In 1906, the Carnegie Foundation coerced college professors into using the Carnegie Unit to measure educational attainment. How did the Foundation do this? They promised the professors that if their universities used the unit they would receive pensions, now known as TIA-CREF. Today the Carnegie Unit is still used as the unit of exchange between schools, as well as between high schools and colleges.
The Carnegie Unit, or “seat time,” as it is better known, is based on three hours of class time for 16 weeks. Schools establish yearly calendars and daily bell schedules based on the Carnegie Unit. High school is all about seat time, because students receive credits based on how long they are in a class. The premise is, more seat time equals more credits—and, therefore, more credits equals more learning. But we know that this isn’t the case. Universities know this because they require that prospective students take the ACT or SAT, not only to rank and sort students, but to also check for student learning.
The Carnegie Unit represents the amount of time that a student spends under the direct or indirect supervision of a teacher. In other words, it is an investment of teacher time and not of student learning. Time does not equate to learning any more than time in radiation therapy equates to eradicating cancer in a patient.
Because of the antiquated use of the Carnegie Unit, time has been used as a fixed variable in student achievement. Some students attain the necessary skills and content quicker than others, some slower. This results in students failing classes and increasing their risk of dropping out of school, or it results in those students who “get it” quickly becoming bored in class and acting out behaviorally. What if we moved to a competency-based approach to student learning? What if the unit of exchange between schools and post-secondary institutions became based on mastery and not seat time?
Time in schools should be used as the basis by which we make decisions on what students need. Some students may need to move on to the next level quicker than others; some students may need to spend more time in a class before moving on. Time should be a fluid variable, which we apply based on student needs.
Another impact of the Carnegie Unit is how it relates to the teacher. The Carnegie Unit does not give us any indication as to the effectiveness of the teacher. Before the No Child Left Behind legislation, expectations for all students were guided by the fixed amount of time that students spent in class. The role of the teacher was to rank and sort students, regardless of their competencies. We were guaranteed the same results every year. Time was the fixed variable by which students were sorted. After NCLB, the expectation was that all students would reach competency. Time no longer is the fixed variable; mastery is.
The Carnegie Unit is a relic of the past, an artifact that stands in stark contrast to the role and purpose of public education today. It’s time to take on the Carnegie Unit as the means by which we measure society’s investment in education.
Mark Sass has been teaching high school social sciences for 16 years, for the past 12 years at Legacy High School in Broomfield, Colo.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.