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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Is It Time to Ditch the Carnegie Unit?

Critics view the measure as antiquated, but what will replace it?
By Rick Hess — September 25, 2023 9 min read
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In “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” Harvard University’s Jal Mehta and I examine some of the reforms and enthusiasms that permeate education. In a field full of buzzwords and jargon, our goal is simple: Tell the truth, in plain English, about what’s being proposed and what it might mean for students, teachers, and parents. We may be wrong and will frequently disagree, but we’ll try to be candid and ensure that you don’t need a Ph.D. in eduspeak to understand us.

Today’s topic is the Carnegie Unit.

Rick

Rick: The Educational Testing Service and the Carnegie Foundation announced this spring they’re “teaming up” to ditch the Carnegie Unit, the century-old measure of coursetaking that’s done so much to shape high school and postsecondary education. I had two gut-level reactions. One was, “Good, it’s about time!” The other was, “Geez, I sure hope they know they what they’re doing!”

It’s easy to make the case that it’s time for the Carnegie Unit to go. The whole thing was devised at the dawn of the 20th century as a tool to help determine which college professors should be eligible for pensions. And the ruthless attachment to measuring hours of instruction has reified “seat time” as the all-purpose measure of high school instruction. In The Great School Rethink, I note that eminent historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban famously observed that the Carnegie Unit has “frozen schedules, separated knowledge into discrete boxes, and created an accounting mentality better suited to a bank than to a school.” In an era of digital tools and evolving school models, this arrangement has become increasingly onerous, getting in the way of mastery-based learning, nontraditional career and technical education, online learning, and more.

All that said, though, I’ve found myself increasingly wary each time another educational leader tells me how enthusiastic they are about this venture. For one thing, this year marked the 40th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” which famously urged states to boost the number of Carnegie Units required for graduation. Given that many of those excited about ditching Carnegie sit in the same offices as those who, a generation ago, led the push to act on that report’s recommendation, it’s worth asking why savvy leaders once deemed mandating more math, science, English, and world-language requirements a promising path forward. The answer, of course, is that they thought it a crude but workable way to put a floor beneath student learning. In a time of sky-high graduation rates, rampant grade inflation, and plummeting student achievement, this is something that we shouldn’t lightly dismiss.

Here’s the crux of the matter: I’m not at all confident that we’ll replace the Carnegie Unit’s mediocre, problematic measure of learning with a better one. It’s one thing to replace seat time with a focus on mastery. But do we actually know how to measure mastery? And are we willing to hold the line on it? I’m dubious on both counts. After all, we live at a time in which advocates of “grading equity” dispute the notion that mastery can be fairly judged, school systems have grown reluctant to issue bad grades, and fewer and fewer colleges require ACT or SAT scores. The more I’ve talked to educational advocates and leaders excited about this push, the more I’ve found myself seeking assurance that the good people at ETS and Carnegie are fully conscious of the risks as well as the potential benefits.

Jal: I’m sympathetic to the impulse that motivates the effort (full disclosure, I’m a Carnegie senior fellow). Some kids do move through material faster than others, and it would be a better use of their time to measure completion by performance assessment than by seat time. And, even more than that, there are so many valuable things one could learn that cross disciplinary boundaries or are outside of the conventional school subjects. I know many innovative school leaders that keep “double books”—they organize one way that makes sense for their students and find other ways to describe that same learning in ways that meet the state’s reporting requirements.

At the same time, I’m wary of wholesale changes without careful thinking about context and implementation. As I read through the very thorough and essentially institutionally conservative report that Carnegie put out when Tony Bryk was president in 2015, I found myself sympathetic to a number of its points.

The case against changing the Carnegie Unit is essentially twofold. First, that it was never intended as a way of measuring learning, which is properly left to individual teachers, professors, departments, and schools. It offers a very rough view of what is a “course”—defined by time—and then leaves all the assessment questions to local actors. Yes, there is tremendous variability in how these actors define “quality learning.” But it preserves their autonomy to do so, while at the same time creating some basic measures that allow some equity and comparability across institutions. The second case against changing it is that anything replacing it would be worse. As the author of The Allure of Order, I can certainly make a case that efforts to build massive systems of measurement and impose them across different contexts of learning have often gone poorly!

One way to square this circle is not to replace the “one best system” of the past with a new “one best system” of the future but rather to encourage the emergence of a diverse ecosystem. Innovative schools, districts, and colleges should develop different approaches to measuring credit and assessment that make sense for their institutional goals and contexts. Districts and states could accelerate these efforts by building different standards, goals, or competencies that signal different expectations, which would allow those closer to the ground to meet these new requirements in ways that are locally specific. Intermediaries could create new assessments or ways of evaluating portfolios of learning, drawing on greater technical expertise—much as Carnegie and ETS are doing now—and schools, districts, or colleges could opt into these if they found them compelling and better than what they previously had. The Carnegie Unit might thus gradually be replaced by these other approaches, but if and only if these others were seen as preferable by local actors. What do you think, Rick?

Rick: I really like the way you approach this. You’re right about how the Carnegie Unit stymies learning. And I’m with you on the merits of an ecosystem approach as opposed to launching some grandiose new alternative. That said, I’m concerned about what comes next, even if we followed your sensible advice. The biggest issue in moving away from the outmoded, problematic Carnegie Unit? It’s the risk that the replacement won’t provide even the minimal guardrails that schools rely upon today.

After all, as lousy as it is, the Carnegie Unit tends to ensure that students are exposed to an extended course of content in chemistry, algebra, or what-have-you. Requiring students to pass those courses can serve to put a floor under the high school diploma. Now, as we’ve noted, that floor is hugely imperfect for various reasons—including because it’s no guarantee that teachers will teach the content or that students will master it. (And the floor it represents has been eroded by credit recovery, lax attendance policies, grade inflation, and such.)

But it’s still a guardrail. One that those eager for the Carnegie Unit’s demise tend to dismiss amid the enthusiasm for things like mastery-based learning and “authentic assessment.” And these are swell things. But they’re also tough to do well, particularly at scale, and they’re prone to the “let’s be nice” dilemma.

Readers may recall the Minimum Competency Movement of the late 20th century, the goal of which was to ensure that high school graduates mastered essential skills and knowledge. The challenge was that, if you set a meaningful bar, a lot of high schoolers wouldn’t clear it. That tended to anger parents, educators, and public officials. The result was that states steadily lowered the bar, gave students lots of chances to retest, and otherwise found ways to move the share of students clearing the bar from 70 percent or 75 percent up to something more like . . . 98 percent or 99 percent.

The fact is that it’s hard to tell a student that they’re not ready to graduate. It’s much easier to be nice. If high school completion is based on mastery-based assessments, will we have the stomach to insist upon a meaningful standard? History teaches me that the answer is no. And, if that’s the case, lots of students will be thrown into the world without essential knowledge and skills. If the responsibility is left to millions of portfolio evaluators or school staff, all of whom can credibly be accused of bias, again, it’ll be easier to acquiesce and be nice than to stand firm in the face of political or parental pushback.

So, I’ll be leery until I’m convinced that the architects of this effort are conscious of these challenges, have taken the incentives and practical considerations into account, and have a workable way to address them. Absent that, I’d fear that we’re signing up for one more well-meaning, naïve, and ultimately counterproductive spin of the reform wheel. Curious what you make of these concerns, my friend.

Jal: I think you have homed in on a number of important issues. Any system needs to be politically sustainable, and if you make a performance requirement for graduation, there will be lots of pressure to make sure that everyone can get over the bar. This will likely result in lowering the bar.

We could, however, imagine a system where a student either sits for her 120 hours of math or passes some kind of examination in math, and some students move through the system much more quickly. That might create other problems regarding equity and inequity but wouldn’t face the same race-to-the-bottom pressures you are describing. Hence my preference to not replace one approach with another but rather to create better options that might be chosen by some.

From my perspective, though, the bigger problem is less that a course equals a certain number of hours and more that you have to take three to four courses of math, science, English, and history/social studies to graduate from high school. There are so many worthwhile things to study in the world: Why do we require physics and not astronomy? Why history and not economics? Why can you study science and history but not the history of science? And why not more applied courses that connect the subjects to the world, that take place off campus as well as on? Opening up these questions would create the possibility for a much more alive and varied education, which could be adapted in ways that respect local context. We have already seen some states, like Rhode Island, offer credits for extended learning opportunities (such as internships, apprenticeships, and independent studies), and more could follow. States have the power to broaden how they think about a high school education even without changing the Carnegie Unit.

Bottom line: If we are trying to create a world where students have more choice and flexibility, we are unlikely to do that by replacing the Carnegie Unit with some other single set of measures of performance competency. Instead, we should seek to diversify both how we count learning and what kinds of learning count and do so with the spirit of humility that a task of this magnitude requires.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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