Why Does Education Assessment Revolve Around the Carnegie Unit?

Insights   05 June 2019
By Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Education Reimagined

Education Reimagined partnered with 180 Studio to continue our video series exploring the “Why” of traditional education. The series digs into why we narrowly group children by age, promote memorization over deeper learning, use grade levels as indicators of “moving up,” and confine learning to four-walled classrooms. Complementing each video, our Vice President, Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, provides the research and history around the “why” of America’s education traditions and invites all of us to explore the possibility of something new.

In 1993, I decided I wanted to go to Germany for my senior year of high school. Participating in a foreign exchange program, where I would be attending school full time, my parents and I thought there would be little issue gaining approval from my principal and counselor.


The heart of the issue? The Carnegie Unit (CU)—a measure used by high schools, colleges, state departments of education, accrediting bodies and federal loan providers since 1906, ostensibly to keep track of student learning.

The exact definition of a standard Carnegie Unit is “120 hours of contact time with an instructor, which translates into one hour of instruction on a particular subject per day, five days a week, for twenty-four weeks annually.”

The math seems simple enough, so what was the challenge for my American high schools?

In Germany, “subject-specific instruction” wasn’t the goal; learning was. The German school I would be attending gave students both traditional academic pathways as well as more real-world pathways to engage with content. Students who learned better by doing could do apprenticeships instead of traditional coursework. And, it meant that instead of doing, say, geometry in 10th grade and calculus in 12th grade, students covered mathematical thinking and reasoning in more holistic ways, coming back to themes and concepts year after year. Students graduated based on written and oral exams if they were headed for traditional higher education and through industry standards if they were pursuing technical or vocational pathways.

For all of these reasons, learning and progress were tracked in totally different ways. And, the German way made a lot more sense.

Since New Jersey graduation requirements mandated that I earn an additional credit of History and English in order to earn my diploma, we were stuck. Never mind that I would be learning all about a new country—its history, culture, and political and social environment. Or, that I would be studying English and German literature and writing, and become fluent in a new language. CUs were the master of my fate, and for a while it seemed they would hold me hostage from my opportunity to learn about and experience the world.

At the time, I wondered why a single thing could have the ability to dictate so much, and in ways that seemed totally counter-productive to actual learning.

Over the last 25 years, I’ve come to learn the answer is a long one.

Standardization: the pros and unanticipated cons

At the end of the 19th century, American education was a bit like the wild west. Every community in America essentially had its own education system—local boards dictated what was taught, how it was taught, how many days young people attended schools, and what the standards for graduation should be.

This system was great for local control, but it made it very difficult for a place like Harvard to make sense of what its applicants had actually learned in their respective communities.

And so, in the early 1890s, Harvard decided to adopt a contact-hour standard as part of its admissions process.

Instead of relying on the outcomes of oral and written exams, the university decided the hours a student spent in a classroom being taught a specific subject would be a better, and more objective, measure of what they knew.

Then, in 1906, Andrew Carnegie created the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to run the pension system for higher education. Within years, the CU had become a driver of many elements of American universities, informing things like teacher contact hours and pension benefits. In the years since, it has become the driver of faculty workloads and compensation, athletic eligibility, academic calendars, course sequences, degree programs, daily school schedules, instructional strategies, accountability systems for high schools and universities, accreditation, and eligibility for federal loans.

It controls almost everything.

In other words, the very thing intended to support and strengthen education ended up becoming a strait jacket that has since constrained our ability to change with the times.

Even the Carnegie Foundation has led efforts to abolish or modify the CU. In 1993, their President, Ernest Boyer, said: “I am convinced the time has come once and for all to bury the old Carnegie Unit. Further since the foundation I now head created this academic measurement over a century ago, I feel authorized to officially declare the Carnegie unit obsolete.” In their place, he proposed something which illustrates the tension between what the CU incentivizes and what and how we want young people to learn.

Re-integration of knowledge

Boyer proposed young people spend their education engaging in eight thematic units that he believed better reflected what citizens, workers, and people needed to know to operate successfully in the world and life:

  • The Life Cycle: birth, life and death; nutrition, health and wellness and a project that requires care of some form of life;
  • Language: proficiency in the use of symbols; the miracle of words, reading, writing, speaking and mathematics; and the ethics of communication
  • The Arts: response to the aesthetic: arts are the special language of children, every child can be artistically expressive; and “the language of angels”
  • History: the study of time and space; how generations learn from each; culture of our past and learning to serve
  • Groups/Institutions: the social webs of our existence; group cultures, families and institutions
  • Work: how humans make a living; producing, consuming and conserving
  • The Natural world: understanding human beings’ connection to the ecology of the earth; our connectedness to nature
  • Search for Meaning: seeking a larger purpose; values, beliefs and the development of convictions

When I think about what I have learned in and about life and the world around me, when I think about what I hope my own children will encounter in their education, Boyer’s themes resonate deeply. Looking beyond the specifics of the eight themes, the notion that learning should happen in ways that allow young people to see the connections between bodies of knowledge; to understand the relevance of that knowledge to the world and society they inhabit; and to develop a sense of purpose in their education makes a lot of sense. It also reflects the reality of a world in which knowledge acquisition alone, especially not in the form of memorizing isolated units of information, is not what young people will need to thrive in life.

The challenges and opportunities our world presents are complex, dynamic and require an interdisciplinary appreciation of ideas and possible solutions. How can we possibly stick kids on a conveyor belt designed to dump disaggregated units of information into their heads and then expect them to be prepared to navigate the interconnected complexities of the real world?

Shifting from inputs to outcomes

Harvard had no way of knowing in the 1890s that the world would change in ways that might allow some elements of consistency to co-exist with individualization. The answer at the time was to focus on standardizing the inputs to education, in the form of the number of hours that a teacher poured knowledge into a student’s head.

But, we know now that learning does not happen this way. Nor does learning happen in the same way, at the same rate, and even in the same order for all learners. What I learn, how I learn it best, and how long it takes me to master new knowledge, skills, and habits of mind is unique to me. It is informed by a host of factors including my cognitive strengths and challenges; my background experiences and knowledge; and my interests.

Grasping the complexities of geometry took me several months and a couple of deep dives into the history and uses of geometry in life to master. My brother, who is a far more spatially-aware human than I am, breezed through the same content in a matter of weeks. Give me a philosophical or historical text to analyze and critique and the situation would be reversed.

Consequently, we need to stop isolating and standardizing inputs in the form of hours of teaching, and start putting our energy into identifying and organizing the outcomes we hope young people can achieve as a result of  their education.

Rather than worrying about how, when, and how fast an individual develops or acquires the competencies we lay out, we could focus on how they demonstrate the acquisition and mastery of the skills and dispositions we care about.

In this type of mastery-based system, memorizing specific content knowledge would not be the primary aim of education. Subject matter knowledge would be a vehicle through which young people could explore the world, learn, and develop the ability to engage with new ideas.

Moving in this direction would require us to let go of many deeply entrenched assumptions that we have inherited through our own educational pathways. But, being able to align our education system with the world that is rather than the world that used to be will be a far greater service to young people.

We aren’t alone on this journey to find something better

After what felt like endless conversations and with the support of educators who understood what was really important about my education, I did end up in Germany as an exchange student. It wasn’t easy to cobble together a solution that would allow me to have an experience that changed my life and allowed me to learn so much. And, I wonder how many other learners my age weren’t so lucky in convincing the adults around them to do the same. As I listen to conversations about education today, I hear echoes of the themes we grappled with 26 years ago, and a growing consensus that being constrained by this thing called the Carnegie Unit and everything it represents no longer serves young people or society well.

Luckily we aren’t alone in our journey to find something better. There are a lot of places—in the United States and around the world—we can explore to find inspiration for how to invent new systems and structures that will open up the world for young people. As long as we follow their lead and choose to transform the why, what, and how of learning, we will better prepare children in every community to live in and contribute to a dynamic and interconnected world.

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