Moving Beyond Now – Thoughts on the Carnegie Foundation Report

A few weeks ago I watched parts of a six-episode documentary series on PBS entitled “How We Got To Now” in which journalist and author Steven Johnson explores some of the basic features of modern life and how these things that we very much take for granted came to be. He considers questions like why we have standard clock time or a steady supply of clean water to help us understand that these things which seem omnipresent (and even quite natural) are anything but. Each of these things has followed a winding historical path where individual actors and broader social forces combined to turn them from idea into fact, from a process with many possible outcomes into what seems now like a fixed and unquestionable reality.

I thought of this phenomenon of how the status quo actually became the status quo as I was reading a new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching about the way in which one of the underlying elements of the educational landscape, the Carnegie Unit, developed into an organizing feature of education at the high school and, especially, college level. (For the uninitiated, the Carnegie Unit is essentially the way both high schools and colleges identify the specific educational value of any given course, and this value is determined simply by the quantity of time students are in instruction throughout the course of a year or semester.)

The history of the Carnegie Unit is intriguing. It actually resulted from an effort by the board for Carnegie’s new foundation to develop a retirement system for college professors. The trustees realized they needed a way to designate who would qualify for the pension fund, so they decided that they needed first to determine whether an institution calling itself a college was legitimate. The trustees determined that an institution’s authenticity had to be based on who was studying there and whether they were, in fact, qualified students. And thus Carnegie’s trustees:

… concluded that college entrance requirements should be “designated in terms of units, a unit being a course of five periods weekly throughout an academic year of the preparatory school.” Fourteen such units constituted “the minimum amount of preparation” for students heading for college. And colleges that required fourteen units for admission would, if they met the Foundation’s other requirements, qualify for the pension fund.

As the report authors note, though, this system was not simply a quantitative measure for professors’ pensions. Instead,  

Colleges and universities quickly crafted new admission requirements to conform to the demands of the Carnegie pension program, causing the nation’s rapidly expanding high school system to introduce new diploma requirements to ensure that students amassed the required fourteen course credits on their way to graduation—each credit representing some 120 hours of instruction over a school year. What’s more, many in education, including Carnegie’s leaders, didn’t see the Carnegie Unit merely as a pathway to pensions, but as a broader mechanism to improve the administrative efficiency of schools and colleges in the spirit of the “scientific management” movement of the day.

Since its early days over 100 years ago, the Carnegie Unit thus became accepted as the way to structure higher education and the path to it. And this system has lasted a century.

Yet, in more recent years, this system has faced some criticism for two significant reasons. First, the Carnegie Unit is, by definition, about inputs (i.e., instructional time) and says nothing about instructional effectiveness (i.e., what students actually learn or outcomes). Quality is presumed to exist in quantity, but such a presumption is a stretch, at best. Second—and this relates directly to our work at NCTL—the Carnegie Unit is based on standard, unchanging units of time for all students, without regard to different learning rates of individuals. The system, in other words, runs directly counter to the directive of the National Commission on Time and Learning, which argued that learning should be the constant and time should vary. The current system of having a standard school day and year—and the Carnegie Unit in high schools is built on the same principle—virtually assures that learning will vary, and that many, many students will fail to achieve in the standard time allotted.

And, yet, as the authors of this report make clear, developing an alternative to the Carnegie Unit is not so easy. Former Carnegie Foundation president, Lee Shulman, is explicit: “There is nothing simple about measuring the quality of learning. The reason for the robustness of the Carnegie Unit is not that it’s the best measure, just that it’s much more difficult than folks think to replace it.”  How true.

So where does that leave us? To my mind, a solution to this conundrum occurs every day in the many high-performing, expanded-time schools, the bulk of which serve predominantly high-poverty students, across the country. In these places, there is, of course, an emphasis on the quantity of instructional time and, in turn, on finding ways to optimize that time spent learning. Yet, the focus on the amount of time learning is not to fulfill some standardized requirements, but because the educators know that if they are to ensure that all students learn to high expectations, then time cannot be a barrier. So, the more time educators have to work with students, the more they can shift their attention to having all students meet learning targets, doing whatever it takes to enable all to become proficient, without regard to time inputs. Quality then naturally trumps quantity, while each student gets the time he or she needs.

In small pockets across the country, then, the status quo of the Carnegie Unit is slowly being made less relevant not by an aggressive push against it, but by proving that there may, in fact, be better, more workable alternatives. All of which brings us back to Steven Johnson’s documentary in which he explains (and I’m paraphrasing):

We tend to think of great ideas as ‘light bulb moments,’ when inspiration is sudden. But that’s not the way it really works. Instead, our best ideas start as a vague sense of possibility, the hint of something better. Again and again, we see that it can take many years for these ideas to come to fruition. And so as organizations and as a society, we have to find ways to keep these ideas alive because it is from them that society, as a whole, is improved. We should be inspired by the ways in which individuals solved problems of the past to solve the problems of today.

I happen to believe that expanding learning time in schools is one of those ideas.