College & Workforce Readiness

The Head of the Carnegie Foundation Wants to Ditch the Carnegie Unit. Here’s Why

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 08, 2022 5 min read
Educators with strings tied to each of the clock hands and pulling them in different directions.
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Call it seat time, student hours, contact credit. For more than a century, students’ progress toward academic degrees has been broken into 120-hour chunks: the Carnegie unit.

Now, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which developed the time-based system in 1906, wants to consign it to history.

“We’re at a key moment in human history that demands transformation, and transforming how we educate young people must be at the top of the list,” said Timothy Knowles, who became the 10th president of the Carnegie Foundation in 2021. “If it takes us 30 years to catch up to where we were before the pandemic, the United States is arguably in not just serious educational trouble, but serious social and economic trouble as well.”

The Carnegie Foundation, an education policy and research center founded by the steel-magnate Andrew Carnegie and chartered by Congress in 1905, has just launched what Knowles expects to be a decade-long research, practice, and legislative initiative to replace time as the essential measure of learning.

The Carnegie system measures how much time students spend directly with a teacher, with a standard unit requiring 7,200 minutes of instruction—an hour each weekday for 24 weeks—to earn one credit in a given subject. While many states provided flexibility in high school graduation requirements during the pandemic, the standard diploma in most districts still requires 18 to 24 credit-hours.

“It seems past time to think about how do you build a legitimately outcomes-based system where learning can happen anywhere,” Knowles said.

His comments came in an interview this week with Education Week. The following excerpts from that conversation have been edited for clarity and length.

Why was the Carnegie unit created?

In 1906, there was a sense, particularly from the higher education community, that there was no clarity about what young people’s experiences were in secondary school across the nation. And so, [the Carnegie Foundation] introduced a system where that would become standardized.

I think it was a crude measure of learning. They weren’t looking to overly prescribe what happens in schools ... but rather create some basic norms and expectations for what would be an adequate amount of schooling prior to applying to postsecondary school or college. And time is a very tidy metric.

So here we are nearly 120 years later, and the reality is, our educational system in large measure looks exactly how it did at the turn of the last century. The Carnegie unit has become the bedrock currency of the educational economy. It’s really infiltrated into almost every aspect of schooling: how schools are organized; how assessment works; what is assessed; what goes on a transcript; what accreditation is; who gets financial aid and who doesn’t. The credit hour is really the coin of the realm.

Why do you think it is out of date?

We’ve had neuroscientists, social psychologists, cognitive psychologists, and learning scientists teach us a great deal about what knowledge is and how it’s acquired. We learn through immersive experience, we learn from mentors, from experts in apprenticeships and internships, and from peers. As individuals, we learn at highly variable rates depending on the subject of study. So the idea that time and learning can be conflated at such a deep level as we see it in our current system really needs to be changed.

Tim Knowles

There have been critiques of credit hours before. Why do you think it’s been so difficult to replace the time standard?

It’s easy to say, well, there’s lots of innovation happening, so we don’t need to tackle something so fundamental as the credit hour or the course credit. [There’s been] the sense the Carnegie unit isn’t interfering with innovation, and I disagree with that. We can find schools across the country that are thinking differently about the use of time and place in learning, but we don’t see learning at scale that is really leveraging what we know about how people learn—what knowledge is and how it’s acquired—in a systematic way.

The second argument that I’ve seen—which I’m more sympathetic to—is that [the Carnegie unit] is the bedrock currency of education, and until you have a currency to replace it with, you can’t just take the current currency out and expect the [educational] economy to function. And nothing is going to be so neat and tidy as time: as 45 minutes, four times a week of math, equals math.

By making the Carnegie unit so instrumental to what we define as school, the classroom and the schoolhouse have become almost a singular place for learning.

So what should replace time as the measure?

We haven’t been able to build systems that enable us to measure mastery in as nimble a way to validate what [students] know.

We know that learning happens everywhere—when I’m working on a social justice project, or in an apprenticeship or internship in high school in the summer, or a summer job, or a farm. What we haven’t been able to do is figure out how to value and validate what learning has taken place and translate that into a form that would be legible both to postsecondary school and to employers.

Right now, we’re convening 10 of the leading large city [school] systems [to discuss models for mastery-based credits], and the appetite for this kind of work is really significant, in places as far ranging as Tulsa and Phoenix and Dallas. State superintendents from states around the country were explicitly coming together because they were interested in the disruption of the Carnegie unit, and how can we think about learning not tethered to time and not tethered to place. Embedded in that design are new roles for teachers, where they’re no longer singularly responsible for delivering all of the content in a particular discipline or even across disciplines, but where they are actually in a position where they have partners, they have other teachers, they have other individuals in youth development, in cultural institutions, commercial sector institutions with whom they’re partnering to deliver a much more interesting and engaging rigorous learning experience.
I think the pandemic has created the groundwork for people to think much more expansively and creatively about what learning actually looks like, particularly in the high school years.

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