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Four issues that negate the purpose and benefits of program accreditation

This is an excerpt from Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming by Bruce Martin & Mark Wagstaff.

Should programs be accredited to ensure that they adhere to industry standards?


Pay to Play: The Price of Accreditation

Whitney Ward,PhD, assistant professor, health education and recreation, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois

At first glance, it appears that accreditation may be a no-brainer. Literature within the adventure programming industry suggests that the majority of outdoor professionals support the accreditation process (Bassin et al., 1992; Cockrell and Detzel, 1985; Gass, 1999). However, on further investigation, accreditation has serious limitations and some critically question its benefits. Chisholm and Shaw (2004) state,“It is likely that influential organizations within the outdoor industry will benefit from the socially constructed ‘need' for audit and accreditation” (p. 320, emphasis added). Chisholm and Shaw further state that the influential accrediting organizations benefit in terms of both money and power at the expense of the outdoor program provider.

This argument presents a stance against accreditation by outlining four confounding issues that seriously negate the purpose and benefits of accreditation. The first confounding issue is the false notion of added value. Adventure programmers assume that accreditation constitutes a value added by providing a safety guarantee and legal protection. However, the value is questionable given the multiple options for accreditation and the pre-existing government standards. The second confounding issue concerns the associated costs of accreditation. The third issue concerns the unchecked power of accreditation. The final confounding issue concerns the role of accreditation in the overall decline of adventure programming.

Questionable Value

Proponents of accreditation argue that it assures clients, agencies, and the custodians of the lands that a program has clearly defined and appropriate objectives and maintains conditions under which participants can reasonably meet these achievements (Gass, 1999). Additionally, supporters contend that accreditation is an indicator of a commitment to quality and is a seal of approval. Although accreditation does provide objective measures of safety, it can be manipulated to the extent that programs spend more resources pursuing standards than they do delivering the adventure experience itself (Chisholm and Shaw, 2004). This can lead to an environment of suspicion. Furthermore, even with this supposed guarantee and the associated benefits, the track record of accreditation within the adventure programming industry is inconsistent and may be of questionable value.

The American Camp Association (ACA), which has more than 2,400 accredited camps, has been the most successful regarding accreditation (American Camp Association, n.d. a). However, even with their success, only one-quarter of camps in the United States are accredited (Pintas and Mullins Law Firm, 2011). Although the ACA does serve camps that integrate adventure programming into the curricula, their purpose and mission does little to serve the larger adventure programming industry because they focus on organized camping. Even within the organized camping system, large entities such as the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) do not submit to ACA standards. BSA supports a national task force that develops camp standards and trains hundreds of visitation teams to conduct inspections each year.

Other accreditation bodies like the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) and National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) have not had the same level of success as ACA. AEE provides accreditation in experiential adventure programming, and it has accredited more than 250 programs (Brown, 2007). However, currently only 46 AEE-accredited programs exist in the world (Association for Experiential Education, n.d.). Thus, for whatever reasons, more than 200 programs have decided not to retain AEE accreditation. What may be even more indicative of the value of accreditation is that out of all the adventure organizations, only a few have chosen to pursue accreditation. An AEE board member reflects on AEE's limited growth in the accreditation program: “How long can an organization hang on [to accreditation] with only 40 to 50 organizations? You begin to ask, is this the most effective model?” (A. Bobilya, personal communication, April 11, 2011).

NRPA is the accrediting body for parks and academic programs. Yet, similar to AEE, NRPA has had limited success; only 81 academic programs are NRPA accredited (National Recreation and Park Association, n.d. a). Furthermore, even a smaller percentage of NRPA-accredited park districts exist within the thousands of city and county parks districts in the United States. Several states have only one or two accredited parks, and some states do not have any (National Recreation and Park Association, n.d. b). Does this mean that only a few quality parks exist? The answer obviously is no. Several quality academic programs and parks are not NRPA accredited. Larger universities that primarily focus on research and grant funding as opposed to teaching find little value in an accreditation that is practitioner oriented. In addition, the NRPA accreditation supports the Certified Parks and Recreation Professional (CPRP) certificate. Yet, the vast majority of the recreation and parks agencies do not require the CPRP for employment. Organizations must determine whether the benefits and values received outweigh the costs. Based on the limited success of accreditation, most organizations must not see enough value added to justify accreditation.

The U.S. Department of Education, when addressing accreditation, readily admits that there are “programs that elect not to seek accreditation but nevertheless may provide a quality [experience]” (Office of Postsecondary Education, n.d.). A program dedicated to high standards is going to be a quality program regardless of accreditation. If accreditation is indeed valuable, why do so many organizations choose to forgo the process? The answer can be explained with simple cost-benefit analysis: accreditation does not provide enough perceived benefits for organizations to justify the costs.

The Accreditation Safety Guarantee

Accredited programs are often portrayed as meeting various standards and therefore being safe. Accreditation is by no means a guarantee of prescribed outcomes. Incidents can and do happen to even the best-prepared organization. Having an accreditation will not eliminate incidents. Risk is simply an inherent aspect of adventure programming. Although risk can be managed, safety and risk are mutually exclusive (Gregg, 2007). This point is illustrated by the safety director of a predominant outdoor leadership organization (who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution), who stated that accreditation has no effect or would not have prevented past incidents from occurring (safety director, personal communication, April 4, 2011).

In one incident, in 2001 two girls became trapped and drowned in a canoeing accident (Chisholm and Shaw, 2004). After an extensive investigation, authorities determined that the program had followed all the applicable standards, yet an incident still resulted in two fatalities (Chisholm and Shaw, 2004). Another example includes an ACA-accredited camp that was shut down due to allegations of child abuse by staff members. ACA revoked its accreditation because of the allegations. However, the abuse apparently went on for years while the camp was ACA accredited (WBUR, 2011). Accidents and incidents happen regardless of accreditation. Accreditation cannot and does not guarantee safety.

Legal Protection

Legal protection is often touted as a benefit of accreditation. However, the accreditation process that provides legal protection for an organization is also what makes litigation possible. The standards used to determine accreditation are the exact same standards that are used to show negligence. A recent discussion regarding helmet use illustrates this concept of litigation potential:

As far as standards that affect you folks, there are three organizations that have written standards for helmet use. The ACA, CWA [Climbing Wall Association] and ACCT [Association for Challenge Course Technologies]. All three have standards for helmets around outside programs, some only for minors. Either way it is a perfect opportunity for the plaintiffs [to] find the standard you violated and sue rather than see what you did not screw up. If you are running a program outdoors I would suggest you meet all three standards. The cost of getting the standards is going to bankrupt some of you. (J. Moss, personal communication, April, 6, 2011)

Moss (2011) goes on to say:

According to evidence presented by the plaintiffs, there was also no rehearsal of any safety plan or communication of the plan to counselors, despite the requirement of training or rehearsal in the ACA Standards Manual. See Mosley Decl. Exh. N at OM-14 (ACA Accreditation Standards). Simply put the plaintiff's expert used the ACA standards, adopted by the defendant camp, to convince the judge the camp was negligent. Standards are the lowest acceptable level of doing or not doing something. Below that level, if there is an associated injury, someone is negligent. If you do not violate a standard you have not breached the duty of care to someone. No breach, no negligence no matter how bad the injury or how great the damages. Standards are determined by the jury at trial. Normally, the plaintiff and the defendant put witnesses and expert witnesses on the stand to determine what the standard of care is. The jury then decides based on what they've heard. That means the defense has a chance to prove they were not below the standard of care. The defendant loses that chance if your trade association writes standards for you. (paragraphs 22-25)

That is not to say that organizations should not have policies or guidelines that they follow. However, unmet standards that are established by accreditation with the intention of protecting organizations can be used to show negligence.

Accreditation standards can be a double-edged sword: they can protect and they can cut. However, standards become even more legally problematic when they are not mandatory. Each accreditation process has numerous standards. However, accreditation does not require full compliance to the standards, as is seen in the ACA accreditation process: “Accreditation criteria do not require 100 percent compliance with standards. Some nonmandatory requirements, such as shower ratios, can be missed and the camp or conference center can still be accredited” (American Camp Association, n.d. c). Having nonrequired standards begs the question, why have the standard in the first place? Again, an unmet accreditation standard provides an opportunity for litigation against the organization. Rick Curtis, director of Outdoor Action Programs at Princeton University, addresses how standards can cause potential for more liability:

Well, the bad news about protocols is, if you make 'em, you've got to keep 'em. More important in some ways than developing a protocol is seeing to its implementation. Protocols without the necessary structure behind them to see that they are carried through with are only words on paper. From a Risk Management point of view, poorly implemented protocols can create greater liability for an organization than not having a specific protocol. Having a protocol says, ‘we believe that this is the best way to operate.' Ignoring that protocol may leave you more vulnerable for a charge of negligence or even gross negligence. (Curtis, n.d., paragraph 6)

Having nonmandatory standards is equivalent to ignoring protocols and provides the evidence against the organization necessary for it to be found negligent.

Learn more about Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming.

More Excerpts From Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming