Curriculum and Dominoes: What We Learned about Statewide Curriculum Work through CB 21

Janet Fulks, Basic Skills Committee Chair and Ad Hoc Noncredit Committee Chair

For those of you who have not participated in this faculty driven coursework alignment, CB 21 is simply the name of a data code that describes the level of courses prior to transfer-level courses. This data code is the 21st course basic (CB 21) code in the same way that CB 04 represents the 4th course basic code for degree applicability and CB 05 represents transferability of a course. Previously the coding was primarily assigned by someone other than faculty and often assigned by someone without knowledge of the curriculum pathway and existing course alignment. This was a problem because the data, using CB 21, were examined by researchers and legislators to determine policy and legislation. Because faculty were unaware of this code and its use to report student progress through basic skills course work, the Accountability Reporting for Community Colleges (ARCC) Report looked as though there was little or no progress, particularly in English as a Second Language (ESL), where many courses were coded at a single level. When the data looked bad, like students were not progressing – it invited external groups to try and FIX our student pathways via legislation or mandates.

What occurred in California was a process unique in the United States. It was faculty driven and organic, allowing local control but describing statewide core outcomes at each level. Faculty met statewide and created rubrics of only core agreed upon outcomes associated with each level of pre-transfer English, mathematics, reading and ESL. Faculty based their work on existing national, state and professional studies as well as their own understanding of local student populations and discipline expertise. The rubrics were validated and voted upon by all 110 colleges in Spring 2009 ( This represents a healthy alternative to combat external standardized curriculum. Recoding, using the CB 21 rubrics, provides the data elements to track student progress. These rubrics aligned the coursework in basic skills to provide a pathway where the outcomes of each sequential course flow naturally into the skills required to enter and succeed in the next course. For the last three months colleges have worked to correct this coding. The Academic Senate in collaboration with the Chancellor’s Office Technology, Research and Information Services and Academic Affairs Divisions have done over 13 training sessions via webinar and regional meetings reaching over 700 participants.

The goal of the CB 21 training was to reorient, redirect and educate the coding process of basic skills courses. Just like dominoes, the courses created a pathway, if you knew the coding rules and coded right. But if you had an unclear picture of Title 5 and were unaware of the way CB 21 codes lined up with other CB coding such as degree-applicability (CB04), basic skills (CB08) and noncredit (CB22), the domino train did not align. Because coding is linked to our allocations, staffing reports, and state and federal data, this is a train you don’t want to wreck. Therefore it is essential to review what we learned from the CB 21 process.

Coding issues were common:
There was a great deal of historical confusion in the field regarding curriculum coding. In part, this issue pivoted around the fact that faculty and curriculum committees should have been determining this coding prior to Management Information System (MIS) submission of data, not passed off to someone else. In part, the previous data elements were unclear and college interpretations varied widely. Lack of clarity and training on specific coding issues, lack of clarity in Title 5 and shifting basic skills perspectives contributed to the confusion. Accurate curriculum coding demands the curriculum developer and reviewer understand these codes and the role of the curriculum within the department, college, and statewide curriculum.

There was little comparability among colleges: While many colleges had clear pathways through basic skills course work which showed up in relatively straightforward CB 21 coding, many colleges had not discussed basic skills pathways. Very few colleges were on the same page within their own district and assumptions as to basic skills coursework and levels were not aligned or comparable across the state. This meant the basic skills coursework was not portable for students taking courses at multiple colleges (40% of the CCC students) and navigating the pathway to college level work.

Many colleges needed to look at basic skills as a pathway: Curriculum in basic skills is often the product of individual discipline areas or programs independent of a strategy to provide an important set of foundational academic skills to students. Most often colleges had addressed basic skills within English or mathematics or counseling or ESL but not across the disciplines. Very few colleges understood the impact or the context of degree and certificate achievement related to whether a course was coded as degree applicable or basic skills. When the English or mathematics departments assign a code of basic skills or degree applicability to a course in their area, it often affects the number of units and composition of degrees in many areas outside of the discipline, particularly those in career technical education (CTE).

Colleges need to consider effective practices in basic skills education and re-examine the outcomes of their curriculum: The Basic Skills Initiative has clearly highlighted effective practices in basic skills education and pathways. Colleges reported gaps, overlaps or disconnects in their basic skills course pathways. Many colleges indicated the usefulness of the rubrics in communicating key curricular outcomes to examine coursework and align expectations. ESL and English departments considered the interactivity of the curriculum with a student-centered perspective. Bridges were examined between noncredit and credit coursework. Some colleges indicated that they were developing new programs as a result of examining student populations and curricular needs. Some were using the rubrics as a starting point for discussion and planning.

The entire re-coding process revealed some things we did know prior to statewide agreement describing the common levels in each discipline.
We learned that:

  • entering students from high school and noncredit pathways aligned with California Standards (Adult Secondary Education/GED) were under-prepared, lacking transfer- level preparation.
  • defining pathways and success in credit and noncredit basic skills and ESL is an equity issue, because of the concentration of underserved and diverse students in these courses. Lack of clarity and guidance through the basic skills and ESL credit and noncredit courses disproportionately impact equitable outcomes.
  • describing course level outcomes within each discipline, in a faculty driven process, informed by state and national standards and validated by the Academic Senate statewide processes is doable and valuable. The process allowed curriculum alignment, while protecting local curricular authority, without standardization. This faculty-driven process can do what external agencies think they must impose, only faculty can do it better, more accurately and more organically, anchored in our local knowledge about the students we serve.
  • coordinating student pathways within a college is essential. Relying upon curriculum developed in isolated disciplines does not benefit our students’ ability to reach their educational goals. While curriculum committees centralize some of these discussions, the planning process and communication from a student pathway perspective is essential. This elevates student success and completion of educational goals above discipline territory and individual faculty autonomy.

There is great value in statewide discipline discussions. It provides a professional venue to examine our curricular work.
There is GREAT VALUE in having discipline discussions and coordination statewide (not just in basic skills but also in transfer). Several of these efforts have been funded, producing beneficial outcomes, only to have funding curtailed before the discussions reached fruition such as with IMPAC (Intersegmental Major Preparation Articulated Curriculum). Currently the CB 21 re-coding, Course Identification Project (C-ID), Statewide Career Pathways and the Basic Skills Initiative Professional Development Grants are examples of efforts that have had widespread impact. Faculty are the experts and have the knowledge to enhance basic skills success and transfer pathways. Unfortunately that knowledge is sequestered at individual colleges and within departments. An absence of statewide funding coupled with the unique nature of individual colleges, even within districts, unfortunately assure a lack of coordination. Success on these types of projects requires the work be directed from a statewide perspective (not an individual college, district or even consortium of colleges), faculty-driven, and funded for an adequate amount of time. The long-term effects of these statewide discipline discussions and training cost very little, yet in reality benefit many. In particular, when guided from an all-colleges, student-centered perspective this is the only way to really facilitate the educational goals of the nearly three million students the California community colleges serve. Statewide discussions are essential to correctly placing the curricular dominoes so that our students can see the connections and follow the pathway.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.