By David Yellen
Loyola University Chicago School of Law
Among the forces that shape legal education are the accreditation standards of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the American Bar Association (the Section). The Section's governing council is authorized as the accrediting body for law schools by the U.S. Department of Education. In all 50 states, graduates of ABA-accredited schools are eligible to take the bar exam and students in ABA-accredited schools can receive federal student loans. As a result, ABA accreditation is essential to law schools.
The core function of the standards is to ensure that law schools' academic programs adequately prepare graduates for entry into the profession.These are minimum standards that schools must meet. They include such topics as admissions, faculty, curriculum, library, facilities and financial resources. Most of the Section's accreditation work is done by volunteers. Legal academics, judges, lawyers and nonlawyers serve on the council.
Over the past three years, the Standards Review Committee (SRC), on which I serve, has been engaged in a comprehensive review of the standards. Comprehensive reviews occur periodically to ensure that the standards evolve to reflect the most current thinking. Although changes to many aspects of the standards are being considered, the following three deserve special attention: student learning outcomes, faculty security of position and consumer information.
The council asked the SRC to consider whether the standards should shift from a focus on "inputs," such as faculty or library size, to "outputs," such as assessing the student learning outcomes that a school achieves. This is a direction in which many other accrediting bodies have moved in the past decade. After studying other disciplines' experience with student learning outcomes and considering the unique character and history of legal education, the SRC crafted a proposal designed to nudge schools toward a more rigorous process of assessing student learning.
The proposed new standards have three main elements.
First, each school will be required to identify the desired learning outcomes for its students. Schools will have flexibility to take into account their distinctive missions and student bodies. No single set of goals isrequired, but schools must focus on identifying the knowledge, skills and values its graduates need to be successful. Second, each school will examine and structure its curriculum to ensure that students are likely to attain the identified learning goals. Schools will have to ensure that a variety of assessment methods, not just final exams, are used throughout the curriculum. Students will have to complete at least one faculty-supervised skills course. Third, schools will have to periodically review and revise their learning outcomes and curricular structures. Shifting to a more output-oriented approach may make legal education more relevant and useful to our students and to the profession. The goal of these proposals is to start modestly, encourage schools to share ideas and experiences and to refine the measurement of student learning outcomes over time.
The standards require tenure or other forms of security of position for most faculty members. The council asked the SRC to consider whether these requirements should be retained, modified or whether faculty terms and conditions of employment should be left to individual schools.
This has been the most politically charged work the SRC has undertaken and I cannot do justice to the complicated issues involved in such a short space. But to summarize, some argue that the standards should regulate faculty security of position as the best way to ensure academic freedom, faculty governance and excellence in legal education. In addition, the security of position provisions in the standards promote higher status for faculty teaching in the professional skills area. On the other side are those, myself included, who agree with the values expressed above, but do not believe that the ABA should impose any particular employment relationship on schools.
A subcommittee of the SRC has proposed that security of position be removed from the standards. Other ideas are being considered and the SRC remains sharply divided on these questions. Ultimately, the council will have the final say.
The standards also perform an important consumer protection function. Especially at a time when the job market is weak , it is essential that schools provide current and prospective students with complete and accurate consumer information. Law schools have come under intense attack recently, some justified, some exaggerated, for misleading students about a range of issues including scholarship retention and employment outcomes. The SRC is proposing to substantially increase the detail and usefulness of the information schools must disclose.
The standards represent an attempt to balance quality assurance and flexibility and to promote continuous improvement without imposing undue costs. The ongoing evolution of the standards provides an interesting window into the present and future of legal education.