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The Assault on the Carnegie Unit

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The Carnegie unit, which helped put secondary education on a solid footing in the early decades of the 20th century, has increasingly transformed itself into a restraint on teaching and learning. At the same time, the sense of quality assurance that the Carnegie unit once lent to courses now sometimes is little more than a chimera.

Yet school reformers, by and large, seldom concern themselves with this product of the formative years of the American high school, a period when higher education demanded that the schools create a standard that colleges could use to assess courses taken by applicants.

It was an era when the college-going population increasingly included students besides those from the relative handful of preparatory schools that once dominated the enrollments of the elite institutions of higher education.

College admissions officers were familiar with the courses and even the individual teachers at the Exeters, the Andovers, and the Lawrencevilles. Applicants from public high schools posed a dilemma, though. To ignore them would mean overlooking the fastest-growing segment of secondary education, but to accept them required coping with the unevenness of this emerging sector.

Thus it was that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching became the eponymous parent of the Carnegie unit. Seizing on the recommendations of panels set up by the National Education Association, the foundation advocated that 14 so-called standard units of credit be required for entrance to college as evidence of substantial preparation. Each unit came to represent a minimum of about 130 instructional hours.

To put muscle behind its proposal, Carnegie stated in its second annual report in 1907 that colleges had to endorse this admissions requirement to qualify for the new faculty pension fund that the foundation was establishing. More than 75 percent of the nation's schools and colleges embraced the Carnegie unit by 1931, fostering a romance that has been more enduring than most.

The Carnegie unit continues today to exert formidable influence over much that is crucial to teaching and learning--the length of the class period, the school day, and the school year, as well as the time expended to get a diploma, the way knowledge is organized for instructional purposes, what students learn and, of course, admission to college.

Only now is a whisper of challenge threatening to swell into a chorus of criticism about the dubious link between time spent in a course and knowledge acquired.

The defiance comes in several forms. Chief among the forces confronting the Carnegie unit, usually without trumpeting the conflict, are the following:

  • The trend, backed by the federal government, toward establishing standards for each high school discipline.
  • The outcomes-based education that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states have been weighing as a possible diploma requirement.
  • The move to restructure the organization and course offerings of high schools as attempted by such organizations as the Coalition of Essential Schools.

These various efforts, which in some ways contradict each other, nonetheless together pose a common assault on the Carnegie unit. The reasons why Carnegie units are being scrutinized, even in the absence of a specific national campaign to abolish them per se, have much to do with rising dissatisfaction over the ways that the units impinge on the ability of high schools to improvise.

Four areas of concern account for most of the reservations. They have to do with time, content, organization, and results.

TIME. Seat time is what earns Carnegie units. In this regard, high school is akin to prison; serving time--with good behavior--wins release. Rigidity is inherent in such a system. The hours devoted to a course assume greater significance than the content of the course.

Little consideration is given to the fact that some students could complete the course more quickly and others would benefit from having the content stretched over a longer time frame. This need of students for variations in time is not usually accommodated by a system in which Carnegie units are the universal fuel that drives the engine.

Much of the responsibility for formulating time requirements resides at the state level, where state education departments, sometimes at the behest of legislatures, mandate the regulations. States use this authority to set specific requirements for amassing Carnegie units.

CONTENT. Labels on courses--rather than actual content--tend to be the currency by which Carnegie units are assigned value. For example, four units of English, more or less without regard for the content of those courses, form a typical down payment on the way to a diploma.

A report devoted to reforming the Carnegie-unit system in Florida, "Blueprint 2000,'' criticizes the testing system for emphasizing a process of unit accumulation instead of stressing academic results. The report proposes that the crucial question should be not "how many students are enrolled in a course called 'Algebra,''' but "how many students can successfully apply algebra in solving a problem.''

When policymakers declare that a student must earn so many units in algebra or any other subject, they inadvertently lend support to the idea that filling a transcript with course titles counts more than what was learned in those courses.

A system that stresses specific courses by subject titles is also a disincentive to interdisciplinary studies. High school subjects, like Christmas gifts, end up wrapped in tidy packages with labels, suggesting that areas of knowledge can be categorized in the manner of buttons sorted by shape, size, and color.

The bean counters find it convenient, for instance, for algebra and geometry to be taught separately, as if they have nothing to do with each other. But these traditional ways of organizing instruction are flouted by such experiments as Interactive Mathematics, a three-year sequence integrating algebra and geometry that is being piloted in two dozen high schools across the country.

ORGANIZATION. Most high schools operate on roughly the same schedule with the school day carved into segments of about 40 minutes each, leading to fragmentation of the curriculum.

Possibilities abound for dividing the instructional day differently, but no other approach so readily lends itself to a system dictated by Carnegie units. For example, experiential education that gets students out of the classroom and into the field is barely a factor in high schools, in part because it would complicate the counting of hours.

The Coalition of Essential Schools espouses the motto that "less is more,'' promoting a philosophy that allows students to take fewer courses each term and to pursue those courses in greater depth. Most schools, though, succumb to the pressures wielded by the Carnegie unit.

The mandate prescribing so many units in each subject undermines attempts to favor depth over breadth. Bureaucrats worry that organizing the school day to give more time to dig into certain subjects would leave less time for "coverage.''

RESULTS. A transcript listing the Carnegie units that a student has earned implies that those units represent an accumulation of knowledge. Other than passing marks, however, evidence of learning in the particular courses is scanty.

Education officials adhere to the fiction that time equals learning and shy away from prying open a Pandora's box filled with questions about the nature of the knowledge that students acquire along with their Carnegie units.

This charade descends to its nadir at many of the nation's hapless urban high schools, where students graduate with the requisite number of units and with little else by way of preparation for college or a job.

The hegemony of the Carnegie unit is no longer so certain. Along with the moves in Pennsylvania and other states to eliminate Carnegie units as a graduation requirement, Kentucky proposes to retain the units only in conjunction with new performance-based requirements for a diploma. Minnesota expects to pilot "results-oriented'' graduation requirements, and New York State has a plan by which each district could develop its own standards for learning outcomes.

In states including Georgia, waivers are available for high schools that can make a case for bypassing regulations involving Carnegie units. Even as requirements for Carnegie units continue on the books, they are starting to be honored in the breach, akin to anachronistic blue laws that are ignored by the plethora of merchants who open their stores on Sundays.

Despite the initiatives, however, the traditional measure of seat time, whether referred to as Carnegie units or by some other name, still remains the overriding criterion affecting time, content, organization, and results for the nation's 11.3 million high school students.

"Unless you have a strong advocate, usually the principal or someone in the central office, leading the fight to be different--and have the strong support of the staff, you fall into the routine and do things as they have always been done,'' said the executive director of the secondary school commission at one of the six regional accrediting agencies, groups that continue to pay obeisance to the Carnegie unit.

It would be folly to abolish the Carnegie unit without installing as a replacement a cogent system of quality control embedded in a commitment to standards. Very possibly, a network of well-conceived substitute approaches, rather than a single model, will emerge to succeed Carnegie units. Change must occur state by state.

Eventually, American high schools could end up with new ways of organizing instruction and of assuring that learning time has been well spent. Then, the Carnegie unit, like the fossil it has become, can be stored away in education's attic.

Gene I. Maeroff is an author and freelance education writer. His most recent book is Team Building for School Change, published by Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1993.

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