One of the most important efforts in American education today is the project to displace the Carnegie Unit as the fundamental unit of measurement in high schools. The scant coverage of this initiative—and the limited number of players involved—implies that many see this as just a technocratic reform, one that merely seeks to replace “credit hours” with mastery-based approaches to learning. Don’t be mistaken: If it gets traction, this move is likely to spark a battle royale that will make the Common Core wars look like child’s play.
It’s certainly possible that the end result could be a much-improved system—and a better, stronger high school experience for students. It has huge potential upsides for high-achieving students especially, if they are allowed to test out of general course requirements and spend more of their time on interesting and in-depth AP, IB, or dual-enrollment material (or heck, even get more sleep!). Same with CTE students, if this frees up time for apprenticeships and the like.
But between here and there are multiple pitfalls. That’s not just because the heart of a Carnegie-free system will be a lot more high-stakes testing, though that’s surely part of it. Assessments are how we would measure student mastery, which helps explain why ETS (né the Educational Testing Service) is a key partner in the effort (along with the Carnegie Foundation—yes, the progenitor of the Carnegie Unit more than a century ago—and Laurene Powell Jobs’s XQ Institute).
More fundamentally, it’s because this initiative will require policymakers to confront fundamental questions that tend to divide the education field and the country. Among them:
- What should the diploma signify about readiness for postsecondary education? Should the bar be set at the “college-ready” level—even if that means denying a diploma to millions of young people who are nowhere near that bar today and not likely to clear it tomorrow? If it should be set lower, how low is too low?
- Should states create “multiple pathways”—via multiple diplomas—to open up routes for students interested in Career and Technical Education? Which traditional college-prep requirements should CTE students be able to forego to make time for real work-based learning?
- Should we give students more choice and agency over the material they study, so as to allow them to specialize, to go deeper, and pursue their interests? Or does that risk returning America to the Shopping Mall High School model of the pre–Nation at Risk era?
- How should we balance academic requirements with efforts to measure student competencies beyond reading, writing, math, and content knowledge? Which “social and emotional” skills should students have to demonstrate to graduate? How to keep these from being politicized?
- How do we deal with the enormous variation in student readiness upon arrival in high school? Will the new system allow students prepared to tackle advanced material to do so, even if it means further stratification along line of achievement, race, and/or class?
I’m not the only one asking questions like these. Over on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess and Jay Mehta recently dug into this issue, too. Rick explained the basic argument for ditching the Carnegie Unit:
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.
But he also summarized the risks:
This year marked the fortieth 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.
(An excellent New America white paper on high school course requirements, by Rafael Heller, recaps this history.)
Yet, as Jal wrote, moving away from those course requirements is one of the major goals of this effort:
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?
These are good questions—but imagine what will happen when we open this Pandora’s Box. Are we really going to ditch the mandate that, say, all students study American history? What about civics? Coding? Foreign languages? Health? Financial literacy? The reason that state standards, textbooks, and student schedules are stuffed to the brim is that every identity group pushes hard for their stories and histories to be represented, and every interest group pushes to use America’s curriculum to address their societal concerns. Moving to a competency-based approach won’t change that. Everyone will just fight over what’s on the competency-based assessments and/or which assessments students must pass in order to graduate.
Or picture states abandoning the standard model of four years of English, three years of math, and so forth. Equity advocates will scream that low-income students and students of color will be discouraged from taking college-prep courses (or modules or whatever we end up calling them) by schools that don’t think they can handle them.
The Carnegie Foundation and its partners at ETS can’t address these weighty questions on their own. Indeed, what we probably need is (brace yourself) a Common Core–style initiative led by state policymakers with the authority to make these decisions, perhaps including governors, legislators, state superintendents, and state board members, with lots of input from parents, students, educators, business leaders, and higher education.
And then we’d need to charge this commission with coming up with a reasonable set of competencies for students to master (in my view, with multiple diplomas in mind). Otherwise the inclination will be to create a wish list (“wouldn’t it be wonderful if every student was able to do these 1,001 things...”) that will be unworkable, and be little improvement over the straitjacket we find ourselves in today. Perhaps they could use a “zero-based budgeting” approach to developing the list of graduation requirements, one in which every single requirement needs to have a strong case behind it.
There’s little doubt that the typical American high school is still “frozen,” to use Tyack and Cuban’s word. Students trudge through seven blocks, forty-five minutes each, five days a week, forty weeks a year, with teachers doing their best to engage kids in material that most of them find boring and pointless. It’s a colossal waste of time and human potential.
The Carnegie Unit is part of what’s keeping us from moving to something better. But to succeed, we can’t just focus on “disrupting” the current system. We need to be clear-eyed about what it will take to build something sturdy in its place. And we need a smart strategy for managing the politics that will accompany the effort to get there.