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The AICP Certification Maintenance Program: Good Steps In The Wrong Direction

Though the program has good intentions, APA's proposal for mandatory continuing education could just encourage more planners to attend the National Planning Conference than to actually get more training.
January 2, 2007, 8am PST | Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
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Editor's Note: Following this article, read a response from AICP President Sue Schwartz.

Leo VasquezFor planners to be taken as seriously as engineers or architects, our clients have to feel comfortable that we are competent, knowledgeable and current. The American Planning Association is taking a big step in this direction by requiring mandatory continuing education for certified planners. Unfortunately, APA is headed in the wrong direction.

The proposed Certification Maintenance program requires that planners get at least 48 credits of continuing education every two years to maintain their AICP status. That's not a bad idea. But the way the APA is structuring the program is wrong on many counts. It will hinder fair competition, and most importantly, will fail to meet the goal of ensuring that AICP planners are more knowledgeable and current.

Under the Certification Maintenance program, at least half of the eligible credits have to come from APA or APA-sponsored programs. This means programs that APA produces itself or has a strong hand in producing. The rest can come from programs that are "registered" by APA. A quarter of the credits can come from "self-study" -- which means reading books. AICP planners are not required to show that they've actually learned anything. They only need to prove that they showed up. Under the program, an AICP member can get 48 credits simply by going to the national conference every other year and "reading books".

APA, which unveiled the proposal on December 9, will take comments until January 9. The Board of Directors is likely to vote on the proposal at its meeting in April.

How the Certification Maintenance program will weaken fair competition, which can reduce the quality of training for planners

APA is only one of dozens of institutions that offer training to planners. Clearly, this requirement will force professionals to choose an APA program over a competitor's program. This will undermine free and fair competition and put APA in a monopoly role. Without the threat of fair competition, APA will have no incentive to reduce fees or improve quality.

The American Institute of Architects charges between $650 and $3,300 annually to training organizations and businesses that want to offer AIA continuing education credits. (AIA member firms that offer education to their own employees pay $300.) The application is more time-consuming than applying for a loan. This adds significant costs to educational organizations, which are then passed on to their customers. If APA charges the same kind of fees, we would expect that training organizations would have to increase their fees, or reduce their ability to serve their own clients.

You can't get credits for teaching or mentoring. Yet, experts in adult learning say that teaching is the absolute best way to learn a subject. When you're learning, you are likely to remember only 10% of what you someone tells you. But if you teach what you've just learned, you will probably remember at least 90%.

APA can address this problem simply by removing the requirement that half of the credits come from APA programs.

How the Certification Maintenance program creates a strong potential for conflict of interest

Imagine that the largest developer in your community is the sole member of your planning and zoning board -- and that there are no regulations about how the person approves permits. Would you expect that developer to make fair and impartial decisions on applications brought by his competitors? Or do you think that developer will make the best decisions for his own bottom line? No matter how honest the developer is, every decision he makes will carry the odor of a conflict of interest.

That's the situation APA is in. It wants to be the sole arbitrator of quality in continuing education for planning, as well as a leading provider in the market. I'm not saying that anyone in APA is acting unethically, but this system means that you'll never know.

It took seven months for the APA to make my training program, Bloustein Online Continuing Education Program (BOCEP), eligible for continuing education credits. And it took that long for BOCEP to get space in the APA's continuing education website. Only after I had complained several times did the staff act on my request. Why did it take so long? Was it simply that the staff of a multi-million dollar organization couldn't get around to it? Or was it that the staff and leadership were not inclined to act on a program that might take away business from the APA's CD-ROM and video training series? I don't know.

Every time the APA rejects a continuing education provider, or takes a long time to accept a provider, the question will remain: Did they make a fair and impartial assessment, or are they trying to keep out competition?

APA can address this issue by joining with other organizations, such as Planners Network and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, in creating an independent review board that will judge the quality of a training program.

How the Certification Maintenance program will likely fail to achieve its goal of making planners more knowledgeable and current

The APA national conference is fun. It provides great networking. You can get inspired by hearing so many success stories. But we all know that very few people who attend it are actually learning a lot there. As someone who has presented and attended at most of the APA National Conferences since 2000, I know that most participants do not attend any sessions from start to finish. During sessions, you're likely to see almost as many people networking in the hallways as you are watching the panel discussions in the room. And how much are you really learning from panelists who are spending their 10 minutes of talk time telling success stories or giving pep talks? Have you ever been to a session where they tested your knowledge afterwards?

As Keith Ferrazzi says in his influential book, Never Eat Alone, "I don't often find the content of conferences particularly useful. I read a lot. I think about these subjects constantly and talk to a lot of people. By the time I get to a conference, I know the substance of what's going to be said."

Yet, under the Certification Maintenance program, the National Conference is worth 36 credits -- 75% of the required number.

So the only thing a planner has to do to maintain AICP certification is to read a few books and show up to a conference. What that proves is that the planner knows how to read and show up.

Of course you can learn at a conference, or anywhere else. But if you're the type of person who, in a conference, sits in the back of the room checking email, or schmoozing in the halls, it wouldn't matter if you had Burnham, Olmsted and Jacobs in the front of the room. You wouldn't learn anything.

A better way to meet the goals of the Certification Maintenance program

The best way that APA can meet the goals of the continuing education program is having planners take a re-certification test every eight to 10 years. The new test would focus on planning trends, current socioeconomic issues and recent changes in relevant laws. Only those who passed the initial American Institute of Certified Planners examination would be eligible to take the re-certification test.

As a member of the AICP committee that oversees the AICP exam, I think this approach is reasonable to planners, staff and the volunteers who prepare the examination. The AICP Examination Review Committee writes and reviews the questions for the exam and makes recommendations about the topics it covers. We already write questions on current topics, so it's very easy for us to come up with more questions. The administrative parts of the exam -- registration, management, and getting results -- are straightforward for both the exam-taker and AICP staff. So the staff can easily work on the re-certification exam at the same time they're working on the original exam.

Passing the re-certification exam would confirm that the planner is competent, knowledgeable and current. It wouldn't matter where and from whom they got their knowledge. And it will encourage participants to pay more attention at conferences and workshops.

I know that most professionals would rather not take tests. But if the AICP designation is going to be meaningful to our colleagues, our clients, and the communities we serve, we need to have an impartial and clear way to demonstrate that we are competent, knowledgeable and current.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP is a member of the faculty and the Director of the Professional Development Institute at Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. He was a founder and creator of two innovative continuing education initiatives for planning professionals: Bloustein Online Continuing Education Program and The Leading Institute. He is the Chair of the the American Planning Association's Latinos and Planning Division and has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners Examination Review Committee since 2004. He has served in various leadership and advisory roles in the American Planning Association since 1998.

You can read the full text of the Certification Maintenance proposal at:

Response from AICP President Sue Schwartz

Sue SchwartzI would like to thank Leo Vazquez for his January 2, 2007 editorial concerning the proposal for Certification Maintenance for AICP members. This proposal has generated a good deal of discussion and at this stage that is exactly what the AICP Commission is looking for (as of January 3rd we already have received around 1,000 responses). For AICP members who haven't already done so, I would like to encourage you to read the proposal and give us your comments, questions you have, etc.

The last day for feedback for this first comment period is January 9th.

The AICP Commission will be meeting at the end of January to review the proposal in light of the comments received. We anticipate having a revised draft for review by the AICP membership by late February and strongly invite your comments again. We hope to have a final proposal for the Commission to vote on at our meeting in Philadelphia in April 2007.

Thank you all for your interest in excellence in the profession.

Sue Schwartz, FAICP
AICP President

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