Faculty freedom and curriculum design in intensive English programs

How much freedom do intensive English program (IEP) teachers have to design their courses, choose their materials, and teach to their interests? How much should they? These questions become ever more compelling as accreditation standards push programs to be accountable for their outcomes.

Teachers in proprietary (non-university-governed) IEPs have long been used to teaching within a structured framework, using prescribed textbooks and curricula that map out what is to be covered by the week or even by the day. This has been necessary because, adopting a customer-centric and profit-maximizing approach, they allow students frequent – weekly or monthly – entry and exit points. Students staying for a short program jump in and then out of existing classes with longer-term students. Those long-term students need to be able to move through a defined program of work and progress to the next, and then the next, level. This means that all teachers need to be on the specified part of the curriculum – in some cases on the specified page of the textbook – at all times.

Many university IEPs have inherited the university tradition of faculty autonomy, giving faculty the freedom to write their own syllabi, choose their own materials, and generally teach to their own interests. Under the influence of CEA accreditation standards, faculty are losing some of this autonomy, as student achievement standards require them to teach to a program-wide set of learning objectives. Student promotion to the next level must be based on student achievement of objectives, so faculty have to conform to standard assessment, evaluation, and grading practices. In order to ensure all students are getting the same course, university programs are increasingly prescribing textbooks. As a result, university IEP curricula and faculty work are looking more like those of proprietary programs.

This trend has caused much tension between faculty and administration at IEPs where faculty have fought to retain autonomy in their teaching. Some faculty claim that students are losing out because, being close to the students, they know what is best for them. Administrators charged with implementing accreditation standards argue in turn that students gain when there is a program-wide system that smooths out the differences between faculty styles and preferences.

In proprietary programs, curriculum can be imposed by administrative fiat. This is harder in university programs. Those that have adapted best are the ones where administrators and faculty have a trusting relationship and can jointly respond to the new requirements in a collaborative way that reconciles the divergent demands of individual autonomy and program standardization. Some programs continue to struggle.