Curriculum Approval Takes Too Long. and Other Myths

Executive Committee and Co-Chair System Advisory Committee on Curriculum

There is a myth circulating out there: it takes too long to approve curriculum. I hear this criticism repeated both at local and state level discussions, and I cringe each time because such a statement accuses faculty and colleges of being slothful, unresponsive or unnecessarily pedantic in their deliberations. To some it has become an axiom and a reason for colleges' perceived lack of responsiveness to changing community and workplace needs. Let's examine this "axiom" to see if it really holds water.

Do we take too long? First we have to ask what is meant by "too long" and determine who decides what is too long. Processes vary according to the type of curriculum under consideration, ranging from a matter of weeks to a year. Because the timelines for curriculum approval are (and should be) locally determined, they vary across the state, and some colleges might (as my elementary school report card said) "make better use of time". It can be argued that curriculum approval is by design a deliberative (and therefore time-consuming) process; quality curriculum requires careful planning and examination. Faculty members, as professionals, insist that colleagues in related disciplines be consulted before new curriculum is approved; we question such things as whether the necessary resources are available such as support services and library holdings. We believe it is important to talk with our counterparts at other colleges in our district or region.

And we want to ensure that new curricula will meet the students' needs for their goals, whether in basic skills, workplace preparation, certificate programs or for associate or baccalaureate degrees. Discipline faculty and curriculum committees must ensure that approved courses meet the necessary standards. It does take time to examine all the elements.

Many factors outside the control of curriculum committees contribute to the time needed for curricular approval: local board calendars and their policies about approving recommended curriculum, timelines for catalog publication and for regional consortia review, as well as internal processes for administrative input.

In addition to locally-approved courses, new programs require state approval, as do stand-alone courses (for the time-being-until new state guidelines are put into place). However, Academic Senate representatives have discovered in recent interactions with the System Office that state approval processes are normally quite fast and typically are delayed only because applications are incomplete or incorrectly filled out. Also, the processes for new program approval at the System Office soon will be streamlined and clarified, as the Program and Course Approval Handbook is currently undergoing comprehensive revision and improvement this academic year. (A caveat: existing processes are in place until we receive official notification of change).

Not all local curricular approvals take as long as the typical, lengthier process. Courses offered through contract education or as experimental courses, for example, can be created and approved in a matter of weeks or months. Our colleges have processes for designing and offering just-in-time classes to local businesses; it's just that the curriculum may not be degree-applicable. The trouble is, when some people outside academe criticize our perceived slow processes, it may be because they want our courses to serve only certain, narrow needs (and be degree applicable as well as fast). Faculty, on the other hand, have to consider many more factors when designing courses that are part of a larger program; Title 5 guides our review processes: we need to align curriculum with larger programs and with universities, and our varied students have myriad goals, so we are meeting a wider set of expectations than those of one workplace sector. In short, the review processes we follow are not without reason, and are more complex than the public realizes. They guarantee the very quality that the public demands.

One resource within the Workforce and Economic Development program in the System Office is the Business and Workforce Performance Improvement Initiative, which exists to help "colleges build their capacity to deliver training and services that enhance California businesses, the workforce, and California's economy." ( Workforce representatives, who may be concerned that colleges are not responsive, might direct their inquiries to this program, which might be able to help local colleges deliver the training they require.

Despite criticisms, community colleges are actually the best segment of public high education to respond to the ever-changing workplace, and most university professors will agree. Community colleges are more nimble; their departments are less entrenched than those at universities. In many occupational areas, specialized accreditation standards mandate curriculum currency. Colleges employ both part- and full-time faculty who are constantly updating their courses to comply with outside mandates. In addition, in many occupational programs, faculty members routinely work outside the college, in hospitals, fire stations, real estate offices, etc. where they are surrounded with the newest and latest developments in the field and bring those developments back into their teaching and into new courses.

Could some curriculum approval processes be faster? Possibly. Are community colleges appropriately responsive to changing needs? Most definitely. Does the assertion that curricular processes take too long hold water? Given the collaboration and care which quality curriculum requires, I would argue that it does not. Curriculum processes are in place for one primary reason: to ensure the integrity of our offerings. The public, representatives from the workplace and our colleagues within the academy should champion those processes.