The Certification Struggle

Edit: After this story went to publication, Ploeger returned the Collegian’s question regarding why the university had seemed secretive about certification. Her full reply is at the end of the article:

“My biggest question was, well, if you have a higher standard than [the state standard], how can you have a higher standard if you have no accreditation at all? You have no standards if you have no accreditation,” asked Anita O’Daniel.
O’Daniel wondered this during a faculty meeting to decide if she should be let into the College of Education for the 2017-2018 school year. While she met the state standards for such a request, she didn’t meet TU’s standards. A faculty member, during the meeting, said she couldn’t be let in because she did not meet TU standards.
But the problem with TU’s education department is that it’s currently unaccredited by the state of Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA) revoked accreditation from TU in late June, after a site visit in Feb., 2017. The university had failed to meet standards in 2015, so a follow-up was set for 2017.
When the OEQA found that the university still did not meet two out of the six state standards for evaluation, it decided to revoke accreditation. This action had not happened for 20 years in Oklahoma.
Losing accreditation has had major consequences, for both the school and students. The university plans to reapply for accreditation in the fall of 2018. If the school is able to meet state requirements by that time, they will regain their accreditation. But in the meantime, TU students have been affected.

Students’ Stories
TU students who graduated from the teacher education program in the 2016-2017 school year were unaffected by the revocation, and the state is allowing students who are graduating before July 2018 to graduate and be a certified educator, given they take the certification related exams before that time.
A music education major, with a minor in deaf education, Rachel Neely will graduate in Dec., 2017, meaning she will be “unaffected outside of the tarnished reputation the TU Education department now has.” As she is already in the student teaching process, Neely mainly needs to take the Oklahoma Professional Teaching Examination (OPTE) and Oklahoma Subject Area Tests (OSAT) before June.
While for her, the loss of accreditation was not a major hinderance, Neely has “several friends that had to transfer schools, or even drop out because their degree is now essentially worthless.”
The Interim Chair of the Department of Education Robin Ploeger stated those who will not graduate by July 2018 have been made aware of alternative routes to certification.
For those who are interested in remaining in Oklahoma, emergency certification remains an option. Oklahoma’s public schools are filled with teachers who have been emergency certified — in 2016, 1,160 certificates were issued — because colleges aren’t producing enough teachers and many certified teachers go out of state because of pay. By simply taking the required tests and taking 6-18 hours of college credit in education courses, graduates could also become certified teachers. Finally for those interested specifically in special education, students could obtain a Master’s degree or certificate in the field, complete a 150-hour program and any required tests.
These outside accreditation routes, while possible, Neely said, are “a lot of extra work that is put on the student’s shoulders.”
Students hoping to go out of state will have to do their own research on how they may be certified.
Casey Martin was one of those expected to graduate in December of 2018. Unable to reconfigure her schedule to graduate by the deadline, she withdrew from TU and currently works as a substitute teacher in Oklahoma, until she can transfer to a school in Colorado. Getting emergency certified wasn’t an option for her, for two main reasons.
“I went to TU for the purpose of attaining a degree in elementary education and becoming a fully certified elementary teacher,” she said, “I didn’t go to TU to get a degree from an unaccredited school and get an emergency certification.”
Emergency certifications cannot be transferred out of state, where Martin intended to teach post-graduation.
Apart from delaying her graduation, Martin expects to “have to retake all of the accreditation courses I have already taken at TU” in her new school.
Since TU hopes to get reaccredited in fall of 2018, Martin could’ve also remained at TU and taken extra classes. But, she pointed out, she didn’t “feel like it’s reasonable to risk your entire future in hopes that the university is successful in regaining accreditation, especially since that’s not a for sure thing.”
Although O’Daniel is graduating this May, she will not graduate with a teacher education certification. She transferred from OSU to TU after a year, to study deaf education, but because transfer grades don’t count and she failed a class early on, she had to work to get her GPA up to TU standards to join the department. This summer, after passing the state standards for GPA, she attempted to apply for the program, only to be told they weren’t accepting applications until 2018, which led to the faculty meeting mentioned at the start of the article.
Instead, O’Daniel will graduate with a self-designed deaf education studies major. Basically, she said, “I’m graduating with a piece of paper that means nothing to anyone, even though it says University of Tulsa on it.”
O’Daniel planned to teach while she working towards a masters in occupational therapy. As she is married with two children, she said “making sure my family is taken care of is the number one priority, always,” and teaching during her graduate degree was a way to do that. “Now I have a piece of paper that says I have a bachelor’s degree, but the school systems won’t hire me,” she finished.
Students who were underclassmen in 2017-2018, or new freshman as of this year, can still declare an education major; they just cannot be admitted to the teacher education program. Ploeger said these students may take education courses required for their degree and then submit an application later.
In the meantime, however, some underclassmen are deciding to prepare for the possibility the university will not regain their accreditation immediately.
One student, who has asked to remain anonymous to preserve connections in the department in case they later rejoined, decided to change majors from education to sociology, with a minor in education. If the school regains its accreditation, the student plans to rejoin the teacher education program so they can go on to teach.
The student made this decision after a professor accidentally informed the class of the department’s problems. They researched possible alternative majors to still be able to teach special education and talked with their advisor. The student summed up the advisor’s words as, “‘you’re a freshman. The university can’t do anything for you…underclassman need to leave the program.’ At that point, [the advisor] was just asking, what else are you interested in.”
The student debated transferring colleges, but because they took so many education related classes their freshman year, they would’ve “lost all of them and would’ve had to start over as a freshman. Here, at least it still counts for something.”
Natalie Meyer, meanwhile, has already transferred schools. Meyer is currently a sophomore at the University of Missouri, Columbia, but spent her freshman year at TU.
Ultimately, she chose to leave because she “felt that staying wouldn’t fulfil my academic and future career needs, and that the University wasn’t making an active effort to help me to stay.” “The administration didn’t reach out with the steps they were taking to improve, or their apologies to students,” she said, and instead, “it appeared to me that I was being asked to blindly trust the school.”
Rumors of the loss of accreditation had forced Meyers to consider switching schools during the spring semester. A professor had mentioned the possibility in March or April of 2017, but the decision happened suddenly and late in the summer. Because of this, Meyers didn’t look into “other ‘second-choice’ schools which [she’d] looked into in high school, but rather, was restricted to visiting two in-state colleges.” At UMC, she expects to have very “time heavy” semesters in order to graduate in four years.
Though she hasn’t been at Mizzou long, she said “the professors are knowledgeable, passionate and enthusiastic to craft future teachers, which is, sadly, a void I noticed at The University of Tulsa.”
Throughout the process, students complained about the university’s handling of the subject and how they were not informed of the university’s problems prior to attending.
“I really felt like the school cared more about covering themselves than about the students affected by the situation,” Martin said. “Personally, I felt like there were a lot of secrets being kept and people were trying really hard to keep students in the dark for as long as possible so we wouldn’t start withdrawing.”.
Trying to get information out of the department was a difficult task.
“Every piece of information I received I had to seek out myself and jump through many hoops to get. When I did get information, it was vague and consisted of things like ‘we’re handling it,’ which isn’t very comforting,” Martin continued.
Jacqi Cole, a vocal education major, echoed Martin’s thoughts. Cole only heard about the accreditation through peers and her music advisor; the education department sent out an email much later, and had one meeting on the topic.
“In that meeting,” she said, “it was expressed that no one needed to worry and that they would be okay, essentially.”
The department waited to bring up the issue, Neely said, “until it became obvious that the department would actually be losing the accreditation and that the students would be facing real issues.”
After the department lost its accreditation, O’Daniel heard through rumors that it had been an issue before. “I really don’t find this fair to people who came in or transferred in. You should’ve told me about this. We spend too much money as students to have to deal with this after we’ve been here so long,” she said.
As Martin originally came to TU to study speech pathology, she said knowledge of the department’s issues may have affected her decision to remain once she changed her major to elementary education.
While they had planned to come to college to study education, the anonymous student said TU’s reputation as a STEM-focused college had been a worry when they first joined. But the admissions advisor had assured them that “it’s a liberal arts college; it’s still well rounded. We’ll get you out with your degree.”
But, “freshman year, that’s already gone,” they concluded.
The Issues
OEQA looks for six main standards when evaluating schools:
I. candidate knowledge, skills and professional dispositions,
II., assessment systems and unit evaluation,
III., field experiences and clinical practice,
IV., diversity,
V., faculty qualifications, performance and development, and
VI. unit governance and resources.

For each of these categories, OEQA evaluates how the school meets this criteria for both initial and advanced students (graduate level).
In 2017, TU did not meet the assessment system and unit evaluation, as well as the unit governance and resources.
Standard II involves, according to OEQA forms, that “the unit has an assessment system that collects and analyzes data on applicant qualifications, candidate and graduate performance, and unit operations to evaluate and improve the performance of candidates, the unit and its programs.”
Standard VI is described as “the unit has the leadership, authority, budget, personnel, facilities, and resources, including information technology resources, for the preparation of candidates to meet professional, state and institutional standards.”
These two standards were also not met in 2015.
Ploeger attributed this failure to improve between 2015 to 2017 to “a lot of transition in leadership with several individuals serving in interim leadership roles…there were things that ‘fell through the cracks”
Without stable leadership, the assessment within the program didn’t occur, leaving TU without evidence for the OEQA visit.
In May, after the site visit but before the loss of accreditation, President Gerald Clancy reorganized the two academic units (the School of Urban Education and Department of Education Studies) into one department, called the Department of Education. Ploeger believes this change will help solve the leadership issue. Clancy has since named Elizabeth Smith as the new chair of the department. “With this change in leadership, we have essentially been able to start over,” she claimed.
The department worked this summer to write new Program Learning Outcomes (PLOs) and restructure the assessment plan.
Overall, standard II ensures schools collect data on their program to improve it and mandates assessments.
Initially, in 2015, the university was told they needed a systematic and comprehensive assessment system, they needed to collect, analyze and evaluate data about their program regularly and they should use data for program improvement.
The OEQA decided that TU still had not improved these areas in 2017, and added new areas for improvement. These areas involved being unable to provide evidence they share certain data, and that graduate/employer surveys are conducted.
In addition OEQA said, professional community members should be involved in the assessment system and TU needed to share this data with students to help them improve their performance and programs.
In fact, evidence TU provided to OEQA said “at this point, we do not see a need to share aggregate data of the whole Teacher Education Program. However, we will consider this, as it may be an opportunity for candidates to see what is expected of them and their classmates.”
While Ploeger cannot speak for past years, the college analyzed data during the spring and summer this year.
This information, she said, has “led to changes that will be implemented in the assessment system.”
The college plans to continue these analysis days in the future. During these, Ploeger expects students “will be invited to participate and offer their feedback for program improvement based on both the data and their experiences.”
Starting this fall, the Education Advisory Board and Teacher Education Council, an outside organization, will help with reviewing program assessments.
Internally, the Teacher Education Council, comprised of all education faculty and at least one faculty from each of the subject areas from education, has been reorganized. This group will review program assessment data, discuss any curriculum changes and other program issues.
According to Ploeger, “being able to get this group together on a regular basis will help ensure that all faculty are on the same page and are all working in moving the program in the same direction.”
Students didn’t necessarily feel like they’d been affected by the assessment system. Most, however, did note they were aware of leadership problems in the department, addressed by state standard six.
OEQA’s major finding for this standard was that the department didn’t have clear leadership or authority, and that faculty, students and department leaders were confused about the department authority and leadership. They found “discrepancies in the evidences describing the organizational structure and leadership of the unit.”
While on site, OEQA “observed numerous examples of operational confusion, inefficiencies, and gaps in task assignments and completion both in the operations of the unit, and in the preparation and management of the site visit.”
After the visit, Ploeger said “all faculty now understand their role in the department and there is solid leadership in place.”
Students noticed this tension throughout their studies, and the effect it had on their education. While “professors in the education department at TU are amazing…you could definitely tell there was a disconnect between the leadership and faculty. There was always tension and there wasn’t clear leadership from what I saw,” Martin said.
Neely provided an example from her attempt to become a student teacher. When she was attempting to be placed in a school, she had to wait until about two months into the spring semester to be placed. “It took me going to my music advisor and him emailing the coordinating orchestra teacher to allow me to attend the school,” she said.
Because of that, she started her observations after spring break, meaning she spent most of her finals week at the high school instead of studying. In her experience, “those kinds of issues happen all the time, and it is very frustrating as a student.” “Communication between advisors, specifically one that I worked with, was essentially nonexistent” and caused the problem she experienced.
Even after the department’s issues became evident, Neely reported that getting placements for student teaching was difficult. In this matter, “even the coordinating teachers I am working with at the high schools expressed frustration about communication.”
Cole supported Neely’s claim, saying others had to wait “until more than half the semester get placed into a school to observe, which is stressful and sometimes unrealistic due to how many hours of observation are required.” She added that “there hasn’t been clear communication or adequate organization. We really don’t know what’s going on or what is expected of us.”
From 2015 to 2017, TU did improve in one area. In 2015, standard one for advanced candidates was not met; by 2017, the school was able to pass for that requirement.

Looking Forward
After the reorganization and changes that have occurred, Ploeger believes the department will move past this issue and be better for it.
“Faculty are thinking about new and innovative ways to approach teacher education,” she said, adding that the program and courses are being reviewed to determine how to best prepare students to teach in the diverse schools in the state and nation.
While one faculty member left after the spring of 2017 and another will be leaving at the end of the current semester for other opportunities, Ploeger believes “the faculty who are here now are committed to improving the education program and want to see it regain accreditation.” The department also wishes to hire additional faculty.
Students hoped the university would learn from the loss of accreditation.
As Neely said, “the best hope is that the department will get their accreditation back as quickly as possible so there is only a small amount of students affected by this event. For me, my biggest hope for the future is that the department will learn from this, and that it will grow into a better program than it’s ever been.”
For those interested, the OEQA documents regarding the 2015 and 2017 site visits can be found on the Collegian’s webpage.

Ploeger’s reply:

The reason that it appears that university was secretive following the site visit is that we didn’t have a lot of information to give to students, and the university community as a whole, until the decision became official on June 23rd. Students were notified by their faculty advisors during advising appointments which took place in March or early April that loss of accreditation was a possibility due to the findings of the site visit in February. Dean Kalpana Misra and Dr. Sharon Baker, the Interim Chair of the School of Urban Education, conducted several information sessions for students near the end of the spring semester to communicate information that we had at that time. The only information that we had to communicate to students was that the loss of accreditation was a possibility. We didn’t have any information regarding the timing of when that would be official, the possibilities relating to a teach out plan, or the effects the loss of accreditation would have on current students. The OEQA met in May to discuss the rejoinder that TU submitted in response the site visit report. Dr. Clancy, Janet Levit, and I attended that meeting in which Dr. Clancy spoke and reiterated the university’s determination to work with the OEQA to correct the deficiencies that were found during the site visit. They wished to further consider the options available to them as an accrediting body in light of the information Dr. Clancy presented relating to how TU would be moving forward. So essentially a decision was delayed until the meeting on June 23rd. At that time, they did vote to revoke accreditation, but approved an ’emergency action’ that would require the govenor’s signature. This emergency action would allow TU to reapply for accreditation in 1 year rather than the typical 2 year waiting period. At this time, we began to craft the documents and information that we would send to all students in the education program as well as others on campus. This process took several weeks to finish so that we were sure that we had the correct information to convey to students regarding their options. We communicated to students who had been admitted to the teacher education program on July 20th. Janet Levit, Elizabeth Smith, and I meet with the OEQA on Aug. 3rd to get clarification on the processes relating to regaining accreditation to ensure that we knew of any restrictions that might relate to underclassmen at TU who were interested in pursuing an education degree at TU (we were glad to find out that there were no restrictions and that we could offer the entire education major). Once we had that information, we felt comfortable communicating with all of the education majors on campus. An email was sent to these students on Aug. 7th. There was a delicate balance between communicating to the students ‘quickly’ and communicating the correct information. We took a little longer so that we could make sure we were communicating correct information. Since the communications were sent to students, Elizabeth Smith and I have met with every student who has been admitted to teacher education and many students who are education majors, but not yet admitted to teacher education. In these meetings we discussed the student’s progress toward their degree, options relating to certification, and other concerns the students had.

Post Author: Michaela Flonard