Islands of Excellence

Martha Kanter (Undersecretary for Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education) last week addressed the CHEA conference.  Our Antioch School exemplifies much of what she referred to as “islands of excellence.”

On Tuesday of last week, I had the privilege to hear Martha Kanter (Undersecretary for Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education) address the conference of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Doesn’t that sound like a fun bunch? Actually, it is a lot better than you might think.

One of the memorable phrases she used repeatedly was “islands of excellence” that highlight what we are doing right. I thought I would comment on a few pieces of her speech because of their significance to what we are doing with the Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development.

Kanter said that there has not been enough differentiation in terms of quality in our institutions. This may have been a subtle reference to the lack of innovation in colleges and universities. Many institutions are looking more and more like each other while the world is getting more and more diverse. No one has ever accused our Antioch School of not bringing differentiation in terms of quality in the realm of theological education.

A common theme during the conference was uncertainty about the meaning of degrees. Kanter suggested that there may need to be more common standards in the industry so that we can be more confident about what a degree actually represents. Again, no one has ever accused the Antioch School of being unclear about what our degrees represent. The program objectives and portfolio transcript for each degree are abundantly clear.

Higher education needs to be more focused on competencies and outcomes assessment, according to Kanter. Some at the conference (not Kanter) even went as far as to say that institutions are guilty of giving degrees to people who have not learned what that degree is supposed to represent. Frankly, I was amazed to hear such a statement at a conference of accrediting agencies that are supposed to be emphasizing outcomes assessment. Our accrediting agency, the Distance Education and Training Council, requires us to prove on an ongoing basis that we are granting credit and degrees solely on the basis of outcomes assessment. The Antioch School is characterized by being competency-based and was formed because of the emphasis on outcomes assessment associated with the use of BILD resources.

Kanter also said that faculty and students need “shared reference points” so that there is better alignment in higher education. Again, the Antioch School’s portfolio transcripts and Student Competency Assessment Guide provide consistency and objectivity in assessment, an area in which “shared reference points” are often hard to find in theological education institutions.

Special reference was made by Kanter to one particular situation in which higher education needs to become more competency-based. She said that higher education needs to work more closely with industry-recognized credentials, such as how to convert competencies developed during military experience into credit. This is exactly what we do in the Antioch School through our Ministry Practicum which are a required part of every program and can be used extensively to satisfy free electives in our B.Min. program.

Well, what does all this mean? At the risk of patting ourselves on the back, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the Antioch School and its partner churches are “islands of excellence.” We may not be on Undersecretary Kanter’s radar screen, but we seem to be an institution that exemplifies many of the most important things that she is looking for in institutions that differentiate themselves based on quality. Pretty good stuff coming from an accreditation conference, isn’t it?