the Community; Conceptual Framework; Program of Studies; Quality of Teaching; Quality of Field Experiences; Qualifications and Characteristics of Candidates; Advising and Support; Qualifications and Composition of Faculty; Professional Qualifications of Faculty; Faculty Responsibilities; Professional Development for Faculty; Program Organization and Guidance; and Program Resources. These areas provide a comprehensive overview of the community, the college, the internal and external stakeholders, and the academic program.
The second portion of the report, Program Content and Outcomes, is at the heart of the accreditation process and emphasizes assessment, student learning outcomes, data collection, the use of data to make informed decisions regarding instruction, and course and curriculum design. This section of the self-study report requires an in-depth examination of learning opportunities; assessment and evidence of candidate performance; and standards and supportive skills students are expected to attain during their course of study. Supportive skills include foundational concepts from general education and student demonstration of critical thinking skills.
Site Visit. Typically, a site visit is scheduled the semester following submission of the self-study report. The site visit is made by peer reviewers who have been vetted through application and training and are familiar with the type of college setting they have been assigned. The three-day visit includes meetings with internal and external stakeholders; visits to residential classrooms and practicum sites; review of online courses; review of college documents and facilities; and an exit interview. The visit is focused on the alignment of learning opportunities and assessments with accreditation standards, and the use of related data to inform program improvements. The community college seeking accreditation for its program is responsible for the full cost of the site visit.
Commission Review. Following the site visit, the peer-review team submits a report to the national office staff, who edit and return the report to the college. The college then has an opportunity to remark or provide clarification before the final report is sent to the national commission. The commission meets twice annually and determines whether to grant full accreditation, accreditation with conditions, or no accreditation. Programs that are accredited with conditions must address the conditions within their first two annual reports. Accreditation is valid for seven years, and programs are required to submit annual reports for commission review.
The core NAEYC standards are referenced throughout higher education accreditation systems, early childhood textbooks, professional development systems, and state-level early childhood policy development. These core standards also guide the development of initial and advanced standards used for work in higher education accreditation. The six core NAEYC Standards for Initial and Advanced Early Childhood Professional Preparation Programs provide the basis for accreditation from the NAEYC Commission on Early Childhood Associate Degree Accreditation, and NAEYC recognition of baccalaureate and graduate programs as part of National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) accreditation of schools and colleges. NAEYC is the recognized Early Childhood Education Specialty Program Accreditation body. These core standards are used across both NCATE and NAEYC accreditation systems and across associate, baccalaureate, and graduate degree levels. Field experiences are addressed in both the associate degree accreditation system and the NCATE accreditation system. According to NAEYC (2011), the initial standards are used in programs preparing candidates for first-time early childhood licensure and for positions in early learning settings that do not currently require licensure. Initial programs may be offered at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
Insights From Stakeholders
Johnson County Community College’s (JCCC) early childhood associate of science degree was awarded accreditation in 2009. According to JCCC President Terry Calaway, voluntary accreditation demonstrates confidence in the program from the college leadership and the governing board. Calaway also said that the process provides a stringent assessment of “how we do what we do” and from a quality perspective allows for review from the “best of the best” professionals in the field. Calaway noted that the ECADA is worth the investment.
Carla Goble, George Kaiser Family Foundation Endowed Professor of Child Development at Tulsa Community College, reported that the self-study process was valuable, resulting in three new faculty joining the Child Development Academic Program and, overall, a much better program for students. The challenges in determining which of the college-awarded degrees were eligible for accreditation were overcome by a major strength of the accreditation system: a set of standards linked directly to assessment, and that are the same for associate degree and baccalaureate programs. Goble noted that students are able to take their portfolio of experiences with them directly into employment or to additional education at a university, and believes that with accreditation, the view of the community college is strengthened in the eyes of the university faculty.
Diane Horm, Director of the Early Childhood Institute at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, shared that she has a strong collaboration with Tulsa Community College, pointing out a well-articulated AA-to-BA pathway for early childhood students. Both Tulsa Community College and the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa early childhood programs and students benefit from the generous support of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, an example of a strong community college and university partnership making the most of shared resources and consistent advisement for transfer students.
A Culture of Evidence
In an ever-increasing environment of data-driven decision making, Early Childhood Associate Degree Accreditation is a best-practice approach for colleges that strive to engage in intentional planning and make informed decisions regarding budget allocation. For example, each self-study report must include well-designed rubrics that demonstrate the alignment between accreditation standards, supportive skills, key assessments, learning opportunities, and student learning outcomes. Programs also report student performance data on each standard, and use of that data to inform practice and program improvement. This emphasis on evidence offers faculty and colleges opportunities for continuous improvement as well as tracking of student completion and success. The process of self-study is transparent and conducted with a strengths-based inquiry approach. The inclusive process provides programs with a framework for analyzing curriculum, community impact, outcomes, and perhaps most importantly, areas for ongoing refinement to strengthen the program. Ultimately, students benefit from an integrated curriculum that supports application of theory and demonstration of competencies directly related to the workplace.
Martha Muñoz is an independent consultant and serves as a peer reviewer for Early Childhood Associate Degree Program Accreditation.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.