Let's Bid Farewell to the Carnegie Unit

Educational institutions need a new accounting system to meet the demands of our information economy, Arthur Levine argues.

October 8, 2015

For a century, the Carnegie Unit -- or credit hour -- served American education very well. Created by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1906, it is now the nearly universal accounting unit for colleges and schools. It brought coherence and common standards to the chaotic 19th-century high school and college curriculum, established a measure for judging student academic progress, and set the requirements for high school graduation and college admission. But today it has grown outdated and less useful.

A time-based standard, one Carnegie Unit (or credit) is awarded for every 120 hours of class time. The foundation translated this into one hour of instruction five days a week for 24 weeks. Students have been expected to take four such courses a year for four years in high school, with a minimum of 14 Carnegie Units required for college admission. The Carnegie Unit perfectly mirrored its times and the design of the nation’s schools.

An industrialized America created schools modeled on the technology of the times: the assembly line. With the Carnegie Unit as a basis, schools nationwide adopted a common process for schooling groups of children, sorted by age for 13 years, 180 days a year in Carnegie unit-length courses. Students progressed according to seat time -- how long they were exposed to teaching.

At colleges and universities across the nation, the Carnegie Unit became more commonly referred to as the credit hour. The common semester-long class became three credit hours. The average four-year degree was earned after completing 120 credit hours. Time and process were fixed, and outcomes of schooling were variable. All students were expected to learn the same things in the same period of time. The Carnegie Unit provided the architecture to make this system work.

But in the United States’ transition from an industrial to an information economy, the Carnegie Unit is becoming obsolete. The information economy focuses on common, fixed outcomes, yet the process and the time necessary to achieve them are variable. The concern in colleges and schools is shifting from teaching to learning -- what students know and can do, not how long they are taught. Education at all levels is becoming more individualized, as students learn different subjects at different rates and learn best using different methods of instruction.

As a result, educational institutions need a new accounting to replace the Carnegie Unit. A 2015 report by the Carnegie Foundation made this clear, stating the Carnegie Unit “sought to standardize students’ exposure to subject material by ensuring they received consistent amounts of instructional time. It was never intended to function as a measure of what students learned.” States have responded by adopting outcome- or learning-based standards for schools. They are now detailing the skills and knowledge students must attain to graduate and implementing testing regimens, such as fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math exams, to assess whether students have met those standards, testing regimens to assess student progress and attainment of outcomes.

This evolution is causing two problems. First, both the industrial and information economy models of education are being imposed on our educational institutions at the same time. At the moment, the effect is more apparent in our schools than colleges, but higher education can expect to face the same challenges. Today, schools and colleges are being required to use the fixed-process, fixed-calendar and Carnegie Unit accounting system of the industrial era. They are also being required to achieve the information economy’s fixed outcomes and follow its testing procedures. The former is true of higher education, and government is increasingly asking colleges and universities for the latter.

Doing both is not possible, by definition. Instead, states need to move consciously and systematically to the information economy’s emerging and increasingly dominant model of education, which will prevail in the future. The Carnegie Unit will pass into history.

The second problem is that the steps states have taken to implement standards, outcomes and associated testing are often incomplete and unfinished. They are at best betas quickly planned and hurriedly implemented, which like all new initiatives demand significant rethinking, redesign and refinement. In the decades to come, today's tests will appear primitive by comparison to the assessment tools that replace them. Think of the earliest cell phones -- they needed development and refinement.

Unfortunately, however, states’ mandates go beyond the capacity and capabilities of their standards, tests, data systems and existing curricula. For example, despite growing state and federal pressure to evaluate faculty and institutions based on student performance, most states do not have the data or data systems to make this possible.

If Information Age accounting systems for education are to work as well as the Carnegie Unit did, the tasks ahead are these:

  • Define the outcomes or standards students need to achieve to graduate from school and college. While the specific outcomes or standards adopted are likely to vary from state to state, the meaning of each standard or outcome should be common to all states. A current example is coding. Today states, cities and institutions differ profoundly in their requirements in this area, however, it is essential that the meaning of competence in this area be common.
  • Create curricula that mirror each standard and that permit students to advance according to mastery.
  • Develop assessments that measure student progress and attainment of standards or outcomes. Over time, build upon current initiatives in analytics and adaptive learning, to embed assessment into curricula to function like a GPS, discovering students’ misunderstandings in real time and providing guidance to get them back on track.

These three key steps will lay the groundwork for the education demanded by the Information Age. They will provide the clarity, specificity, standardization, reliability and adoptability that made the Carnegie Unit successful. It will create an educational accounting system for the information economy that is as strong as the Carnegie Unit was for industrial America.

I do not pretend doing this will be easy or quick. It is nothing less than the reinvention of the American education system. It will require bold institutions to lead, as universities like Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University are doing, to create and test the new models of education for the Information Age. It will take a coalition of state government, educational institutions and professional associations like accreditors to turn the innovations into policy.

We don't have the luxury of turning away from this challenge. Our education system is not working. In contrast to the industrial era, in which national success rested on physical labor and natural resources, information economies require brains and knowledge. The future demands excellent schools and colleges.


Arthur Levine is the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J. He served as the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, from 1994 to 2006.


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